The wetlands support rich biodiversity and help stabilise water supplies, cleanse polluted waters, protect shorelines, and recharge groundwater aquifers. However, factors such as infilling for agriculture and construction, pollution, overexploitation of resources, invasive species and climate change threaten their existence. It is estimated that wetlands are vanishing three times faster than forests and their rate of disappearance is increasing. For instance, 87% of wetlands have been lost since the 1700s and 35% have disappeared since the 1970s. Between 1970 and 2014, Indian cities have rapidly degraded wetlands to the tune of 25 ha per sq. km of built-up area. Adding 10 more Indian endangered wetlands to the Ramsar Convention is expected to help but how much…
As the world celebrates the World Wetlands Day on February 2, India’s commitment towards wetland conservation once again comes under doubt. This day also coincides with the date of adoption of the Ramsar Convention, which is a global framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands. India entered the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1982 and had 26 designated Wetlands of International Importance, with a surface area of above 6 lakh hectares. With 10 more wetland sites around India being added to the Ramsar Convention, rendering them sites of ‘national importance’, India now has 37 Ramsar sites, covering an area of 1.07 million ha. After the announcement, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar called the addition to the Ramsar Convention an acknowledgement of the government’s commitment to conserving and sustainably using the country’s important wetlands of the country. The latest additions include Maharashtra’s first Ramsar site, the Nandur Madhmeshwar bird sanctuary; three more from Punjab (in Keshopur-Miani, Beas Conservation Reserve and Nangal); and six more from Uttar Pradesh (in Nawabganj, Parvati Agra, Saman, Samaspur, Sandi and Sarsai Nawar). The country has over 757,000 wetlands with a total wetland area of 15.3 million ha, accounting for nearly 4.7% of the total geographical area of the country. However, India’s cities have lost 25 ha of wetland for every one sq. km’s increase of built-up area in the past four decades.
The Ramsar Convention
The Ramsar Convention (popularly known as Wetlands Convention) defines wetlands in a very broad sense. According to the Convention, wetlands are “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 meters”. In simple words, wetlands include areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water. They may be natural or artificial. They may be permanent or temporary. The water in wetlands may be static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt. The basic tenets of the treaty text have been developed and interpreted by the Conference of the Contracting Parties. The developments and changes are made taking into consideration the environmental impact that those changes/developments would bring forth. To date, 170 countries have joined as Contracting Parties and are encouraged to maintain the ecological character of all wetlands. Some of the nations along with India are – Cambodia, Ghana, Egypt, Italy, Kenya, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, etc. The Contracting Parties have three primary obligations: Wisely using and conserving all wetlands in their respective countries; Designating and conserving at least one Ramsar Site i.e. wetland of international importance and cooperating across national boundaries on transboundary wetlands.
Wetlands & their worth
Wetlands are perceived to be landlocked shallow water bodies with no utility, hence the encroachment on such water bodies in a common phenomenon. Wetlands are being silently filled up everywhere, every day for urban settlements which impacts the livelihood, food security and nutrition sources of the poor and the marginalized. “If you cannot reserve the alternative water resources, you lose the capacity to adapt to the climate change impacts,” says Partha J Das, Environment scientist, Aaranyak, which is a leading wildlife NGO based in Guwahati, Assam, and an implementation partner of Oxfam India’s TROSA project. A wetland is an area of land that is saturated with water – either through the year or for varying periods of time during the year. Wetlands are typically shallow so sunlight can penetrate the surface to facilitate subterranean photosynthesis, making these ecosystems one of the most biologically productive areas on the planet. Wetland resources are crucial for income generation, livelihood and wellbeing of the communities. However, due to lack of effective management mechanisms and proper appreciation of their true worth, wetlands have continued to be degraded through unsustainable activities, conversion and overexploitation. Jayshree Vencatesan, who is the managing trustee of the Care Earth Trust, a Chennai-based NGO that works for biodiversity conservation and particularly wetlands restoration, explains that the reason behind their faster rate of disappearance compared to forests is the historical and stringent protection that forests have in India. “Forests in India have been historically protected since colonial times, while wetlands have been ignored from long. What has added to the problem is that over the years, people who were traditionally involved in managing wetlands are no more there. Even in the way, wetland systems were considered by the government authorities has changed. All this together has impacted the wetlands and their future,” Vencatesan says. “But there is still some hope as in recent times, there has been a lot of focus on restoring their health. Though not all may get saved there is still a chance for some,” she said.
Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017
Nearly two and a half years after it had notified the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 for conservation and management of wetlands in the country, the Indian government’s Environment Ministry has now come out with guidelines to support state governments in the implementation of the rules. The document aims to guide states in preparing a list of wetlands; identifying wetlands for notification under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017; delineating wetlands, wetlands complexes and zone of influence; developing a list of activities to be regulated and permitted; and developing an integrated management plan for wetlands, which are rich reservoirs of biodiversity. The guidelines came just ahead of World Wetlands Day this year. The guidelines clarified that all wetlands, irrespective of their location, size, ownership, biodiversity, or ecosystem services values, can be notified under the Wetlands Rules 2017, except river channels, paddy fields, human-made waterbodies specifically constructed for drinking water, aquaculture, salt production, recreation, irrigation purposes, wetlands falling within areas covered under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2011. Despite its commitment to the convention, India’s revised wetland rules implemented in 2017 drew flak from environmentalists and social activists as it dissolved the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority and did not list specific activities prohibited in the ecologically sensitive areas. Conservationists argued that the new rules manifested India’s clear objective of easing business in the hydrologically sensitive areas which will have long and irreversible bearings on the ecosystem and climate change. It failed to distinguish between existing and past wetlands which have been encroached. It was also contested as the provisions seemed to be liberal on the subjective definition of ‘wise use’ of wetland resources. In the lack of a proper regulatory framework for conservation of wetlands, the onus of mitigating the risks of climate change as a result of wetlands depletion has slowly shifted towards civil society networks, alliances and private sectors in India.
The guidelines say the management of notified wetlands is recommended to “be based on wise-use approach” as they are impacted by the use of resources by humans. “The wise-use approach recognises that restricting wetland loss and degradation requires the incorporation of linkages between people and wetlands. The wise-use principle emphasises that human use of these ecosystems on a sustainable basis is compatible with conservation,” noted the guidelines. They explained that wise-use, through an “emphasis on sustainable development, calls for resource use patterns which can ensure that human dependence on wetlands can be maintained not only in the present but also in the future.” It is stressed that a wetland use is “not wise use” if the human “intervention leads to adverse changes in ecosystem components and processes, such as reduction in water flowing into the wetlands, in the area under inundation, water holding capacity, in diversity of native species, or fragmentation of wetlands into small patches of water, degradation of water quality, emergence of invasive species, decline in wetlands resources like fish and aquatic plants. For instance, it explained that in an urban lake type of wetland, intervention like concretisation of shoreline for beautification will increase the aesthetic value and tourism benefits but will lead to decrease in the “ability to accommodate monsoon flows” and thus may not be a “wise-use”. The 2017 rules had listed out activities prohibited within notified wetlands, such as the setting up of any industry and expansion of existing industries, manufacture or handling or storage or disposal of construction and demolition waste, solid waste dumping, discharge of untreated wastes and effluents from industries, cities, towns, villages and other human settlements. The guidelines now recommended that “state/union territory wetlands authority, based on consideration of site-specific conditions, may consider expanding the list of prohibited activities for a notified wetland (or wetlands complex),” adding that “activities within a notified wetland and its zone of influence, which when contained within a specific threshold or area, are not likely to induce an adverse change in wetlands ecological character may be placed under the ‘regulated’ category.” For instance, activities like subsistence level biomass harvesting, sustainable culture fisheries practices and plying of non-motorised boats, when regulated, are not likely to induce an adverse change in wetlands. “Each activity, however, would need to be considered on a case to case basis, keeping in mind the ecological character of wetland or wetlands complex,” said the guidelines, while stressing that the generic listing of a set of activities for all wetlands of a state may not be desirable. “For example, releasing treated sewage may not be advisable for high altitude wetlands that have slow decomposition rates,” it said. Meanwhile, the guidelines also came out with a list of activities that are aligned with the “wise use” of wetland that “may be permitted within the wetland or its zone of influence.” It said activities like ecological rehabilitation and rewilding of nature, research, environmental education and participation activities, habitat management and conservation of wetland-dependent species, community-based ecotourism with minimum construction activities, harvesting of wetlands products within regenerative capacity, integrating wetlands as nature-based solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptation are likely to be aligned with the “wise use”. However, it clarified that permitted activities may need to be identified considering the ecological character of each wetland to be notified. “It is likely that an activity may be benign for one wetland, yet would need regulation for others. For example, ecotourism may not be desirable for all wetlands,” the guidelines said. The guidelines recommended that the management of each notified wetland is guided by an “integrated management plan” which details strategies and actions for achieving “wise use” of the wetland and includes objectives of site management.
The real picture
A rapid assessment undertaken by the Wetlands International South Asia (WISA) indicated that nearly 8% of India’s wetlands area was likely to be situated within an urban sprawl. The states of Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana account for over half of all urban wetland area. WISA’s most alarming finding from 22 cities was that between 1970 and 2014, cities have rapidly degraded wetlands, to the tune of 25 ha per sq. km of built-up area. The biggest offenders were the metropolitans of New Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad, which treat wastelands as their private dumping grounds. According to the study, Mumbai has destroyed 71% of its surrounding wetlands, followed by Ahmedabad, 57%; Bengaluru and Greater Bengaluru, 56%; Hyderabad, 55%; and Delhi-NCR, 38%. The 2011 edition of the National Wetlands Atlas of India classified India’s wetlands into 19 categories. Common ones include river, stream, reservoir, barrage, intertidal, mud-flat and natural lake; the more unique among them are lagoon, mangrove, coral, riverine and high-altitude lake wetlands. Adding endangered wetlands to the Ramsar Convention is expected to help because it “mandates contracting parties to adopt National Wetland Policies, produce wetland inventories, conduct wetland monitoring and research, raise public awareness of wetlands and develop integrated management plans for wetlands sites” (source). It was signed on February 2, 1971; as of today, nearly five decades on, 171 countries have added 2,375 wetlands to the convention, covering 253.6 million ha. Indeed, India isn’t alone in ceding wetlands to urban projects and uncontrolled urban expansion. A Global Wetland Outlook report published in September 2018 noted that the world had lost 87% of its wetlands since 1700: “We lose wetlands three times faster than natural forests. Between 1970 and 2015, inland and marine/coastal wetlands both declined by approximately 35%, where data are available, three times the rate of forest loss. In contrast, human-made wetlands, largely rice paddy and reservoirs, almost doubled over this period, now forming 12% of wetlands. These increases have not compensated for natural wetland loss.”
Reduced to dumping grounds
The Indian scenario is especially bad because wetlands and water bodies are often the first recipients of municipal solid waste. For example, data collected by the convention’s administration indicate that the 4,000-ha Deepor Beel near Guwahati is threatened by pollution due to pesticide and fertiliser runoff, infestation by water hyacinth and – alarmingly – a state government proposal to dig a sewage canal directly from the city into the wetland. “Many Ramsar wetlands such as Deepor Beel, and Kolleru Lake in Andhra Pradesh, are doing very badly,” Neha Sinha, a conservation biologist with the Bombay Natural History Society, said. The new Ramsar site additions “should be an opportunity to revisit their problems. Most wetlands are not notified as wetlands by the government. The new Wetland Rules 2017 say only those that are notified as wetlands will be protected. There is a great need today to notify and identify more and more wetlands by the states.” Deepor Beel is in fact only a representative example, not an isolated one. For another, the Surajpur wetland is located about 50 km east of from Delhi. It covers 60 ha of land as part of a 300-ha reserved forest, and is home to 220 species of flora; 180 species of birds – especially of Sarus cranes and black-necked storks; 13 species of fish; 58 species of invertebrates (including butterflies, dragonflies, annelids, arthropods and molluscs); eight species of reptiles; and six species of mammals.
A National Green Tribunal order in September 2018 recognised the Surajpur wetland as such, and is today surrounded by high-rise buildings and an industrial area that the state government has been keen on ‘developing’. As a result, the wetland’s catchment area has been severely affected and the wetland itself doesn’t receive as much water as it needs. The government of Uttar Pradesh, in whose jurisdiction it lies, has constructed a drain to carry water overflowing from nearby canals as a lifeline – but with a caveat: the canal also brings untreated sewage and industrial effluents, which directly contaminate the soil as well as promote the growth of water hyacinth, a highly invasive species. Vikrant Tongad, an activist who founded an organisation working on local and national environmental issues, said, “Apart from sewage and effluent entry, another of Surajpur’s catchment has six other wetlands ranging from half to five ha in area. We also want them to be notified to prevent further damage.” Indeed, while the tribunal recognises the Surajpur wetland as a wetland, the Government of India is yet to notify its acknowledgment. Ritesh Kumar, the director of Wetlands International, South Asia, said: “A notification under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules of 2017 can still be issued clarifying that the regulations will be governed as per provisions of the Forest Act.” If this is done, the Surajpur wetland will have a regulatory defence against its urban invaders.
Where the government falls short
But issuing a notification is just one of many things the government can do to protect wetlands. Wetlands also need a conservation management plan, and this is where most state governments fall behind. In the past seven months, the Union environment ministry prepared a four-pronged strategy to restore wetlands, including preparing baseline data, wetland health ‘cards’, enlisting wetland ‘mitras’ (or ‘friends’) and preparing targeted integrated management plans. As a form of assistance, the Centre also issued guidelines for state governments to better implement the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017. “We conducted workshops and training sessions, and ensured that state government officials came up with detailed project reports and management plans for all 130 wetlands,” Manju Pandey, joint secretary of wildlife at the ministry, informed. “Now we are on to phase II with next set of wetlands.” She also said the Centre had issued its share of the funds for 2019-2020; it is bearing 90% of wetland-related expenses (as described in the integrated management plans) in the northeastern states and 60% of those in other parts of the country. However, water in India is a state subject, which means if each state doesn’t cough up the remaining funds, the Centre’s plan will still flop. “We cannot take penal action; all we can do is monitor states'” progress, Pandey said.