The need for seriously safekeeping our wetlands

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The need for seriously safekeeping our wetlands

Monday, 29 March 2021 | Neeraj Kumar Pande

In the past few years wetland conservation has become an overloaded buzzword when it comes to environmental conservation. In fact the government as well as community have begun realising that without resuscitating and replenishing our wetlands, all attempts to ensure sustainable water supply in our cities will remain superficial.

So, conserving the existing rather ossifying wetlands becomes non negotiable, if we are to accord priority to ecological preservation in urban as well as rural regions of India. This stimulates two relevant questions. What are wetlands and why are they so imperative to the ecosystem? In an unadorned language, wetlands are those areas of land that are covered by water.

Not only are they flooded by water either seasonally or permanently, but they also support a unique ecosystem.  Wetlands can be easily identifiable as marshes, bogs, swamps, lakes, ponds, flood plains or even the mangrove regions near rivers and sea.

These wetlands not only serve as a reservoir of water, but they also support a wide variety of flora and fauna.  In fact when situated near rivers and sea they act as natural barricades from floods, besides being a site of ground water. They help filter contaminants from water before it seeps into major water bodies and into the ground water.

 Their moderating impact on surrounding weather conditions is still being studied, with stronger evidence in their favour coming to light each day. No wonder it is appropriately stated that while forests are considered the lungs of the earth, wetlands can be referred to as earth's kidneys.

 However despite being a determinant of a healthy ecology, it is interesting to note that for decades altogether, the importance of wetlands was acknowledged neither by society, nor by the government. As a sardonic fact, any vacant marsh land or hyacinth covered water body was labelled as wasteland. Thus a majority of the wetlands became victims of proliferating human need for expansion and lack of awareness about their importance. A wave of sensitisation appeared in 1971, when the Convention on Wetlands or the Ramsar Convention came into being. This was an international treaty which spoke about sustainable uses of wetlands around the world. Since then several vulnerable wetlands sites have been identified and enlisted under this convention, when found to be of international importance. It surprises little that by 2020 more than 2400 international wetland sites have already been enlisted.

Moreover zooming into the Indian context- India had become party to the Ramsar Convention in 1982, and as of today around 42 wetlands in the country have become Ramsar sites.

This makes it the largest in this context in the entire south east Asia. While this may have accorded the much needed importance to our wetlands, ignorance among populace at large continues to haunt prospects of wetland resuscitation. An official estimate states that we are losing our wetlands at an alarming rate of two to three per cent each year.  Among the major anthropogenic causes of this wetland erosion are overfishing, agriculture, deforestation, land encroachment and urban development. While across the country these are the major reasons behind wetland degradation, a microscopic analysis of Uttarakhand’s scenario reveals two issues. 

One is the fact that since its attaining statehood back in 2000, the pattern of urbanisation has been unsystematic and the other is that until recently, not even one wetland from the state had achieved recognition under Ramsar convention. Until recently when the Asan Conservation Reserve in Dehradun district became the first wetland from Uttarakhand to be recognised by Ramsar.

This is also rather paradoxical given that the National Wetlands Conservation Programme of India has been supporting wetlands conservation throughout the country since 1987. Uttarakhand being a mountainous terrain is an ecologically sensitive territory. This is also highlighted by the decision of the government to declare many more areas in the state as Ecologically Sensitive Zones. In the last ten years the gross percentage rise in the area under forest cover has been abysmally low.

These factors when rolled into one explain perfectly the drying up of water bodies in the hills, recurrent flooding near rivers banks in cities, depletion of ground water and overall change in the climate. 

Almost every year during the monsoons several low lying residential settlements in Dehradun, experience flooding. It is surprising that this happens even in the years when the density of rains is light or moderate. On the outskirts of the city too, water logging persists for long periods of time in the monsoon months. The cause behind this menace stems form how the wetlands surrounding the river basins and lakes have been used up for construction. The excess water cannot seep into concrete surface increasing runoff and bringing floods.  This not only threatens human habitat but also exacerbates the risk of many water borne diseases in the surroundings. Another neglected issue is how the construction upon lakes and ponds and their abuse as waste dumping sites, has led to ground water contamination.

 Since the microbes present in wetlands absorb toxins before the excess water is allowed to percolate under the ground, the risk of ground water toxicity also reduces.  So whenever we see a rather unpleasant smelling and moss covered water body, instead of cringing by assuming it as waste site, we must acknowledge it as a wetland where a whole range of biodiversity is at work to purify our water table. The case of missing migratory birds from most quags in the state is also associated with disappearing wetlands itself. Besides water filtration, nourishing flora fauna and preventing floods and runoffs, wetlands also contribute to economic growth as they offer charming tourism sights. Unique plants, reptiles and terrestrial species are an attraction to visitors and photographers from around the world.

No wonder many national wetlands have become UNESCO world heritage sites as well. So we need to remember that whenever a wetland is being exposed to garbage or construction debris, reclaimed or is intoxicated by factory chemicals, an integral organ of our ecosystem is being violated. The complete cycle of ecology is traumatised when wetlands are not allowed to flourish and perpetuate.

(The writer is a retired civil servant) Pioneer, Dehradun 0135 2673111

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