Wetlands, no more.

Wetlands today, are being massively encroached upon, being turned into swanky apartments or IT corridors and this is taking it’s toll on the environment.

Pallikaranai Marshland, Chennai. PICTURE: Aihik Sur

Swamps, wetlands and other such water bodies are usually seen as this hot, humid, mosquito breeding area also full of bloodthirsty creatures lurking in the unseen corners. They are more often than not, not recognized for their inherent richness of their ecosystem. This very reason has led to destruction and drying of these wetlands that are scattered through our cities and villages.

Wetlands across the country are threatened by reclamation by draining and filling, besides pollution, and are exploited for their natural resources, leading to the loss of biodiversity. According to the survey conducted by Wildlife Institute of India, 70 to 80 per cent of fresh water marshes and lakes in the Gangetic flood plains have been lost during the last 50 years. During the last century, 50 per cent of India’s wetlands have been lost. The mangrove area of the country has been reduced from 7 lakh hectares in 1987 to 4.53 lakh hectares in 1995.

As suitable upland becomes exhausted, pressure intensifies to develop wetlands for residential housing, manufacturing plants, business office complexes and similar uses. They are often the final refuge for wildlife in an increasing urban environment and support many upland animals displaced by development

Kawar Lake, the largest water body in Bihar, is home to more than 20,000 migratory and local water birds. It is also one of the three wetlands of Bihar identified under the Wetland Conservation Programme of the Environment ministry. It is now threatened by illegal land sales and encroachments that are resulting in it shrinking.

Wetlands recycle nutrients, provides water, reduces flooding, fills up groundwater, supplies fodder and fuel, sets up a habitat for wildlife and also acts as a shield against erosion and natural disasters such as floods. Chennai’s wetlands have dwindled from 80% of the city area in 1980 to just 15% in 2010. Encroachment of wetlands and water-bodies is said to be the main reason for Chennai’s flooding woes.

A study still in progress shows about 32 per cent of the wetlands in India has been lost primarily through hunting and associated disturbances, 22 per cent has been due to human settlements, 19 per cent due to fishing and 23 per cent through drainage from agriculture. Removal of vegetation in the catchment leading to soil erosion and siltation, contributes to about 15 per cent loss of wetlands. Pollution from the industries contributes to about 20 per cent loss of wetlands.

Soil dumped into Pallikarnai Marshland and turned into a sewage dump. PICTURE: Aihik Sur

Despite India having a National Wetlands Conservation Programme since 1985–86 (an initiative that provided financial support for the protection of 115 wetlands in different states) there’s no improvement to show for all the money that has been poured in.

As per the Ramsar Convention definition most of the natural water bodies and man made wetlands in India constitute the wetland ecosystem. Only 26 of these numerous wetlands have been designated as Ramsar Sites. As a result many other wetlands which perform potentially valuable functions are continued to be ignored in the policy process.

Wetland should be divided into different categories according to location, ecological function and the biodiversity. Different protection measures should apply too different types. The measures will be included in local government evaluation, but the central government should then draw up a plan to increase spending on preserving these.

Management of wetlands has to be an integrated approach in terms of planning, execution and monitoring. It has to be planned, executed and monitored in an orderly fashion. The local body should be linked with academicans, professionals, ecologists, economists, watershed management specialists for overall managements of wetlands. This would increase the understanding of wetlands and evolve more inclusive and long-term conservation and management strategies. Awareness should be spread by initiating educational programs about the importance of wetlands in schools and colleges. Vital inputs should be provided to safeguard these wetlands from further deterioration.

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