The World Wetlands Day, celebrated around the world on 2nd February each year, marks the adoption of Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in Iran in 1972. The Convention came into force in India since 1982. The theme for this year’s World Wetlands Day is “Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction.”[i]
During floods, wetlands can act as natural sponges and absorb intense runoff and discharge, holding more water than most soil types.[ii] This role of wetlands has been demonstrated most powerfully in India in the past few years. Chennai deluge in Nov-Dec 2015 highlighted what happens when wetlands in a city reduce by 2/3rds in just 20 years. Similarly, Kashmir valley lost 50% of its riverine wetlands in just over 30 years, which was one of the main reasons behind the extensive losses during the Sept 2014 Jhelum floods, as corroborated by Dr Asam Rahmani of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS)[iii]. In 40 years, Bangalore has lost 79% of its wetlands, similar is the case with Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and New Delhi. Bhopal, a city of relatively sloping profile, faced floods twice in 2016, and wetlands, including the rivers in the city are facing existential risks in terms of encroachments[iv].
Ramsar Convention includes mangrove forests in its definition of wetlands. The role of mangroves in controlling damage of cyclones and even tsunami has been well-documented in India. The Bhitarakanika and associated mangrove systems significantly reduced impact of 1999 Cyclone in coastal Orissa.
Apart from unmatched ecosystem services that wetlands provide in terms of water security, livelihoods, carbon sequestering, water filtration, habitat for biodiversity, micro climate regulation and climate resilience, their significant role as a major disaster mitigation system has been overlooked in the country.
Not only do the wetlands play a critical role in controlling floods, they are an important store house of water and are important groundwater recharge mechanisms and help tide over water stress during droughts too. This becomes even more important when groundwater is clearly India’s water lifeline. Wetlands in India are significant, and sometimes sole source of drinking water to the population. In Orissa, mangroves wetlands have protected communities during cyclones, which are becoming more frequent and intense with changing climate. The role of wetlands as sinks of carbon and as pollution treatment, livelihood provides and biodiversity habitats are equally important in the context of disaster risk reduction.
While the World Wetlands Day is an opportunity to celebrate the role of wetlands as beautiful landscapes that provide livelihoods and protect us from disaster, there is absolutely no effective governance mechanism in place to protect wetlands of India today.[v] The Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010 remain largely unutilized since their inception in 2010.
The National Wetland Authority, is mostly defunct during the last six years. Following orders of National Green Tribunal, it has been reactivated, with a term of just two months, instead if three years![vi] That too happened only after civil society groups went to National Green Tribunal and National Green Tribunal directed the MoEF and states to take specific steps to protect the wetlands. Most state Wetland Authorities are not even formed. In case where they are claimed to have been formed, there is no sign of their functioning in public domain. In short, wetlands in India are outside the ambit of effective governance.
To illustrate, Environment Planning and Coordination Organisation of Government of Madhya Pradesh is the nodal Wetlands Authority in Madhya Pradesh as per the affidavit filed by the MP Govt in the National Green Tribunal in Dec 2015. The affidavit says that one of the wetlands that they are trying to save is the Ken Gharial Sanctuary in Panna district. It has been pointed out to the State Wildlife Board headed by the Chief Minister and also to the EPCO itself that according to the Detailed Project Report of the Ken Betwa River Link Project, certain components of the link will be implemented inside the Gharial Sanctuary. However, the SBWL has cleared the Ken Betwa link without even considering the impact of the project on the protected wetland, namely the Ken Gharial Sanctuary.
It is highly unfortunate scenario and we hope that the World Wetlands Day is a reminder of this sad reality.
Even the flagship Namami Gange Program will be ineffective if if lakhs of wetlands that dot the Gangetic plains remain unprotected and continue to be destroyed by encroachment, pollution, hydrological changes and habitat destruction.
Martha Rojas-Urrego, Secretary General, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands said[vii] on this occasion, “But wetlands are also vital because they provide food for more than three billion people worldwide and are a source of freshwater and livelihoods for over one billion people. They are also crucial for adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. Sustainable development cannot be achieved if we do not take decisive action for their conservation… It is a matter of great concern that the frequency of natural hazards worldwide has more than doubled in just 35 years… However, wetlands are being destroyed or degraded faster than any other ecosystem. Latest figures show that 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared in the last century, and that every year we lose 1% of those remaining… We encourage policy-makers, experts and community leaders to consider wetlands as extremely cost-effective, win-win and no-regret solutions for disaster risk reduction.” Unfortunately, even the wetlands designated as Ramsar wetlands in India have no better protection than the remaining wetlands[viii], and the officie of the Ramsar convention seems to be doing nothing about it.
At a time when Extreme Weather events due to Climate Change are become more frequent, Wetland protection is not a luxury but a need. We would have liked to hope that the government will act to implement the Wetland Rules (2010) through public consultations urgently and take other effective steps to protect wetlands. But we know how useful such hopes are, when the MOEF made its intention clear when it came out with draft wetlands rules of 2016[ix] and sought wash its hands off any role in wetlands protection. Only hope is that the communities, civil society, experts, media and judiciary wake up and take urgent steps to protect wetlands.
As of now we seem largely a water wisdom non compliant society, to paraphrase the words of India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley[x]!
[viii] See for details: https://sandrp.in/rivers/Indias_wetlands_in_peril_Feb_2011.pdf