wetlands are ecosystems saturated with water, either seasonally or permanently. They include mangroves, marshes, rivers, lakes, deltas, floodplains, and flooded forests, rice-fields, coral reefs, marine areas no deeper than 6 meters at low tide, as well as human-made wetlands such as waste-water treatment ponds and reservoirs. However as per Ramsar convention on Wetlands, which is an international treaty signed in 1971 for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources, defines wetlands (Article 1.1) as “areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres”. Overall, 1052 sites in Europe; 289 sites in Asia; 359 sites in Africa; 175 sites in South America; 211 sites in North America; and 79 sites in Oceania region have been identified as Ramsar sites or wetlands of International importance. India possesses nearly 27 Ramsar wetland sites of which the most significant are sunderbans in westbengal, Chilika Lake in Orissa, Kolleru Lake in Andhrapradesh, Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary in Tamilnadu, Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan.
Importance of wetlands:
Wetlands have varied importance. They can be generally grouped under 2 major headings commercial and non-commercial. Flood control, reducing cyclone damages, mitigating the effects of tsunami, makes forest non-vulnerable to forest and bush fires, pollution abatement, increases the water table of neighborhood areas, protects diverse species the following comes under non-commercial category. Tourism and allied industries, fish production, provides rare medicinal herbs these fall under commercial category, though they are injurious to wetlands.
Wetlands help in flood control and protect coastal regions from cyclonic damages. A good example is the Bhitarkanika mangrove ecosystem in Orissa which reduced the cyclone damage in the village that was protected by mangrove forests.
Wetlands are considered to be a natural capital substitute for conventional flood control investments such as dams, and embankemnts. Human cost and economic cost inherent in the cyclonic storms, flood, and tsunami scenario are reduced in a significant way due to this wetland system.
Wetlands do retain pollutants from surface and sub-surface runoff from the catchment and prevent them from entering into streams and rivers.
Wetlands support huge varieties of species and are important breeding areas for wildlife and provide a refuge for migratory birds from western and European countries
Every year, on an average nearly seven million tourists visit Kerala’s backwaters, beaches, and wildlife sanctuaries; three million visit Uttarakhand’s lakes and other natural wetlands. Wetlands also contribute for India’s GDP.
In terms of growth in fish production in India, wetlands play a significant role. At the moment, majority of fish production in the country is from inland waterbodies (61% of total production), i.e. rivers; canals; reservoirs; tanks; ponds; and lakes. It is also a very good contributor to earn foreign exchange by way of exporting fish and related products.
Treasure trove of herbs:
Wetlands are important sources of harvesting medicinal herbs for the manufacture of herbal medicines. As such it is also an important contributor to national GDP.
A growing threat to wetland ecosystem:
There is growing threat to water bodies at global level though in a differentiated way. There are various factors causing a threat and damage to this important natural system that sustains human life, plantation and animals. These may be grouped under following heads: urbanisation and land-use changes; pollution from industrial effluents and agricultural runoffs; climate change. Some of these factors led to significant alterations in India’s wetland ecosystems.
Urbanization and land-use changes:
There is an intense pressure on demand for more and more of land space for the growing population which require housing and other urban facilities like education, health and transport. For this growing need of space the wetlands fall an easy prey to the human greed. The collusion among corporate bodies, governmental agencies and political heavy weights cause an immense damage to the scarce natural asset, with scant respect and regard to the social and national interest. The judicial system also regrettably fails to intervene and stem this onslot upon this precious national asset.
Land -use changes:
The ever growing population exerts tremendous pressure upon land for agricultural activities. The Malthusian principle is glaringly visible in the sense growing population leads to growing requirements for food .In Asian countries where the land is scarce; the wetlands become the last resort for increasing the area of land for agricultural productivity. There is always a conflict between man’s requirements and the sustainability of natural resources. For instance, about 34,000 ha of the water spread area of the Kolleru Lake (Andhra Pradesh) has been reclaimed for agriculture in recent years. Further, there was a large scale development of irrigation and water supply infrastructure in the country which altered the inflows and water spread areas of many water bodies.
Agricultural, municipal and industrial pollution:
Water in most Asian rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands has been heavily degraded, mainly due to agricultural runoff of pesticides and fertilizers, industrial effluents and municipal sewage and waste water discharges, all of which causes widespread eutropication which means gradual depletion of oxygen content in the water body causing damage and death to the water species ,thus making it a “wasteland”.
Global climate change is expected to become an important driver of loss and change in the wetland ecosystem. The rising sea surface temperature and sea level rise due to thermal expansion could affect the fish distribution and lead to the destruction of a significant portion of the mangrove ecosystem in the Sundarbans. Further destruction of the Sunderbans mangroves would diminish their critical role as natural buffers against tropical cyclones resulting in loss of lives and livelihood .
Failure of rain for a continued period:
It is implicit that waterbodies should be a space with a substantial amount of water perennially due to evaporation and sustained withdrawal of water for human needs, the water level in waterbodies decline it a dry land unless it is replenished by water by way of mainly rain. If there is a continuous failure of rain for a long period the wetland becomes highly vulnerable to its death.
Strategies adopted for wetland management in India:
The government is taking steps to safeguard wetlands in various ways like constituting various committees to elicit their opinions and other measure necessary to safeguard and protect the wetlands. The Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority (CWRA) constituted under the chairmanship of Secretary, Environment and Forest and The Expert Group on Wetlands (EGOW) has also been constituted for examining management action plans for identified wetlands. They gave various recommendation like putting restrictions on the activities such as reclamation, setting up industries in vicinity, solid waste dumping, manufacture or storage of hazardous substances, discharge of untreated effluents , any permanent construction, etc. within the wetlands. And also regulates activities such as hydraulic alterations, unsustainable grazing, harvesting of resources, releasing treated effluents,aquaculture, agriculture and dredging. In India overfishing, agriculture, deforestation, introduced species, climate change, water drainage, land encroachment and urban development results in reduction of 2-3% wetlands annually.
Drawbacks in Government measures:
- The national legislation on wetland regulation ignores majority of the wetlands including only the significant ones in the legislation process.
- The government regulations should not restrict the local community from making use of the wetlands for their livelihood.
Suggestions for wetland protection:
- It is human activities that are detrimental to the existence of wetlands. The pressure of population is inimical to wetlands. So as a long term measure the government should pay greater attention to reduce the size of the population.
- The judiciary and NGO’s should be ever vigilant and conscious about the preservation and sustenance of wetlands. Timely intervention whenever there is a perceived threat to these wetlands is highly warranted, more especially judiciary should be more pro-active in this aspect.
- The various bodies constituted to safe guard the wetlands are to be made permanent bodies with statutory provision backed by adequate resources and technical expertise.
- Different government agencies should co-ordinate effectively to implement wetland management regulations and a national policy should be framed for the sustainable utilization and conservation of wetlands.
- Regular monitoring of wetlands at local level and national level should be taken up and the data base should be made available to researchers and the public.
- A comprehensive action plan should be framed to study the species in wetland hotspots.
- People need to be educated about the importance of wetlands and a people’s watchdog team should be formed to inspect dumping of wastes and draining of sewage water into the wetlands.
- Easy access should be provided for students and researchers to investigate the status of wetlands.
- A body with fishery expert should be formed and introduction of any new species should be permitted only after a clearance made by this body.
- Research and development should be encouraged in several areas of applied limnology and nutrient loading relationships improvement.
The wetlands are lungs to the body of the nation which makes it imperative and incumbent on the part of the nation to see that these vital bodies are preserved and maintained for human welfare and survival. Concerted efforts by the government and other NGOs agencies should be made as a national mission. A world without wetlands will be a world of waste land where human life will not be pleasant but painful. If we are conscious of this universal fact, we can make our life worth living and enjoyable. Let us see a world of green and plenty.