In movies, they are shown as dark and dank places, full of bloodthirsty creatures lurking in unseen corners. Our perception of swamps, marshes and other such semi-aquatic habitats have always walked on the fear of the unknown. They have been as seen hot, humid, mosquito-breeding infestations, and not recognized for the richness of their ecosystem.
This mindset has led to the large-scale destruction and paving over of wetlands that dot our cities and countryside. The disappearing wetlands, part of our commons, has at long last set alarm bells ringing in conservation circles.
Wetlands are defined as areas of land that is either temporarily or permanently covered by water. They are neither truly aquatic nor terrestrial. Each wetland is ecologically unique. It recycles nutrients, purifies and provides drinking water, reduces flooding, recharges groundwater, provides fodder and fuel, facilitates aqua-culture, provides a habitat for wildlife, buffers the shoreline against erosion and offers avenues for recreation. But, wetlands across the country are threatened by reclamation by draining and filling, besides pollution, and are exploited for their natural resources, leading to the loss of biodiversity. “Wetlands are one of the most threatened habitats of the world. They are considered as wastelands in our country. This is pushing us towards an unperceived ecological crisis,” said B.C. Choudhury, scientist and former faculty member at the Wildlife Institute of India.
The situation is dire, according to environment ministry. “Research suggests that one-third of Indian wetlands have already been wiped out or severely degraded,” it said in a recent report.
India is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention (February 1982), an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. The country has only 26 sites (see table) designated as wetlands of international importance, with a surface area of 689,131 hectares, whereas a much smaller country like the UK has 169 Ramsar sites.
Even these 26 sites are plagued by uncontrolled development and illegal encroachment. They include all of India’s largest and well-known lakes—Wular in Kashmir (fresh water), Sambhar in Rajasthan (salt) to Chilka in Orissa (brackish)—each one of them rapidly shrinking.
Pulicat Lake, India’s second largest lagoon bordering Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, is threatened by the Dugarajapatnam port project, which has already acquired 2000 acres of its area.
Kolleru Lake, the second biggest freshwater lake located in Andhra Pradesh, faces massive anthropogenic pressure. Almost 90% of the lake bed has been covered by fish tanks that have turned into a drain.
In Kerala, the Vembanad lake—said to be India’s longest lake and the largest in the state—is famous for the annu
When most wetlands in Kerala were reclaimed for various reasons, this unique ecosystem was protected, primarily by those who farm in the lake’s wetlands. But, land use changes and waste dumping are posing a major threat to the lake.
“The lake is an example of how unregulated commercial interests destroy a wetland. An airstrip is planned here. There is sand mining on the islands. Resorts have come up all over, and each resort has illegally netted off portions of the wetland,” said Neha Sinha, advocacy and policy officer, Bombay Natural History Society.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) study estimated that wetlands cover 7% of the earth’s surface and deliver 45% of its natural productivity and ecosystem services. Globally, 1.5-3 billion people depend on wetlands as a source of drinking water as well as food and livelihood security. These natural resources are estimated at $20 trillion a year. But despite the benefits, wetlands have been systematically destroyed by being converted to industrial, agricultural and residential use.
Nothing to show
Despite India having a National Wetlands Conservation Programme since 1985-86 that provided financial support for the protection of 115 wetlands in different states, there’s nothing to show for this on the ground.
Conservationists blame state governments for not being proactive and letting the issue slide. With no working plans being drawn up by the states, the Central funds are unused.
The environment ministry has outlined threats to the wetlands, which include habitat destruction and encroachments through drainage and landfill, overexploitation of fish, discharge of waste water and industrial effluents, uncontrolled siltation and weed infestation, and harmful fertilizer and pesticide runoff.
The vanishing wetlands did nudge the government into action earlier this year.
In February, the cabinet committee on economic affairs approved a proposal for the merger of the National Lake Conservation Plan and National Wetlands Conservation Programme, creating the National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-Systems, aimed at a more holistic framework for the conservation and restoration of lakes and wetlands.
The plan is to be operational during the 12th five-year plan that ends on March 2017 at an estimated cost of Rs.900 crore on a 70:30 cost-sharing basis between the Central and state governments (90:10 for the north-eastern states), with the bigger part of the money coming from the Union government. But apart from the announcement, there hasn’t been much by way of progress beyond that in terms of guidelines or the nodal agency under which plan will function.
The role of the wetlands is critical as a habitat for wildlife. For instance, they act as a refuge to thousands of migratory birds. Of the 465 important bird areas identified by BNHS and Birdlife International in the country, 125 are in the wetlands, all potential Ramsar sites and needing immediate protection.
Take the example of the Kawar Lake in Bihar. An oxbow lake, it’s the largest water body in the state and home to more than 20,000 migratory and local water birds. One of the three wetlands of Bihar identified under the wetland conservation programme of the environment ministry, it is threatened by illegal land sales and encroachments that are resulting in it shrinking.
Funds to the tune of Rs.31. 36 lakh earmarked by NWCP for the lake are lying unutilized in the state’s treasury since 1992, said Arvind Mishra, member, State Board for Wildlife, Bihar.
In neighbouring Jharkhand, Udhwa Lake is the state’s only bird sanctuary, comprising two inter-connected water bodies, Pataura and Berhale. Here, intensive agriculture is squeezing the life out of the lake. Whatever is left of the wetland is prey to encroachment for settlements, poaching of birds and illegal fishing.
Noupada, referred to as the salt bowl of Andhra Pradesh, is a 4,000-acre swamp adjoining the Telineelapuram bird sanctuary. This is considered the only remnant of the marsh ecosystem on the eastern coast of India and is home to communities that practice a unique and traditional style of inland fishing. It harbours a globally important breeding site for spot-billed pelicans and painted storks. About 150 of the pelicans and 250 of the storks breed here and scientists have also recorded nesting Olive Ridley turtles, an endangered species. However, the entire area is threatened by several projects, including the controversial Bhavanapadu thermal power project promoted by East Coast Energy Pvt. Ltd (ECEPL).
The Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat comprises of the largest seasonal saline wetlands and is also Asia’s largest flamingo breeding ground. This unique habitat is now threatened by a proposed massive road construction project.
“While the project proponent claims that the road is meant to facilitate mobility for the Border Security Force (BSF), our sources on the ground unequivocally assert that this project is nothing but a cover for promoting and expanding tourism in the region,” according to Conservation India, a wildlife conservation web site and a campaigner against the road project.
The threat posed by the project was outlined in a report by eminent conservationists M.K. Ranjitsinh, Divyabhanusinh Chavda and Asad Rahmani, deputed as experts by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) to assess the situation.
“If the proposed road is allowed to be constructed, it would in all probability result in the abandonment of this breeding site and thus India would lose the only breeding site of flamingos, which in turn could spell doom to the population of these birds in the Indian subcontinent,” the report said. In her letter to the environment minister, another NBWL member, Prerna Bindra, said, “Importantly, too, were this road to come up, it will also destroy the sacred and unique mangrove forest of Shravan Kavadia. This Avicennia mangrove is one of its kind in the world. Located more than 100 km inland from the sea and completely landlocked, these Avicennia trees are enormous in stature, extraordinary for mangroves anywhere. Most importantly, such ecological devastation seems pointless given that there is accessibility by a perfectly viable alternate alignment.”
The fight over wetlands is a global one. In the US for instance, conservationists and local citizens have been battling developers and the sugar industry over the destruction of the Florida Everglades for decades.
All over India, it’s the same story—not a single wetland has been spared. While the monsoon breathes fresh life into the country’s wetlands, policy makers will hopefully wake up to the need to conserve this critical ecosystem. So far this year, India has recorded a good monsoon and by now the rain has replenished the wetlands, offering yet another opportunity to retain what we have before it’s destroyed.