Wetlands or Wastelands?
February 2nd is observed globally as World Wetlands Day. It was in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 that the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance – called the Ramsar Convention – was signed between several countries. A total of 169 countries have adopted this Convention so far. The Ramsar Convention’s mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”. India too became a party to the Ramsar Convention in 1982, and thus is obligated to protect and conserve its wetlands and ensure its wise use.
By definition, wetlands are areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated flora and fauna. Wetlands are land areas that are saturated or flooded with water either permanently or seasonally. Inland wetlands include marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers, floodplains, and swamps. Coastal wetlands include saltwater marshes, estuaries, mangroves, lagoons and even coral reefs. Fish ponds, paddy fields and salt pans are human-made and yet categorized as wetlands. There are over 2,200 Wetlands of International Importance – referred to as the Ramsar Sites – in 169 countries across the world covering more than 2.1 million sq km. India has practically every type of wetland within its boundaries.
Till date, India has designated 26 wetlands as ‘Ramsar Sites’ with a surface area of 6,891 sq km. These wetlands include mangroves, lagoons, high-altitude lakes, man-made wetlands, reservoirs, rivers and lakes ranging in size from less than a single hectare to Vembanad-Kol Lake in Kerala, the longest lake in India, spanning over an area of 1512 sq km. A report published by ISRO in March 2013 states that the total estimated wetland area in India is 15260572 ha. which is 4.63% of its geographic area. Of all the wetlands in India, inland natural wetlands constitute of 43%, inland man-made wetlands constitute 30%, coastal natural wetlands constitute 24% and coastal man-made wetlands constitute 3%. If we compare this data with the number of Ramsar Sites in India, this turns out to be only 4.5 per cent of the total wetland area of the country. The apathy we have shown over the years towards preservation of wetlands in India in quite evident here.
India with its coastline extending over 7,500 km has some of the best shoreline habitats in the world including mangroves and coral reefs. Marine biologists have identified ten ‘critical marine habitats’ in India such as Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Khambat, Gulf of Malvan, Islands off Karwar, islands off Kochi, Lakshadweep, Sunderban, Gulf of Mannar, Bhittarkanika and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The Gulf of Kutch, which has some of the northernmost coral reefs in the world, and Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar harbour some of the best coral reef habitats. Even Mumbai’s coastline harbours a decent marine habitat restricted now in areas around Navy Nagar providing a glimpse of Mumbai’s past and lost glory! Mangroves, spread over around 6740 sq km in India, are specialised plants that are found along sheltered shores, estuaries, tidal creeks, salt marshes and coastal mudflats. Sunderban boasts of being the biggest and richest mangrove area in the world – spread over 1 million hectares in India and in Bangladesh – and providing habitat to tigers, salt-water crocodiles, Gangetic dolphins, king cobra and water monitor.
Though not in such vastness, mangroves are also present along the west coast of India including areas in and around Mumbai. Sadly, mangroves have been destroyed mercilessly by land mafias and real estate developers despite being protected under law. We have allowed the slums to proliferate over mangrove areas in clear violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone. Politicians have often patronised these settlements for vote-bank politics. During 1990 to 2001, a total mangrove area of 36 sq km was lost – a 40% decrease – in Mumbai. In the last decade too several cases of mangroves destruction have been highlighted by environmentalists. Mangroves have been hacked during the night, covered with construction debris and used as trash disposal sites. There have been cases of mangroves being burnt by using acidic chemicals. The importance of mangroves in mitigating the effects of tidal waves and cyclones has been grossly overlooked and ignored in our quest for short-sighted development. Had Mumbai’s mangroves in the western and eastern suburbs and the Bandra-Kurla Complex retained, Mumbai would have offered better resistance to the deluge on 26th July 2005 that caused a havoc leading to the death of over 5000 people. Over a decade has passed but we haven’t learnt from our mistakes. It has been proven that mangroves reduce the speed and height of storm surges. Their roots bind the shoreline, resist erosion by wind and waves, and increase resilience against climate change. In 2004, tsunami struck the Indian Ocean. Several South and Southeast Asian countries – including India – were devastated. However, areas protected by mangroves were less affected showing the critical importance of having mangroves to protect lives and property along the coastline. This is precisely the reason why the theme for 2017 World Wetlands Day is ‘wetlands for disaster risk reduction’. In 2016, Maharashtra was the pioneer in officially notifying 15,087 hectares of mangrove land across the state as Reserved Forest. This was a welcome step and hopefully, benefits mangroves in the state.
In a study conducted by WWF-India in 2009, a total of 129 freshwater lakes and ponds were recorded in Mumbai. It would be interesting to study the present condition of these wetlands today. Let us take the example of Powai Lake in Mumbai. When it was built in 1779, the lake had an area of about 2.1 square kilometres and the depth of the lake varied from about 3 metres at the periphery to 12 metres at its deepest point. The Lake’s depth is reported to have reduced to as little as 0.33 metres at some locations on account of the large inflow of sewage, domestic waste water and silt from surrounding residential and industrial areas. Many years of abuse has rendered the water in Powai Lake unfit for drinking. Around 100 crores have been spent by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation to clean and beautify Powai Lake since 2006. Now there is a plan to spend 7.5 crores more to plug sewerage from flowing into the lake and for a musical fountain. One then wonders – what purpose did the previously spent 100 crores solve? We must think beyond just the aesthetic beauty of any wetland.
There policy-makers often equate beautification of wetlands with restoration of wetlands. Therefore, we often see urban ponds and lakes without any embankments and instead having steep wall along the periphery. Such water bodies though hold water but do not serve the purpose of biodiversity conservation.
We often equate wetlands with wasteland; a place to be drained, filled in, burnt off and re-purposed. Scientific studies show that 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900. The losses are higher in Asia. Inland wetlands are disappearing at a faster pace than coastal ones. Most of our freshwater lakes have solid waste strewn around and untreated sewage discharged in the water. This proliferates the growth of aquatic weeds such as the water hyacinth, which eventually covers the entire surface of the lake making it unfit for fish, turtles, birds, reptiles, insects and many other living organisms. What remains then is water devoid of sufficient oxygen. With no natural predators left, these waters then serve as breeding areas for mosquitoes. If this isn’t enough, in the last couple of decades we have created another hazard to our wetlands – immersion of idols during festivals. It is ironical that we destroy our natural wetlands in the name of God whom we believe as the Creator of rivers, lakes and oceans!
Wetlands act as natural sponges, absorbing rainfall, creating wide surface pools and reducing floods in streams and rivers. This storage capacity also helps safeguard against drought. However, this wisdom is long lost and we plan mega dams or destroy critical natural habitats to implement unsustainable and unfeasible projects such as linking of rivers. Wetlands have the potential to significantly contribute to a country’s economy by providing water, fishery resources, agricultural products and tourism opportunities. Important wetland functions or ecosystem services include water storage, groundwater recharge, protection from storms, flood mitigation, shoreline stabilization, erosion control, and retention of nutrients, and sediments. Some of the pollutants from pesticides, industry and mining, including heavy metals and toxins, are absorbed by wetland sediments, plants and marine life.
It is high time that we take ‘wetlands conservation’ seriously in India. Several reports have identified hundreds of wetlands across the country. It is now for the citizens of India to recognize wetlands as ecosystems and ensure that each wetland that exists today in India is protected – however small that may be. This legitimate demand for preserving all the existing wetlands must reach our policy-makers and politicians as one voice from millions of aware, educated, conscious and pro-environment citizens – a vote bank that should speak ‘eco’logically.
Director, The Corbett Foundation
Member IUCN, World Commission on Protected Areas, South Asia