SUBJECT :On World Wetlands Day, we take a look at the official efforts taken to protect Indias precious wetlands. 

Saving India's Wetlands

February 1, 2019: Showing an early commitment to protecting wetlands, India became one of the first signatories to the Ramsar Convention in 1981, declaring 6 wetland sites as Ramsar Sites. Named after the Iranian city where it was adopted, the Ramsar Convention came into force in 1975 as an intergovernmental treaty that aims to promote conservation and wise use of wetlands. Today, we have 26 Ramsar Sites in the country, which translates into stricter governance of these natural resources to keep them protected from deterioration and misuse.

Ramsar is the only convention of its type that focuses on a particular type of ecosystem. Wetlands are important, both economically and ecologically; providing food, water, livelihood, fisheries, and birdlife, controlling floods, and acting as a natural filter for groundwater.

And yet, the world has already lost 35% of its wetlands since 1970. We lose wetlands three times faster than forests. India has nearly 30,000 wetlands, including about 4,000 coastal wetlands, of which we are losing 2-3% each year.

It is the moment for urgent and swift action, and India can and must set things right. Take the example of Chilika Lake in Odisha, the largest coastal lagoon in India. Designated the first Ramsar Site in India back in 1981, it became part of the Montreux Record (wetland sites on the Ramsar list that face immediate threats) in 1993 but was struck off the crisis list in 2002 after good restoration work over a decade. The Chilika Development Authority won the Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award in 2002 for this work.

A hut on a patch of land in the Chilika Lake, Odisha.

The good work in Chilika continues and today it is the largest wintering ground for migratory birds on the subcontinent, a biodiversity hotspot sustaining people of over 100 neighbouring villages, and a popular tourist destination.

Good work continues elsewhere, too. The Indian government has been updating Ramsar Sites Information Service (RSIS), an international resource guide and information database for Ramsar wetlands globally. Through this searchable database, one can track spatial boundary, management plans and up-to-date information on any wetland of importance.

Manju Pandey, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC), says: “The process for revision of RSIS for 25 sites has been initiated, as a part of which the Ramsar site managers were provided with hands-on training on the use of the electronic system for the updation of RSIS. As of now, 10 updated RSIS have already been submitted to the Ramsar Secretariat.”

India has also identified 115 sites as wetlands of national importance so far, and the maintenance of these sites is funded through the MoEFCC. However, much remains to be done yet.

Implementation and monitoring

In September 2017, India adopted the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 that prohibits conversion of wetland for non-wetland uses, setting up of industries near wetlands, and waste dumping into the water. The Wetlands Rules 2017 require setting up of a State Wetlands Authority in each state and union territory to monitor the notified wetlands in their state. This is a move in the right direction – however the Rules were criticised by conservationists because they leave room for allowing some of the prohibited activities if “the authorities” suggest it, making room for corruption, arbitrariness, confusion and misuse.

It is not surprising, then, that the Punjab State Administration was recently pulled up by the courts for allowing illegal construction near the Harike Wetlands, a designated Ramsar Site. In the latest census, Ernakulam district in Kerala saw a drop of 37% in waterbirds as its wetlands face continued threats from road construction and waste dumping.

A Large Egret at Perumbbakam wetland near Sholinganallur in Chennai.

“We have done well to have set up the National Wetland Conservation Programme (NWCP), a MoEFCC scheme under which funds are allocated to wetland site management, and asking the states to identify wetlands of importance in their state for such management,” says Prof. B C Choudhury, Senior Advisor Wetlands and Marine Realm, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). “However we now need to set in process a mechanism to develop and implement an action plan. There is no National Wetland Policy, which is a requirement under the Ramsar treaty obligation by India.” Prof. Choudhury hinted that the MoEFCC has been taking steps towards developing a policy framework.

The Delhi government has taken a step in the right direction by announcing its intentions to set up a centralised wetland development authority to oversee the preservation and rejuvenation of waterbodies in the national capital. Several water bodies of Delhi NCR have either been encroached upon or turned into garbage dumps. So far the responsibility for these wetlands have been in the hands of multiple agencies but a dedicated, centralised authority is bound to be more effective.

“Most of the wetlands in the urban areas are under threat. With the level of urbanisation likely to increase from 30% to 50% in the next decade, a legal framework to protect these wetlands and their catchments are urgently needed,” says Suresh Babu, Director, Rivers, Wetlands & Water Policy, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) India.

Involving people

There is enough evidence, both internationally and at home, that shows that involving the most important stakeholders—citizens, especially those who live near wetlands—is a good way to achieve conservation success.

Let’s take the Chilika example again: a decade ago, RBS Foundation, the CSR wing of Royal Bank of Scotland, and Indian Grameen Services, the not-for-profit venture of Basix Social Enterprise Group, took on the task of reviving the Mangalajodi Wetland located at the northern edge of Chilika. They engaged villagers settled near the wetland for this, but had to convince them to give up poaching birds as a way of life and livelihood. They did this by enlisting the villagers into setting up an ecotourism centre on the island, which in turn brought tourists and an alternate source of income. More than 200 people in Mangalajodi are employed in boating and bird watching activities. The project won the Innovation in Tourism Enterprise award at the 14th UNWTO Awards last year, and today Mangalajodi is a site visited by the country’s top ornithologists, photographers and researchers apart from tourists and avid birdwatchers.

Students visiting India's largest floating treatment wetland at Neknampur Lake on World Wetlands Day last year. Floating treatment wetlands are man-made ecosystems that mimic natural wetlands.

Focussing on directing CSR funds towards protecting wetlands could also be useful. The CSR wing of Biocon Limited, Biocon Foundation, recently invested Rs. 7 crore in the rejuvenation of Hebbagodi Lake in southeast Bangalore, using artificial floating wetlands to great effect. The lake is now revived, and what was once a garbage dump is now a beautiful public space for people and birds to enjoy equally.

Role of NGOs

NGOs, activists, conservationists and advocacy experts have a huge role to play in the conservation of wetlands and the government needs to work closely with them for up to date techniques, know-how and keeping in step with international best practices. NGOs like WWF India and WTI carry out interventions through engagement with multiple stakeholders and are uniquely placed to understand the limitations and concerns of all parties involved. Working closely with both communities and the government, they can achieve effective results by guiding the agencies correctly.

“The WTI has been working on riverine wetlands (river Gandak) in Bihar, making it possible to declare them as a conservation reserve for managing the riverine habitat and the important floral and faunal value therein, including critically endangered species such as the gharial, river dolphin and freshwater turtles,” says Prof. Choudhury. He adds that the WTI envisages a mechanism of community involvement in the management of the Gandak river conservation reserve.

The return of the gharial to the River Gandak is a huge conservation success story. The gharial numbers have been declining, and as per the IUCN Red List, they are Critically Endangered. In 2018, however, there were 40 hatchlings spotted at River Gandak, offering a new ray of hope.

WWF India has been working with stakeholders for the conservation of Upper Ganga River, Harike, Keoladeo National Park, Tsokar and Tsomoriri with the government and other stakeholders. “Our efforts are now directed towards enhancing the effectiveness of the management of all these wetlands,” says Babu. “Over the years, WWF India has developed programmes to mobilise and engage stakeholders in conserving wetlands. Tools like water footprint calculators, wetland health assessments protocol and interpretation centres are aimed towards community engagement for conservation.”

Research & Awareness

One of the key points on the Ramsar plan of action in response to the wetland crisis is: “Improve national wetland inventories and track wetlands’ extent”.

Wetland in Kachchh, Gujrat

The database of wetlands in India is not complete and money needs to be invested in groundwork and diligent survey of wetland areas across the country. A great example to follow is the Swedish VMI, the national wetland inventory of Sweden, which is one of the world’s most extensive and systematic surveys of wetlands, conducted over 25 years. “In the absence of information on the wetland boundaries, it is often difficult to control the encroachment on wetlands. It is therefore necessary to notify the wetlands, clearly demarcating the wetland boundary and zone of influence of the wetlands,” says Babu.

As for awareness, the MoEFCC is doing its bit. “Four regional workshops have been organised to assist wetland managers in developing and implementing integrated management plans to maintain the ecological character of the wetland and ensure its wise-use,” says Pandey.

Finally, individuals can get involved too. The Ramsar Convention Award for Young Wetlands Champions this year went to the Youth Climate Action Network (YCAN) of Samoa. So, what did YCAN do? Sheer legwork. The young people of Samoa got together and rejuvenated mangroves by removing waste and replanting trees, installing trash cans in villages for proper disposal of waste and spreading awareness of the importance of wetlands among local residents.

In the end, any policy or law will only work if someone is ready to do the actual hard work and implementation. “There is a growing awareness among the citizens of the country on the services offered by wetlands. We see more and more people intervening to protect their wetlands through conservation action, judicial interventions and social mobilisation,” says Babu. In the hands of aware and caring citizens, the country’s wetlands may yet survive.