Wetlands are unique, beautiful & fragile ecosystems having numerous benefits and contributions to the livelihood of the people. The wide range of ecosystem services provided them, they forms the heart of sustainable development. Yet, their value and benefits to nature & humankind are often underestimated by the policy & decision makers. However, it has been noticed that inspite of have such rich ecological importance and value, they are disappearing rapidly and faces multiple threats over their existence. This article explains the importance of these Wetlands and points out the various challenges faced by the conservationists.
There has been a reduction of 35% in global wetlands between 1970 and 2015 and this rate of loss has been accelerating annually since 2000. This was reported in the Global Wetland Outlook of 2018 by the Ramsar Convention [Ramsar Convention is the only international legal treaty with its primary focus on wetlands. It was signed in 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar].
Healthy natural wetlands are critical for the survival of humans in this Earth. Recently, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, declared 10 more Wetlands from India to be sites of ‘international importance’. With these ten newly added sites, the total number of Ramsar sites in India moved up to 37. The total number of Ramsar sites around the world stands at 2300 presently, covering more than 2.1 million square km.
In India, there are more than 7.5 lakh wetlands which covers around 1.6 crore hectares or 4.5% of India’s area. These Wetlands are regulated under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules of 2017. The ten newly added Ramsar sites in India are – Nandur Madhameshwar in Maharashtra; Keshopur-Miani, Nangal and Beas Conservation Reserve in Punjab; and Parvati Agra, Saman, Nawabganj, Samaspur, Sandi & Sarsai Nawar in UP.
But, what are wetlands and why do they have so much of importance? Let’s understand the role of Wetlands.
Significance of Wetlands for Sustainable Development
Wetlands play an unparalleled role in regulating the global climate, protecting the ecosystem diversity, maintaining the global hydrological cycle and safeguarding human welfare. They include some of the most productive ecosystem of the world and provide innumerable ecosystem services of countless benefits. The Ramsar Convention defines Wetlands as, “areas of marsh, fen, mangrove, water or peatland, whether natural or man-made, permanent or temporary, with water that is flowing or remaining static, fresh, salt or brackish, including areas of marine water no deeper than six meters at low tide.”
The global water cycle underpins primary production, nutrient recycling besides providing fresh water, food and livelihoods to people. Wetlands acts as a source & purifier of water besides protecting coastlines, mitigating floods, droughts & other disasters, removing pollution, supporting the rich biodiversity and storing and sequestering more carbon than any other ecosystem. Simultaneously, these wetlands play a crucial role in tourism, agriculture, recreation, fishing and cultural & spiritual well-being of people. The saturation of wetland soil helps to determine the type of vegetation surrounding it. Wetlands with slow flowing water or seasonally dry wetlands often support trees & other sturdy vegetation. Many a times flooded wetlands are found to have grasses or mosses as their dominant hydrophytes. The value per hectare of wetland ecosystem services tops the list among other kinds of ecosystems – the total service value of ecosystem amounts to 47% of the global ecosystems. Thus, wetlands are considered to be one of the most essential and productive ecosystems.
A classic example of services provided by wetlands can be found in Kolkata. The metropolitan city produces over 750 million litres of waste water & sewage everyday, but strangely, there is not even one single sewage treatment plant in the core area of the city. Then how is so much sewage treated? The treatment is done by the East Kolkata Wetlands – the only fully functional organic sewage management system of the world. The huge amount of the city’s sewage is received by these wetlands which organically gets treated with the help the sunshine, oxygen & microbial action and subsequently turns into a productive fish habitat. This process is known as bio-remediation. The waterways help in cleaning the waste waters of the city in less than twenty days. After this, the purified nutrient-rich water is channelled into ponds where algae & fish thrive. In other words, these wetlands provides free sewage redemption work for Kolkata, a fertile aquatic garden and most importantly these wetlands acts as a natural flood defence system for the low-lying city. And because of having such importance, this East Kolkata Wetlands was recognised as a Ramsar site in 2002.
Challenges of Conserving Wetlands
Even after having such unparalleled contributions to human well-being, wetlands are often overlooked or underappreciated. Subsequently, management of wetland has been underplayed in development planning. The environmental & social crisis created by scarcity of water, frequency of floods, pollution and cyclone have exposed the failure of governments in facing the challenge. These issues are rooted in the backdrop of increasing neglect of urban wetlands or waterbodies. Massive Urbanization and urban developmental priorities have sidelined the utilities of these valuable waterbodies, resulting in their destruction and encroachment over the years. They pose severe threat to the protection of the wetlands due to several anthropogenic factors, such as –
Pollution: Rapid increase in urban population has taken place without a corresponding expansion in civic facilities like adequate infrastructure for disposal of waste. As a result, most of the urban waterbodies of India are used to dispose off untreated local sewage & solid wastes, leading to deterioration of water quality.
Encroachment: As the number of people migrating to urban areas is increasing rapidly, the availability of land is also decreasing everyday. Hence, the urban waterbodies are being recognized for real estate purpose rather than for their services to the ecosystem. These waterbodies have become extremely valuable areas for encroachment both for the private builders as well as for the government. Heavy constructional activities bring in irreversible ecological damage. Similarly, illegal mining activities also pose severe threats. Building material like sand & stones, illegally mined both in catchment areas and on the bed of the lakes & rivers also damages waterbodies. As a result, many among the well known wetlands of Indian are also rapidly shrinking. A few among these are – the salt water Sambar lake in Rajasthan, the freshwater Wular lake in Kashmir and the brackish water Chilika lake in Odisha.
Unplanned Tourism: Carrying out tourism activities without having proper plan and regulation in a disorganized way also threaten the urban water bodies. Classic examples of such unplanned and unregulated tourism can be seen in Dal Lake in Srinagar, Pongsho and Tso Morari in Ladakh. Unplanned tourism greatly affects the biodiversity and the local environment as is seen in these places.
Cultural Misuse: Another factor highly resposnsible is cultural misuse or unregulated use of waterbodies by the local communities for their religious or cultural festivals such as immersion of idols. This causes a severe pollution hazard. As per UNESCO, global climate change poses adverse impact over the wetland ecosystems. Climate change, declining rainfall and rising temperature can be extremely dangerous to the already ponds and lakes in the Gangetic plain.
Stakeholders usually make decisions based on short-term interest which results in loss of opportunities from achieving multiple benefits and further leads to loss and degradation of wetlands. Policy makers must recognize and give importance to the numerous values of the wetlands and their interdependencies is very essential for achieving sustainable development. Collaboration among the different sectors of the society is crucial for developing effective management and conservation of wetlands.
The policy-makers and planners of the government, the media and the general public have in recent years have shown a significant change in their approach towards protection of urban wetlands. Common people have become aware of the fact that these wetlands in urban & semi-urban regions historically served as urban common property facilities, which provided collective resources to the entire community at times of scarcity & need. Yet while framing the policies, regulatory & recreational ecosystem services of the wetlands have systematically not taken precedence over the productive uses of the ecosystems in minds of the urban public, city administration and the media. Consequently, urban ecosystems have been transformed into protected parks, lakes, and mangrove forests that belong to the government, valued for their public ecosystem services such as recreation, groundwater recharge, and flood protection. In this process, those urban poor who have been living at the subsistence level and whose health, nutrition and livelihood depends on the access to provisioning ecosystem services of the wetlands have been among the worst affected.
Rapid urbanization in India undoubtedly poses a serious challenge over the existence of wetland ecosystems in the urban landscapes. Overcoming these challenges will require constant attention from the planners & policy makers of the state and central government. They need to formulate & implement appropriate policies necessary for protecting and conserving the goods and services of the wetlands.
In order to develop urban resilience & sustainability, the Government should step up and ensure the protection & restoration of these expensive wetland ecosystems. This will provide a much relatively inexpensive, adaptive & resilient approach of ensuring well-being of the urbanites.