Time to conserve

By Sagarika Ranjan
In Issue 7
April 4, 2016

India has 15.26 million hectare area under wetlands, which is approximately 4.6 per cent of her land area. Despite their wide ranging services, it is estimated that nearly 30 per cent of the natural wetlands have been lost in last three decades.


Loktak lake in Manipur is largest freshwater lake in the north-east and supports a large number of people

Errant weather conditions make us think what’s going on rather what has gone wrong. Discussions on climate change, banning CFCs, deforestation, overutilization of resources and the like are often abuzz all over the world. However, among these obviously important aspects natural imbalances, we tend to forget a critical balancer of nature. We are talking about the sad phenomenon of the loss of our wetlands.

Certainly not a very familiar term but the repercussions of its loss are huge. For instance, depletion of wetland ecosystem will cause serious damage to water cycle, carbon cycle and the nutrient cycle. Wetlands loss will widen the climate change crisis because this ecosystem functions as a major natural carbon sink apparatus and one of the successful natural regimes to counter climate change agents; from global warming agents to air pollutants, especially the Suspended Particulates Matters/SPMs in air in the cities.

Recent flash floods in Chennai, Guwahati, Patna, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and other cities have allegedly occurred because of the illegal encroachment and corrupt plan structure for the wetlands.

So, what are these wetlands?

Wetlands are the ecosystem where the water table is at or near the surface level, or the land is covered by shallow layer of water.

The Ramsar Convention defines wetlands as: “Areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salty, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide doesn’t exceed six meters.”

The wetlands may incorporate riparian or coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six meters at low tide lying within wetlands.

Wetlands are normally of around 42 types which fall under three broader categories as Inland Wetlands, Marine; Coastal Wetlands and Man-made Wetlands.

The Ramsar Convention includes ‘Man Made Wetlands’ as Aquaculture, Farm Ponds, and permanently or temporarily inundated agricultural land such as rice paddies, salt pans, reservoirs, gravel pits, sewage farms and canals.

Environmentalist with the UNDP, Kumar Deepak says, “There is a need for structural wetland governance in India. The loss of these natural gifts results in grave damages to not only the environment but economy and society as well. There are several small communities that dwell around these wetlands and depend on them for their livelihood. Wetland loss can cause marginalization of these communities adding to poverty of the nation as a whole.”

Wetland depletion will result in the collapse of those natural infrastructures that can help meet a wide range of policy objectives. This gift of nature is a natural water purifier and can purify impurities as critical as arsenic, sulphur, lead and the like thus helping improve the quality of available water.

A healthy wetland ecosystem, on the other hand, can add to the efforts of climate change mitigation and adaptation, support health as well as livelihoods, and contribute towards local development and poverty alleviation.

Statistics point out that we are fast losing this precious environmental boon. National Wetland Atlas, 2011 states that India has 15.26 million hectare area under wetlands, which is approximately 4.6 per cent of her land area. Inland wetlands account for 69.22 per cent of this bulk, which is approximately 10.56 million hectares. Despite their wide ranging services, inland wetlands continue to degrade rapidly. As metioned earlier, an estimated 30 per cent of the natural wetlands have been lost in last three decades only.

India has been a signatory to the Ramsar Convention that designates a wetland as ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ since February 1982. Still we have just 26 designated wetlands of International Importance constituting a total area of 6,89,131 hectares whereas United Kingdom has 169 Ramsar Designated Wetlands.

Chilka Lake in Orissa, a Ramsar Designated wetland provide the basis of rich fishery which generates direct economy of US$17.3 million annual revenues, constituting 6 per cent to the State Foreign Exchange earnings. Loktak Lake in Manipur is another significant wetland body and yields 1,500 tonnes of fish each year.

Kumar Deepak explains, “Being an Environmentalist I work on estimating the gross monetary value of such wetland ecosystem. The Economics of Ecosystem & its Biodiversity (TEEB) is a model developed under United Nations Environment Program, to estimate the monetary significance of such wetland ecosystem. I realize that there is massive ignorance about the significant economic values being rendered by the wetland ecosystem and the public has hardly been informed about the benefits of wetlands.”

He further informs that the poorest and most marginalized rural communities are the biggest potential beneficiaries of the wetlands. Such ecosystem helps us to create a climate resilient environment by regulating the local climate. Wetlands are the natural kidney, among the largest water purifying aquifers. Wetlands work to balance the gross underground water table and act as a sink to the Green House Gases.

However, ignorant of these facts our policy makers and planners are more concerned about the short economic gains and in the process they are over-looking long term gross economic values of the wetlands.

The recent assessment of TEEB 2010, considering 22 ecosystem services estimates the annual average wetland values at Rs 22,24,350/ Hectare which makes the ecosystem services values for the entire wetlands in the country (105,64,899 Hectares), around Rs 23 lakhs crores annually.

Recently, during the 12th Conference of Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity in 2014 in South Korea, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change issued The Economics of Ecosystem & its Biodiversity/TEEBS India Initiative (TII) which would assess the gross economics of wetland Ecosystem and its Biodiversity by putting value on the four major ecosystem services viz: Provisioning, regulating, cultural and supportive. Recognizing Ecosystem services, valuing ecosystem services and capturing ecosystem services are three major areas of interventions.

Talking on the conservation of this important part of our ecosystem, Kumar Deepak says, “Wetlands are the solutions to water security. They are offering multiple ecosystem services supporting water security.”

The good news is that the importance of the saving wetlands has dawned upon policy makers and several steps have been taken to mitigate the loss of these vitals of our ecosystem. For example, Wetlands (Conservation & Management) Rules 2010 prohibits illegitimate use of wetlands areas under demarcation. The Central Wetland Authority has been set up for the purpose of enforcement of rules. This is the prior responsibility of the local people who are the potential beneficiaries of the economic and ecological values of the wetland habitat to protect and conserve it.

For effective management, the Government of India has merged the National Wetlands Conservation Program and National Lake Conservation Program under single umbrella of National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCAE). This is a Centrally Sponsored Program which shares funding pattern of 70:30 for whole country except North East which has the central Share of 90:10 in the 12th Five Years Plan. However, sources explain that most of the funds under NPCAE remain unused all because there is a lack of serious vision.

The State Governments, on their part, need to work on a proper management action plan which is inclusive of  demarcation of boundary; construction of embankments to prevent further encroachment; dredging of silted areas; carrying forward the scientific research on contour mapping plan; catchment areas upgradation plan, besides water quality and floral and faunal studies.

“There is an urgent need to address the comprehensive plan structure to rejuvenate wetlands ecosystem. We must assess the socio-economic significance of the economics of the wetland ecosystem and its bio-diversity. There is an urgent need to introduce diverse and applied awareness methodologies to understand the potential economic and ecological benefits,” explains Kumar.

In 2011, the Livelihood Funds, a Carbon Investment Fund was initiated by Danone, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the International Union for Nature & Conservation (IUCN), in association with a local NGO named Nature Environment and Wildlife Society. The objective of the fund is to address climate change issues while improving the lives of the local communities. As per the project, 16 Million mangroves are being planted in the Indian Sunderbans. This project expects to capture 671,000 tonnes of Carbon over 20 years, transforming into carbon offset credits for livelihoods.

‘Wise Use’ approach was promulgated by the Ramsar Convention as one of the guiding principle for managing wetlands ecology, said Kumar, elaborating that ‘Wise Use’ of wetlands involve their sustainable utilization for the larger benefits for the socially and economically marginalized, while being fully compatible with the natural properties of the wetlands ecosystem. The Wise Use Principle promotes stakeholders participation and transparency in negotiating trade-offs and determining equitable outcomes for wetlands conservation while encouraging maintenance of environmental, economic and social sustainability.

Under the Ramsar Criteria, wetlands should be selected for the Ramsar List on account of their international significance in terms of the biodiversity and uniqueness of their ecology, botany, zoology, limnology or hydrology. In addition, the Criteria indicates that in the first instance, wetlands of international importance to waterbirds at any season should be included on the Ramsar List.


Group A: Sites containing representative, rare or unique wetland type
Criterian 1           A wetland should be considered internationally important if it contains a representative, rare, or unique example of a natural or near-natural wetland type found within the appropriate biogeographic region.
Group B: Sites of international importance for conserving biological     diversity
                Criteria based on species and ecological communities
Criterian 2           A wetland should be considered internationally important if it supports vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities
Criterian 3           A wetland should be considered internationally important if it supports populations of plant and/or animal species important for maintaining the biological diversity of a particular biogeographic region
Criterian 4           A wetland should be considered internationally important if it supports plant and/or animal species at a critical stage in their life cycles, or provides refuge during adverse conditions
                Specific criteria based on water birds
Criterian 5           A wetland should be considered internationally important if it regularly supports 20,000 or more water birds
Criterian 6           A wetland should be considered internationally important if it regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of water bird
                Specific criteria based on fish
Criterian 7           A wetland should be considered internationally important if it supports a significant proportion of indigenous fish subspecies, species or families, life-history stages, species interactions and/or populations that are representative of wetland benefits and/or values and thereby contributes to global biological diversity
Criterian 8           A wetland should be considered internationally important if it is an important source of food for fishes, spawning ground, nursery and/or migration path on which fish stocks, either within the wetland or elsewhere, depend
                Specific criteria based on other taxa
Criterian 9           A wetland should be considered internationally important if it regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of wetland-dependent non-avian animal species

Sagarika Ranjan