The way ahead for wetlands
February 2 was World Wetlands Day, as also the day on which the Convention on Wetlands was adopted in1971 in Ramsar, Iran. Incidentally, India, too, is a signatory. Wetlands are hugely beneficial as they control floods, recharge groundwater and purify water, besides offering other advantages. Hence, the need to conserve them. Recently, Ramsar declared 10 more wetland sites in India as sites of international importance, an encouraging step. Here’s an interview with scientist T. Ganesh on the conservation of wetlands and the challenges it poses.
Informally, known as ‘Kidneys of the Earth,’ wetlands are vital for humans, for other ecosystems and for our climate. They provide essential ecosystem services such as flood control, groundwater recharge, biodiversity maintenance and water purification, to mention a few. They have unique ecological features and provide ecosystem goods: water for irrigation, fisheries, non-timber forest products, water supply and recreation. Conserving wetland biodiversity is not just important for our health, food supply, tourism and jobs, but to slow down global heating as well.
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of 1971 defines wetlands as “Areas of marsh, fen, peat land 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.”
On the occasion of World Wetlands Day (February 2, 2020), we spoke to T. Ganesh, a scientist at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), to gain some insights into wetlands conservation in India and the way forward.
1. Tell us about your current work and your experience of working in wetland habitats.
We have been working in the wetlands of the Tamiraparani river basin for the last 12 years. The work spans waterbird monitoring, heronry conservation and involving citizens in monitoring wetlands. We are in the middle of a Tamiraparani Water Bird Carnival (TWBC) which was started on 12 Nov, Salim Ali’s birthday, and concluded on Feb 2. The carnival has engaged in various forms with various stakeholders in the Tirunelveli and Thoothkudi district to highlight the value of wetlands in the region. The challenges are many. One is engagement with the public and other stakeholders. It takes a long time to show any progress. It also requires constant engagement at the ground level. The constant change in government administration is another challenge as it results in much uncertainty in executing long term programs.
2. Ramsar recently declared 10 more wetland sites from India as sites of international importance. How would such actions change wetland conservation in India?
This is a positive move and the government can take a lot of credit for it, especially when the CMS–COP13 meet is two weeks away in Gandhinagar. The functioning of the existing Ramsar should also be given much more thought as most have not benefited from the Ramsar tag. In its next move, the government should also think of Ramsar sites in other states. Six Ramsar sites in Rajasthan and seven sites in UP is good, but ignoring other areas is not a wise conservation move.
3. Recently, the Ministry of Environment notified the new Wetland Conservation Rules that prohibit setting up or expansion of industries and disposal of construction and demolition waste within the wetlands. Do you think it’s a move that will help conserve wetlands?
These are moves in the right direction and if the guidelines associated with the 2017 wetland rules are properly and equitably implemented, we could have some good examples of wetland conservation. But would that ever happen is the question.
The 2017 rules, unlike the 2010 ones, completely ignore human-made wetlands such as irrigation tanks, aquaculture ponds, paddy fields, and salt pans. These, we know, are critical for biodiversity and human well-being. Many wetland PAs are human-made irrigation tanks and should be governed by the 2017 wetland rules as well, and not just by the WLPA 1972.
But the 2017 rules have a wise-use approach which recognizes that restricting wetland loss and degradation requires linkages between people and wetlands and should be maintained to ensure the long-term conservation of wetlands. This provides a useful framework for conservation of biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes; and if implemented in human-made wetlands, it can further the conservation of water bodies across the country where there are no natural wetlands as defined by the rules. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, where there are no natural wetlands and only human-made water bodies, how will the rule be implemented? There are many such challenges.
4. Where does India stand in terms of global wetland protection measures?
I think India is doing well to address global concerns for wetland protection, but as I said, how much of it will really change things on the ground is not clear. We also do not have the luxury of waiting and watching to see how things change given the rapid degradation to our ecosystems.
5. What is the future of wetland conservation in India? What changes should be made at the policy level?
Wetland conservation should employ a bottom-up approach with minimum top-down control. We have to build the stakes of local people for their backyard tanks/ ponds, rivers, streams, etc. The ecosystem services provided by the wetlands such as biodiversity should be highlighted more than only water. At the policy level, the wetland rules 2017 should be revised to include human-made waterbodies with biodiversity value. You cannot conserve wetland biodiversity by protecting individual wetlands.