Besides recycling nutrients and purifying and recharging groundwater, wetlands are of great significance to mankind and ecology. It is, therefore, vital for us to contain the depletion of this ecosystem
Wetlands are complex ecosystems that encompass a wide range of inland, coastal and marine wildlife habitats. Variability in climatic conditions and changing topography is attributable to the significant biological diversity of wetlands, distributed across different geographical regions, from the Himalayas to the Deccan.
These unique ecosystems buffer the shoreline against erosion and help recycle nutrients, purify and recharge groundwater, besides reducing the risks of flooding. Off late, wetlands are emerging as the preferred destination for tourism and recreational activities as well.
Wetlands are excellent rainwater harvesting sites and have the potential to cater to a city’s water needs. Mumbai is an apt example wherein the surrounding wetlands ensure continuous supply of water to the city. With pollution levels rising in urban areas, wetlands play an important role in not only regulating the local climate, particularly temperature and moisture, but also have the capability to sequester carbon dioxide, thereby controlling pollution levels.
Wetlands have immense socio-economic and ecological importance, as they are directly linked to livelihood and food security, besides being crucial for the survival of natural biodiversity. India has a total of 27,403 wetlands, of which 23,444 are inland wetlands and 3,959 are coastal wetlands. Paddy cultivation happens in 70 per cent of the wetlands, that constitute 18.4 per cent of the country’s area.
Despite their immense significance for mankind and to ecology, wetlands in India are facing a severe threat from rapidly degrading ecosystems due to habitat destruction, garbage-landfill encroachments, over-exploitation of fisheries, water pollution due to effluents and fertiliser discharge, and other such anthropogenic pressures.
An estimated one-third of Indian wetlands have already been wiped out or severely degraded. One of the precipitating factors for the loss of wetlands has been the diversion of wetlands for non-agricultural use. This not only undermines wetland existence but threatens food security.
The Indian landscape has experienced a steady drop in natural wetlands either through physical or functional losses. Wetlands have fallen prey to deforestation, inundation by dammed reservoirs, pollution and rapid urbanisation. Restoration of these converted or lost wetlands is difficult, once the sites are occupied for non-wetland uses.
The fight to conserve wetlands is a global one. In the US, for instance, conservationists and local citizens have been battling land developers and the sugar industry over the destruction of the Florida Everglades for decades.
In India, the Government operationalised the National Wetland Conservation Programme in 1986, which is supported by other statutes such as the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. In addition, India is also a signatory to the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
But inspite of these efforts, the wetland depletion has not been contained. The Government must act fast and establish a well-considered regulatory framework for wetland conservation and management that is based on a consultative process. The framework must put protection of existing wetlands as top priority, thereby arresting the slide in wetland numbers.
Also, the new framework must expedite the restoration of lost wetlands and ensure sustainable management. Frequent environment impact assessment reports must be generated in order to protect urban wetlands from rapid developmental projects.
The Government must involve the civil society in its efforts for wetland conservation, as wetlands are common property with multi-purpose utility. Hence, their protection and management also needs to be a common responsibility. The Government may explore allowing private entities to fulfill their environmental obligations by managing and protecting wetlands in a non-commercial manner.
The Government must also ensure active monitoring of wetlands and build an exhaustive database of all wetlands in India. This can be done using remote sensing data in combination with Geographic Information System. This data can help integrate wetlands into strategies for water resource management and ensure that initiatives such as rainwater harvesting, water recycling are interconnected with wetlands use. The Government must formulate robust strategies for urban development that integrate wetlands and ensure their conservation in the process.
Wetlands are mistaken as wastelands and this is driving us towards an ecological crisis. Onlya comprehensive and integrated wetland conservation initiative can avert it.