CONSERVATION OF WETLANDS



Save our wetlands

Wetlands are areas of land where the water level remains near or above the surface of the ground for most of the year. The association of man and wetlands is ancient, with the first signs of civilization originating in wetland habitats such as the flood plains of the Indus, the Nile Delta and the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Wetlands cover about 6% of the earth’s land surface. There are several kinds of wetlands such as marshes, swamps, lagoons, bogs, fens and mangroves. They are home to some of the richest, most diverse and fragile of natural resources. As they support a variety of plant and animal life, biologically they are one of the most productive ecosystems.

Wetlands of India

India has a wealth of wetland ecosystems distributed in different geographical regions. Most of the wetlands in India are directly or indirectly linked with major river systems such as the Ganges, Cauvery, Krishna, Godavari and Tapti. India has totally 27, 403 wetlands, of which 23,444 are inland wetlands and 3,959 are coastal wetlands. According to the Directory of Asian Wetlands (1989), wetlands occupy 18.4% of the country’s area (excluding rivers), of which 70 % are under paddy cultivation. In India, out of an estimated 4.1 mha (excluding irrigated agricultural lands, rivers, and streams) of wetlands, 1.5 mha are natural, while 2.6 mha are manmade. The coastal wetlands occupy an estimated 6,750 sq km, and are largely dominated by mangrove vegetation. About 80% of the mangroves are distributed in the Sunderbans of West Bengal and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with the rest in the coastal states of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Wetlands in southern peninsular India are mostly manmade and are known as yeris (tanks). They are constructed in every village and provide water for various human needs, besides serving as nesting, feeding, and breeding sites for a large variety of bird species. Point Calimere in Tamilnadu; Ashtamudi, Sasthamkotta and Vembanad Kol lakes in Kerala; and Kolleru lake in Andhra Pradesh are some of the natural wetland sites in South India.

 

India’s wetlands are generally differentiated into 8 categories depending on their regional presence (Scott, 1989):

  • The reservoirs of the Deccan Plateau in the south, together with the lagoons and other wetlands of the southwest coast
  • The vast saline expanses of Rajasthan, Gujarat and the Gulf of Kutch
  • The freshwater lakes and reservoirs from Gujarat eastwards through Rajasthan (Keoladeo Ghana National Park) and Madhya Pradesh
  • The delta wetlands and lagoons of India’s east coast (Chilka Lake)
  • The freshwater marshes of the Gangetic Plains and the floodplains of the Brahmaputra
  • The marshes and swamps in the hills of northeast India and the Himalayan foothills
  • The lakes and rivers of the mountain region of Kashmir and Ladakh
  • The mangroves and other wetlands of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

 

Importance of wetlands

Wetland systems directly and indirectly support lakhs of people, providing goods and services to them. They help check floods, prevent coastal erosion and mitigate the effects of natural disasters like cyclones and tidal waves. They store water for long periods.

Their capacity during heavy rainfall to retain excess floodwater that would otherwise cause flooding results in maintaining a constant flow regime downstream, preserving water quality and increasing biological productivity for both aquatic life as well as human communities of the region. Inundated wetlands are very effective in storing rainwater and are the primary source for recharging ground water aquifers.

Many wading birds and waterfowl like egrets, herons and cranes nest in wetlands. Wetlands also provide food and shelter for mammals. They act as natural filters and help remove a wide range of pollutants from water, including harmful viruses from sewage and heavy metals from industries.

Wetlands retain nutrients by storing eutrophic parameters like nitrogen and phosphorus and accumulating them in the sub-soil, thereby decreasing the potential for eutrophication.

Mangrove forests are valued for production of fish and shell-fish, live-stock fodder, fuel and building materials, local medicine, honey and bees-wax and for extracting chemicals used in tanning leather, farming and fisheries production have replaced many mangrove areas.

Moreover, significant socio-economic values like constant water supply, fisheries, fuelwood, medicinal plants, livestock grazing, agriculture, energy resource, wildlife resource, transport, recreation and tourism are noteworthy.


Threats to wetlands

The Wildlife Institute of India’s survey reveals that 70-80% of individual freshwater marshes and lakes in the Gangetic flood plains have been lost in the last five decades. At present, only 50 percent of India’s wetlands remain. They are disappearing at a rate of 2% to 3% every year. Indian mangrove areas have been halved almost from 700,000 hectares in 1987 to 453,000 hectares in 1995 (Sustainable Wetlands, Environmental Governance-2, 1999). A recent estimate based on remote sensing shows only 4000 sq. km area of mangrove resource in India.

The loss of wetlands leads to environmental and ecological problems, which have a direct impact on the socio-economic benefits of the associated populace. Serious consequences, including increased flooding, species decline, deformity, or extinction and decline in water quality could result. Wetlands are also important as a genetic reservoir for various species of plants including rice, which is a staple food for 3/4th of the world’s population.

 

Urbanization

Wetlands near urban centres are under increasing developmental pressure for residential, industrial and commercial facilities. Urban wetlands are essential for preserving public water supplies.

Anthropogenic activities

Due to unplanned urban and agricultural development, industries, road construction, impoundment, resource extraction and dredge disposal, wetlands have been drained and transformed, causing substantial economic and ecological losses in the long term.