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Why it is time to demystify our wetlands

Ritesh Kumar, director of the NGO Wetlands International South Asia, believes it is time we revised the narrative around wetland conservation

Only one-third of India's wetlands are under protected or forest area. 
Only one-third of India's wetlands are under protected or forest area.  (iStock)

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Earlier this month, India put forth a proposal to add 26 wetlands under the Ramsar Convention. There are 49 wetlands under the global convention tag in the country as of now. However, there are many other water bodies in the country that are vanishing at a faster rate. In fact, the National Wetland Decadal Change Atlas – published by the Space Application Centre earlier this year – shows that coastal wetlands are declining at the fastest rate. Within those, intertidal wetlands are under severe pressure.

At present, India has over 700,000 wetlands – 4.8% of our land is occupied by wetlands. Of these, only one-third are under forest or protected areas. The rest are fighting a losing battle against encroachment, untreated waste, effluent dumping and construction activities.

Also read: The cat that is the soul of the wetlands

Ritesh Kumar, director of Wetlands International South Asia (WISA), however, thinks it’s time to revise the wetland conservation narrative. “Wetland conservation as an agenda needs to be seen not just from the lens of environment but from the lens of sustainable development, and then, wherein you get range of acts like livelihood,” he says.

As Wetlands International South Asia (WISA), part of global non-profit organisation Wetlands International, completes 25 years this year, Kumar spoke to Lounge about how wetlands play a crucial part in climate mitigation, the status of wetland conservation in India, and how Delhi and Tamil Nadu are serious about wetland conservation. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What are the immediate challenges for wetland conservation and management efforts?

We need to fix the government gaps. The challenge we normally face is who to approach for taking any meaningful action. Wetlands management is split under numerous departments – each having their own sectoral pursuits. A homogenous approach to wetland conservation is needed at every site and district. Right now, it’s all disjointed.

For instance, Bihar has about 100,000 wetlands. You cannot expect the state authority, with 20 people, being responsible for the entire wetlands in their state. We need an architecture which goes down to our panchayat and urban local body levels. That’s one immediate step that needs to change.

Second, wetland information needs to be available on a user-friendly platform on our mobiles. Third, the dependence on government budgets for preserving wetlands needs to shift. Wetlands are societal assets, so our developmental programs (similar to how we approach sanitation or rural development) should have an in-built resource for conserving wetlands.

Along with this, a simple standard operating procedure for conservation should be created that can be easily comprehended and used by different sectors.

Which are some of the wetlands that are thriving due to continued efforts?

Chilika lake in Odisha is one successful example. In 2000, ecological restoration was carried out on the lake as the fish population came down from 8,000 metric tonnes to 700 metric tonnes. Over the last 20 years, the fisheries have been able to sustain over 14,000 metric tonnes of fish, and the ecology is pretty vibrant. But these are few and far between.

There are a few small-scale examples of restoration work happening, such as johads (village ponds) being restored in Haryana or the Sukhna lake restoration in Chandigarh.

From a community-level, have you seen wetlands being restored or being protected?

We have a case of a monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, which by its sheer will to educate the tourists and locals to not litter have created their own committees. These committees negotiate with stakeholders, including the Indian Army on what needs not to be done in and around wetlands.

I find that wherever cultures are strongly built around wetlands, they take actions to conserve them. When you look at high altitude areas, for instance Arunachal Pradesh or other North Eastern states, you will see a cultural connectedness which is still active; people conserve their ecosystems well. We can’t expect the government alone to be responsible for conserving these ecosystems. A social approach is needed.

A fisherman in Chilika lake, Odisha. One of the largest wetlands, it's also one of the successful cases of wetland conservation in the country.
A fisherman in Chilika lake, Odisha. One of the largest wetlands, it's also one of the successful cases of wetland conservation in the country. (iStock)

In what ways can wetlands contribute in capturing carbon and with climate mitigation?

Since the last five or six years, we have well-established evidence that the maximum amount of carbon that’s stored in the landscape is found in a type of wetlands called peatlands. These are one of the slowest forming natural wetlands that store carbon over ages. You find them in Amazon, high altitude regions, in China, etc.

Our assessment of the extent of peatlands in India is still pretty weak; the knowledge of peatlands is limited to the coast. In fact, you have peatlands near Thane Creek near Mumbai. However, we are not aware of what kind of ecosystem it has. Hence, people manage it in different ways. WISA is currently planning to take the first ballpark assessment of peatlands in the country. We are hoping to start this in six months.

What has been the biggest shortcoming of the wetland conservation community?

There is a communication barrier. We need to understand and engage beyond ecological and science language. We need to demystify wetlands and talk about it in the language that different departments – fisheries, town planning, irrigation – understand. Unless this inter-sectoral dialogue happens, we will continue to pursue in our siloed approach to wetlands.

In recent months, governments in Delhi and Tamil Nadu have been looking at reviving wetlands. How effective are their efforts? Is it only good on paper?

Tamil Nadu has established a state wetland mission. Under the mission, there’s a defined target, allocation of resource, and governance infrastructure. It’s a more evolved approach, and it’s unique from other states, which see wetland being the responsibility of environment and forest department.

Meanwhile, Delhi government has been proactive in pursing wetland conservation and created an inventory of over 1,000 wetlands. The ownership of these wetlands is spread across 17 departments. You can imagine the complexity of this. The government is now looking to create a simple action plan to conserve and notify these wetlands. I think, it’s a very solid step because at least you know what resources you have.

Also read: The monks who protect the Bhagajang wetland

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