On the World Wetlands Day we celebrate Wetlands across the country (Wetlands also include Rivers, tributaries, floodplains, ox box lakes and deltas) as one of the most productive ecosystems of the world. Wetlands not only support largest proportion of biodiversity, but also livelihoods of millions of people through fisheries, mussel and bivalve collection, tourism, rice farming, singada and lotus harvesting, etc. Many wetlands from Western Ghats to Himalayas hold rich cultural values to communities. Healthy wetlands are an excellent adaptation and mitigation measure for local communities against vagaries of Climate Change.
Wetlands in Peril: Unfortunately, wetlands in India are in peril due to encroachment, reclamation, debris dumping, pollution etc., Damming and hydrological changes wrought about by dams is making the situation worse. As SANDRP had pointed out in its report (http://www.sandrp.in/rivers/Indias_wetlands_in_peril_Feb_2011.pdf), most Ramsar Wetlands in India, including Keoladeo Ghana (Rajasthan), Loktak Lake (Manipur), Chilika Lake (Odisha), Vembnad Kole Wetlands Complex (Kerela), etc., which should enjoy highest protection levels, are in fact severely degraded due to dams which have either dried out the wetlands, or have contributed to increased siltation (Lake Chilika) or have brought about acute hydrological changes (Loktak Lake).
Unfortunately nor the Ramsar Convention, nor the sates are addressing these basic hydrological issues.
Proposed dam projects which will severely affect important wetland areas include Renuka Dam affecting Renuka Wetlands (Ramsar site) in Himachal, 1750 MW Lower Demwe Dam and other dams in Arunachal Pradesh affecting Dibru Saikhowa National Park (Important Bird Area), Siang Basin Projects affecting D’Erring Sanctuary and related riverine islands in the region, Loktak Downstream Project further affecting Loktak Lake (Ramsar Site), Ken Betwa Link affecting Ken Gharial Sanctuary, etc. Unfortunately in the EIAs (Environment Impact Assessment Study) of most of these projects, their impacts on wetlands are either ignored or downplayed.
Rivers are not Wetlands? India’s rivers are some of the most scenic, biodiversity rich, culturally significant and iconic ecosystems in the world. Ramsar Definition of Wetlands, also includes rivers as Wetlands (“Permanent Rivers, seasonal and intermittent Rivers and permanent deltas”) Many countries across the world have nominated riverine stretches and deltas as Ramsar Sites.
Despite this, Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 (the only legal instrument explicitly for wetlands protection), exclude Rivers from the definition of Wetlands, thus ensuring that no riverine stretches will be nominated by states as proposed Ramsar Sites for protection. Section 2 (g) of the Rules says wetlands does not include “Main River Channels”.
Plight of Riverine Protected Areas in India: India has very few Protected River Stretches. The only incidental protection that a river gets is when it cross a terrestrial Protected Area. But here too, rivers are hydrologically abused.
The few Riverine Protected Areas that we have are facing mounting pressures:
- National Chambal Sanctuary: National Chambal Sanctuary protects approximately 425 kms of the Chambal River flowing through three states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The sanctury protects the spectacular river as well as critically endangered species like Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) which depend on the river and its flow.The region suffers huge water deficit due to, as Tarun Nair says, “the presence of over 200 irrigation projects and four major dams in the Chambal Basin. The river does not flow below the Kota barrage for most of the year. These notwithstanding, 52 irrigation projects are under construction and 376 projects have been planned in the basin”.Although, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife had, in 2011, decided that it will not entertain any more projects affecting National Chambal Sanctuary, in 2013 the Board cleared one more project in form of an uptake well from Kota Barrage.Projects like planned Mohanpura Irrigation Project, Kundaliya Irrigation Project in Madhya Pradesh and Parbati Kali Sindh Interlinking project will drive the fragile National Chambal Sanctuary to the brink of survival. There seems no protection for the water in Chambal and all three states involved (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Utter Pradesh) seem interested only in bleeding the river dry..
- Ken Ghariyal Sanctuary: Ken Gharial Sanctuary is also targeted to protect Gharial in Ken River, Madhya Pradesh.The Ken Betwa Link, whose EIA was one of the shoddiest EIA seen in recent years, does not even mention the impact of this link on Ken Ghariyal Sanctuary, downstream of the project site. According to Kishore RItheFormer member if the Standing Committee of the National Board for wildlife, who has analysed the DPR of Ken Betwa Link, writes In The Sanctuary, “The controversial DPR reveals that in the pinch period between April and June, no water from the Ken will be available for wildlife. This will have a domino downstream impact on the Ken Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary”
- Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary: The unique Dolphin Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh with a thriving population of Gangetic Dolphins, India’s National Aquatic Animal, will be destroyed if the proposed dredging and damming envisioned by the National Waterway 1 (Ganga Waterway) goes through, says Dr. Sunil Chaudhary who has played a pivotal role in the management of the Sanctuary. Although there are isolated reports of work on the Waterway being initiated already, there are no studies being conducted to assess the impact of the project on Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary, leave aside permissions from the National Board for Wildlife as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972!
- Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary lies in Mandya, Chamrajnagara and Ramanagara Distrcts of Karnataka along the Cauvery, just as the River enters Tamilnadu. As per SANDRPs report, nearly 100 Mini Hydel Projects have been planned and constructed across the river. Commissioned projects have severely affected the longitudinal connectivity of the river, causing erratic and untimely water releases. Some of these projects may also be actually encroaching inside the Sanctuary. There has been no study of the impacts of this very high density of hydel projects on the Riverine Ecosystem or the protected area. Karnataka’s proposed Mekedatu Hydroproject will destroy large parts of this protected area.
Looking at the plight of Wetlands throughout the country, we urge:
- The MoEF to amend Wetlands Rules (2010) to include Main River channels in its definition of Wetlands, in line with Ramsar Convention’s definition of Wetlands.
- Nomination and protection of more Rivers and Riverine stretches as valuable, protected wetlands and ecosystems.
- Utmost protection to the natural hydrology of specific rivers and wetlands from being impacted by further by water abstractions or dams.
- Legal protection to rivers, mandating that no more than 50% of the water from a river can be taken out by any project at any given point of time, as directed by the Allahabad High Court.