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Can wetlands find a safe haven in our cities?

Deepor Beel in Guwahati continues to face the brunt of an expanding city and human negligence

Elephants have been killed in collisions with trains. Photo: AP
Elephants have been killed in collisions with trains. Photo: AP

The bird was clearly visible, even from a distance. The vibrant plumage of the northern lapwing, an uncommon winter migrant to the region, shimmered in the warm winter sun. It stood in stark contrast to the green meadow on which it was foraging. Our boat moved towards it, and we had our cameras and binoculars ready. I was both excited and relieved. Excited that I had got to see a rare bird within city limits, and relieved because we could finally move away from the main bank of Deepor Beel, where, congregated in their hundreds, picnickers were cooking and playing music. Not too far away, a passenger train chugged across one of the several bridges that bisect portions of the water body.

Deepor Beel, an important wetland in Guwahati, was declared a Ramsar Site in 2002. The Convention on Wetlands, held in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971 (popularly known as the Ramsar Convention) recognizes wetlands of importance and aims to conserve and optimize their use through local and national actions and international cooperation. Officially, any anthropogenic activity that threatens to negatively affect an area that is important for conservation is either restricted or completely banned. So where’s the loophole that allows for activities like picnics?

Wetlands in urban spaces play a particularly important role, something that the public—and, unfortunately, the government—are almost always oblivious to. The ecosystem services provided by any wetland in an urban setting are immense, be it acting as flood control, a watershed to store excess rainwater, replenishing groundwater, supplying freshwater, playing host to a diverse assemblage of species, and providing cultural and aesthetic value.

As cities expand, the pressure to convert wetlands—into sites for construction, water exploitation or waste dumping—grows. The Central government even allowed for a new definition under The Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, modifying the Ramsar definition to exclude any wetland that is human-made or human-modified, thus removing close to 65% of the total area identified as wetlands from protection.

Avian diversity at Deepor Beel. Photo: AP

The plan has been stayed but wetland health remains a matter of concern. In Bengaluru, the Bellandur Lake—the biggest in the city—catches fire repeatedly. Untreated effluents from industries—estimated at 400-600 million litres per day—dumped into the lake catchment are cited as triggers. In 2015, the lake was covered in white froth—the result of chemicals dumped into it.

Other wetlands continue to suffer too. Deepor Beel plays host to numerous resident and migratory birds, including the critically endangered Greater Adjutant stork, the Lesser Adjutant stork, Steppe Eagles, Himalayan Griffons, Northern Lapwings, Northern Shovelers, Pintails, Garganeys, Teals and Openbill storks. Once, the wetland was also a haunt for the rare Goliath Heron. It was last reported from Deepor Beel 30 years ago.

Deepor Beel is a notified wildlife sanctuary, getting its name from the Sanskrit word dipa which means elephant, and beel, a wetland. But a railway line cuts through it and the adjoining reserve forest—elephants have been killed in collisions with trains or have ended up raiding crops in adjacent agricultural lands because they cannot forage in the wetland. The construction of a second line on the same route has been stayed for the time being—in January, the National Green Tribunal directed Indian Railways to submit a compliance report on its impact on elephant movement.

As cities expand, the pressure to convert wetlands—into sites for construction, water exploitation or waste dumping—grows-

The wetland also faces a unique threat from picnics. “Not only is waste dumped into the water, the picnickers also play loud music, the intensity of which can scare the bejesus out of any water bird that might be foraging close by," says Biswajit De, founder-president of WildRoots, an organization working on conservation education in the North-East. There is still no rule to ban such human disturbance in such close proximity to a wetland of high conservation value.

The 2015 Chennai floods, one of the worst faced by a metropolis, are an indication of what the degradation of a water body of ecological importance can lead to. Wetlands serve as a catchment area for rainwater, and, if not protected, cities like Kolkata, Delhi, Guwahati and Hyderabad can face similar issues.

We can still make amends, starting simply by just visiting wetlands to watch nature. Ask any wildlife enthusiast, and she will surely tell you how the seemingly murky patch of wetland you passed by the other day hosts a surprisingly high number of birds. Something that you passed off as a wasteland. And while you are at it, why not tell everyone you know about the importance of the wetland to the city you live in, from hosting a plethora of wildlife, to providing valuable services to the city. So head out, explore, love, spread the word. Let live.

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