In the second half of 2019, ten additional wetlands of India have been recognized as Ramsar sites taking the total tally of such wetlands from 27 to 37. Does getting Ramsar tags really help the cause of wetlands protection? Here we try to show the present conditions and threats the Ramsar wetlands sites have been facing in North India. The subsequent compilation would share details of Ramsar sites in other zones of India.
Table of Ramsar Wetlands sites, North India
|SN||Names||State/UTs||Area (sqkm)||GPS Coordinates||Designated|
|23 March 1990|
|2||Hokersar||Jammu||13.75||34° 6’10.52″N 74°42’42.46″E||08 November 2005|
|3||Surinsar- Mansar Lakes||Kashmir||3.50||32°46’13.14″N 75° 2’29.04″E 32°41’47.60″N 75° 8’39.56″E||08 November 2005|
|4||Tsomoriri||Ladakh||120||32°54’33.66″N 78°18’14.94″E||19 August 2002|
|5||Chandra Taal||Himachal Pradesh||0.49||32°28’56.49″N 77°36’56.39″E||08 November 2005|
|6||Pong Dam Lake||Himachal Pradesh||156.62||31°58’35.70″N 76° 3’2.91″E||19 August 2002|
|7||Renuka Lake||Himachal Pradesh||0.2||30°36’37.21″N 77°27’26.74″E||08 November 2005|
|8||Harike Wetland||Punjab||41||31° 8’9.40″N 74°58’7.41″E||23 March 1990|
|9||Kanjli Wetland||Punjab||1.83||31°24’39.98″N 75°22’31.37″E||22 January 2002|
|10||Ropar Wetland||Punjab||13.65||30°59’27.45″N 76°31’19.28″E||22 January 2002|
|11||Nangal Wildlife Sanctuary||Punjab||1.16||31°24’15.01″N 76°22’24.23″E||26 September 2019|
|12||Beas Conservation Reserve||Punjab||64.29||31°23’11.36″N 75°10’33.52″E||26 September 2019|
|13||Keshopur-Miani Community Reserve||Punjab||3.44||32° 5’32.13″N 75°24’19.43″E||26 September 2019|
|14||Upper Ganga River
(Brijghat to Narora stretch)
|Uttar Pradesh||265.90||29°14’13.22″N 78° 5’29.00″E||08 November 2005|
|15||Nawabganj Bird Sanctuary||Uttar Pradesh||2.25||26°36’49.31″N 80°39’11.67″E||19 September 2019|
|16||Parvati Agra Bird Sanctuary||Uttar Pradesh||7.22||27°15’7.22″N 77°50’22.18″E||02 December 2019|
|17||Saman Bird Sanctuary||Uttar Pradesh||5.26||27° 1’28.67″N 79°10’54.39″E||02 December 2019|
|18||Samaspur Bird Sanctuary||Uttar Pradesh||7.99||25°59’57.67″N 81°23’14.30″E||03 October 2019|
|19||Sandi Bird Sanctuary||Uttar Pradesh||3.09||27°18’51.05″N 79°58’19.74″E||26 September 2019|
|20||Sarsai Nawar Jheel||Uttar Pradesh||1.61||26°58’8.64″N 79°14’47.91″E||19 September 2019|
Interestingly 20 of the 37 Ramsar wetland sites, i.e. over half the Ramsar sites of India are located in North India. These are situated in states Punjab (6), Himahcal Pradesh (3), Uttar Pradesh (7) and union territories (UT) of Jammu & Kashmir (3) and Ladakh (1).
The remaining states of Uttarakhand, Haryana, Delhi and UT of Chandigarh have no Ramsar sites.
Kashmir: Wular, Hokersar facing multiple threats
The two Ramsar wetlands sites in Jammu are Wular lake and Hokersar wetlands. The 189 square kilometer (sq km) area of Wular and 41 sq km area of Hokersar wetlands were declared Ramsar sites in March 1990 and November 2005 respectively.
Currently both the wetlands are facing threats from encroachments and siltation due to a number of reasons including urbanization and deforestation leading to decrease in wetlands areas. Both the lakes are on Central Asian Flyway (CAF) route for migratory birds.
Despite state High Court (HC) August 2017 order, the demarcation of Hokersar also known as ‘Queen of Wetlands’ has not been completed. Meanwhile, in January 2020, the Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WUCMA) has started planned axing of 21.84 lakh trees inside the lake boundary to tackle siltation issue which experts have objected to.
Amid this, the poaching of wetlands birds in large numbers and indiscriminate dumping of municipal solids waste (MSW) in and around these wetlands areas have been observed increasing in recent years significantly adding into and aggravating their woes. In both cases the state administration has been found to be involved.
Post abrogation of Article 370 in Aug 2019, the state administration has demarcated about 6000 ha of area for development purposes in Kashmir Valley. Most of the land banks for investment and construction projects lie in the forest areas which acts as catchment for the wetlands and other water bodies, creating additional looming threats on them. For details about various issues related to Kashmir wetlands, kindly see SANDRP annual overview of wetlands for 2017[i], 2018[ii] and 2019[iii].
Jammu: Surinsar-Mansar lakes: Attention on tourism, not on conservation
The 3.50 sq km area of Surinsar-Mansar lakes was recognized as Ramsar sites in November 2005. The twin Surinsar and Mansar lakes fall within the Surinsar-Mansar wildlife sanctuary situated between the Shivalik and Jandhra ranges covering a vast area in Udhampur, Samba and Jammu districts. These lakes have been brought under the National Wetland Conservation Programme.
The Mansar Lake is estimated to be 12000 years old and is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Shivalik range at an elevation of 600 metres in Samba district. But of late it is facing an existential threat[iv] due to human intervention and climate change.
As per The Tribune April 15, 2018 report, the lake is being ruthlessly exploited for water along its catchment area, creating hostile conditions which, scientists feel, could pave the way for its demise. Despite the establishment of a separate management body, the Surinsar Mansar Development Authority (SMDA) in 2006, the lake is in a neglected state.
The water body is slowly poisoned by the use of pesticides in the surrounding farmland, direct influx of untreated sewage water and solid waste generated by eateries and hotels. Plastic bottles and polythene bags litter the lake at several places and fishes and freshwater turtles can be seen scavenging on the plastic waste.
According to Prof RK Ganjoo, Department of Geology, University of Jammu, who has conducted a research on lake sedimentation in the Himalayas, pollution due to human action was alarming at the lake. Also the lake is in a Kandi (drought prone) area and the rainfall in the region has declined while the needs of people have increased. Locals dependent on lake water say, the government has constructed drains to channelize rainwater but no plan has been made to prevent sewage water from hotels and houses from going into the lake.
The number of tourist has increased manifold[v] at Mansar due to the religious significance of the lake. It is believed to be abode of ‘Sheshnag’. As per report, about 8.96 lakh tourists visited the lake till November in 2019. In 2018, about 10.92 lakh tourists had visited the lake which was the highest-ever tourist footfall in past one decade. The SMDA has been introducing several recreational activities to attract more tourists without addressing the conservation issues.
In November 2019, while reviewing the tourism related issues[vi] and activities at Mansar and Surinsar, the Principal Secretary directed the tourism department to establish a multi cuisine restaurant in the SMDA building at Mansar lake and construction of a glass deck over the lake. He also asked it to carry out feasibility study of Gandola and emphasized the need for installing a musical fountain at Mansar. The CEO of SMDA has also been asked to immediately take up the renovation of Mansar Haveli which is a designated monument.
The Principal Secretary stressed for introduction of environmental friendly e-rickshaws (cars) both at Mansar and Surinsar. He has also told the Engineering Wing to prepare a DPR for construction of underground drains around the periphery of lakes along with provision for Sewage Treatment Plants (STP). Direction is also given for exploring the feasibility of establishing an aquarium at Surinsar and augmenting the recreational facilities for tourists.
At a time when the Mansar and Surinsar lakes are facing existential threat due to lack of funds and proper implementation of conservation plans, official agencies are investing lakhs in buying luxurious battery-operated cars. The wildlife department and SMDA in November 2019 has introduced battery rickshaws as part of “eco-tourism” promotion, raising many eyebrows about the utilization of funds[vii] when the basic infrastructure is crying for attention.
Questioning the need and proper space for operation of luxurious tourist cars, Amanvir Manhas, an environmental lawyer stated that the government needs to invest in the STP to curb pollutants and make plans to save the pristine lake. Manhas has already filed a complaint in the State Accountability Commission to direct the government to save the water bodies of J&K. Locals have also complained that the jurisdiction of the water bodies under multiple agencies is one of the reasons behind lakes deterioration.
Similarly in Nov 2019 the Wildlife Department has permitted[viii] operation of tourist boats in the Surinsar lake. Such services were stopped at both lakes about three decades back but restarted at Mansar lake in 2002.
For years, the tourism department had persistently asked the Wildlife department seeking NOC for operation of boats in Surinsar lake. Finally, a committee was set up in July 2017 to critically examine the possibility of proposal. In Aug 2017, the committee submitted its report recommending plying of six tourists boats (3 paddle boats and 3 rowing boats) in specified area. It also said that no boating activity should be allowed in the ecological vulnerable area and the area which is used by migratory birds and turtles for breeding. Finally, the forest department in October 2019 accorded permission for operation of passenger boats upto March 2021. As per CEO, SMDA, they are also planning to start other leisure/sports activities such as Climbing Wall and Floating Jetty in the lake area.
In December 2019 review meeting, issues related to transfer of land for bus stand, transfer of land for park and other related issues were discussed in detail to speed up the development[ix] works. The Principal Secretary has also directed the officials to construct a new market building for the rehabilitation of shopkeepers, who were affected by various projects around the twin lakes, besides asking them for fencing the area under SMDA.
Tsomoriri lake, Ladakh: Sustainable tourism is need of hour
The 120 sq km area of Tsomoriri lake was given the Ramsar recognition in August 2002. The wetlands including Tsomoriri lake in Ladakh provide breeding ground to the black-necked crane bird, listed as an endangered species in the state. The bird is believed to be incarnation of Lord Buddha and holds religious significance for Buddhists.
However, the bird is now facing serious threats from hunting, stray dogs and “irresponsible human interventions” being introduced in the name of tourism particularly the bike and motor rallies.
In October 2018, the local people protested and requested[x] the Himalayan Motorsport Association to change the routes of its motorsport rally whose original course ran through fragile ecosystems of the cold desert biosphere including the Tsomoriiri wetlands. The major rally is organized in Ladakh annually.
Conservationists also argued that the fallout of the rally would disturb Himalayan brown bear activity ahead of its hibernation and would intrude on wetlands that are the breeding sites of the globally threatened black necked crane. Speed driving in the region also kicks up dust that deposit on leaves of plants and generates black carbon aerosols that can spike local temperatures.
The Tsomoriri and Tsokar wetlands, surrounded by marshes and meadows, in Changthang are very important breeding sites for waterfowls and represent the only breeding ground of the bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) and the vulnerable black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis) outside China. Ladakh’s wetlands are already reeling under tourism pressure.
The black-necked crane is one of the migratory birds in Ladakh and visits wetlands of Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary for breeding. Ladakh is a major breeding place for the crane in India. The birds start arriving here in the last week of March and stay till October.
In past, several studies on the status and distribution of black-necked crane population in India by a team of WWF headed by Pankaj Chandan, has revealed that dogs, stray as well as those owned by nomadic tribals, in the areas of armed forces pose a serious threat[xi] to the successful breeding of this bird as dogs eat eggs and chicks of the crane during the breeding season.
As per Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh (WCBCL) president Lobzang Veshudha the human interventions, such as construction of fences around their nesting areas and marshes and draining of marshy area by way of channelling water also disturbs their breeding. He further said cranes have not been noticed at nearby breeding places ever since fencing of the Tsomoriri Lake and Chushul marshes, known breeding places.
Himachal Pradesh: Man made, climatic disaster affecting wetlands
The Himalayan state has three Ramsar sites which include Chandra Taal, Pong Dam lake & Renuka Wetlands. The 0.49 sq km area of Chandra Taal and 0.2 sq km area of Renuka wetlands were given Ramsar tags in November 2005 whereas the 156.62 sq km area of Pong Dam Lake was declared a Ramsar site in August 2002.
Chandra Taal; Tourist influx, climate threats looming large
The Chandra Taal, known as Moon Lake due to its crescent shaped basin is a lake in the Spiti part of the Lahul and Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh. The lake originates at an altitude of about 4,300 metres and is a source of Chandra river also known as Chenab. The water body has no visible source and gets water from underground.
Earlier, the lake was the resting point for the traders and voyagers, who used to come from Tibet or Ladakh. The lake is accessible only during the summer months of June, July, August and September. During the rest of the year, the lake remains frozen.
As per the legend, it is the spot from where Lord Indra took the eldest Pandava brother Yudhishtir in his human form to Swarga in his chariot. People of the neighbouring villages believe that the lake is often visited by fairies at midnight.
The lake is facing problems from road construction work[xii], the is being constructed to boost tourism. In June 2019, the Lahaul-Spiti administration decided to open the lake to tourists from the Spiti side also. Tourists had to reach towards the Spiti valley via the Kinnaur side in summer season as the Kunzum Pass on the Manali-Kaza road remained closed from the Manali side due to annual heavy snowfall during winter season every year cutting off the Spiti residents from Manali and Lahaul for more than eight months.
The explosion[xiii] of tourism is adversely affecting the ecologically sensitive areas in the state. In July 2019, the local panchayat had to ban setting up of camps[xiv] near the lake area in Spiti to save the ecology of Chandertal Lake. The lake is visited by a large number of people between June and September.
During the past few years, the ecology of the lake has started degrading due to human interventions in the area. The residents are setting up camps on the periphery of the lake area for tourists. As a result, kitchen waste and the garbage is being strewn around these camps that has threatened the existence of the lake. Villagers feared that pollution of water body would also impact wildlife dependent and visiting lake for water.
According to Anju Shashni, Pradhan of Koksar panchayat, the panchayat had decided that no person would be allowed to set up camps beyond Batal toward Chandra Taal Lake and heavy penalty will be imposed on offenders if they violated the directions.
The area is also facing man made and climate related disasters. Its prone to frequent landslides and in August 2019, over 1,000 people were stranded[xv] in Koksar, Chhota Dara and Chandertal area of Lahaul-Spiti and Leh-Manali highway owing to landslides. Similarly hundreds of tourists including foreigners had to be rescued[xvi] from differing parts of state including Lahaul-Spiti and Chandra Taal area in September 2019 following early snowfall, cloud burst, heavy rains and flash floods devastating the tourist locations.
Kullu was the worst affected due to floods, while and Lahaul-Spiti was buried under 4–5-foot snow, leaving hundreds of tourists stranded.
Untimely flash floods are also hitting the area and in June 2018, due to flash floods[xvii] in nullah near Chhota Dara, the Manali-Kaza road was blocked and dozens of tourists returning from Chandertal Lake and Spiti valley were stuck. It was peak tourist season and thousands of tourists were visiting the Chandertal lake and ancient monasteries of Spiti valley.
Pong Dam Reservoir; Dam starves Beas River of ecological flows
The 156.62 sq km man-made lake of Pong dam which has ecologically destroyed the Beas river has also been declared a Ramsar site on Aug 19, 2002. Shockingly, even after five decades, more than 8000 families displaced[xviii] due to the construction of the dam have not been rehabilitated. Giving global recognition to such disastrous projects by the Ramsar convention is sheer injustice to the river eco-system and insult of affected people.
Ranuka lake; No study on impact of Renuka dam on the wetlands
Similarly, the Indian government has been pushing a dam[xix] on Giri river near the Renuka jheel (lake) which has also been declared a Ramsar site. For years, the lake is facing siltation and pollution problems. Solid waste in large amount also enters the lake area. As per a study by Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun, the depth and area of the lake has shrunken[xx] considerably.
The streams feeding the Giri and Renuka lake have been drying up. In July 2019, the last seven km stretch of Jalal river a tributary of Giri was been dried up[xxi] completely. The water level in the river was seen falling down in the last few years but locals never thought that it would run dry. Experts blamed delay in monsoon and increase in water abstraction from river for domestic and commercial use, as reasons behind the river running dry.
Punjab: Ramsar tags does not guarantee conservation
Punjab has six Ramsar sites which includes 41 sq km area of Harike lake (declared Ramsar site on March 23, 1990), 1.83 sq km area of Kanjli lake (Jan 22, 2002), 13.65 sq km area of Ropar lake (Jan 22, 2002), 64.29 sq km area of Beas Conservation reserve (Sept 26, 2019), 1.16 sq km area of Nangal Wildlife Sanctuary (Sept 26, 2019) and 3.44 sq km area of Keshopur Miami Chham (Sept 26, 2019).
As per experts, wetlands in the state have been drained and transformed[xxii] by anthropogenic activities like unplanned urban and agricultural development, industrial sites, constructions, impoundment, resource extraction, and dredge disposal causing substantial long-term ecological loss. They also said that the state has already lost 35 per cent of wetlands in the last 35 years due to anthropogenic activities mentioned above.
Harike Wetlands: Avian, aquatic bio-diversity under threat
The Harike wetlands has seen 26 per cent fall in migratory birds[xxiii] number in January 2020 comparing to last year. Climate change, disturbing human activities and dense smoke from stubble burning[xxiv] are cited as reasons behind this. The lake was put on high alert following a bird flu threat[xxv] in November 2019.
In June 2019, a Gharial was found dead[xxvi] in the Harike wetland near Ferozepur feeder gate no. 1 which is the point of confluence of the Sutlej and Beas rivers through Harike head works. It was believed that underwater suffocation in the Sutlej, which gets polluted with industrial waste after passing through Ludhiana, caused the death of the rare species. The post-mortem examination revealed that the reptile died of respiratory failure[xxvii].
Then in August 2019, the river Sutlej caused trouble[xxviii] for the residents as floods swept away villages from Harike Wetland to Hussainiwala. Adding to the misery of these residents, the water level was drastically increased as wastewater from tanneries in Kasur, Pakistan has been discharged into the river. The polluted water was affecting the aquatic life in the river and the people residing at the border villages were suffering from the diseases related to skin, teeth and stomach.
As per another report, there has been a 12 per cent drop[xxix] in the number of migratory birds flying to Harike wetlands since 2016. According to the department of forest and wildlife the habitats of migratory birds are being gradually vanishing[xxx] due to intensive agricultural activities and excessive pressure on the wetlands. The declining trend[xxxi] was also observed in 2014. Instead of addressing the threats and concerns the government is promoting[xxxii] tourism related infrastructures and activities around the wetlands.
Kanjli Wetlands: Pollution, siltation problems remain persistent
The man made Kanjli wetlands, a habitat of Ghariyal, is also facing increasing pollution, siltation and decreasing fresh water flows[xxxiii] despite high religious sanctity accorded to the Kali Bein which is part of the wetlands.
Due to pollution and in absence of fresh water flow, water hyacinth has grown all over the lake affecting the aquatic ecosystem. As a result of all this, migratory birds and visitors have been avoiding the wetland for many years.
In 2012, a study covering all the three Ramsar sites in the state found that fish from Kanjli were the most infected (71.1 percent) in comparison to Harike (60.8 percent) and Ropar (28.7 percent) wetlands.
As per the latest report, the native biodiversity and survival of the Kanjli wetland is under threat. The smallest and most neglected[xxxiv] among six Ramsar sites in the state, the wetland is threatened by 16 invasive species (alien) of plants as found in a research conducted by Bageshwer Singh, a student of forestry.
Ropar Lake, Nangal WS: Eco-tourism, habitat degradation driving birds away
All the three previous Ramsar sites in the state including the Ropar lake are facing threats[xxxvi] due to dumping of solid waste and industrial pollutants, erosion in the catchment areas, cattle grazing and eco-tourism activities. Additionally the chemical farming and sewage from towns is also affecting the water quality of the wetlands. Similarly, invasion and excessive growth of weeds are chocking wetland surface and water ways.
There is a decline[xxxvii] in the number of bird species in Ropar wetland and Nangal wildlife sanctuary. According to experts the disturbance in natural habitat due to promotion of eco-tourism as revenue generator and water sports activities have negatively impacted the bird species.
The summer-monsoon monitoring in 2019 in the Ropar Wetland Conservation Reserve recorded only 51 bird species diversity out of recorded total 127 species in the five years’ survey cum monitoring exercise. Similarly, in Nangal wildlife sanctuary, the summer-monsoon 2019 monitoring recorded 60 bird species diversity out of total 134 species recorded during five years seasonal survey.
Keshopur Miami Community Reserve: Management plans lack community involvement
The Keshopur wetland is also known as Keshopur-Miani Community Reserve or ‘Chhamb’ in local Punjabi dialect. It is one of the Asia’s biggest wetlands, located in the middle of the Ravi and Beas rivers in Gurdaspur.
The 850 acre marsh area was declared as country’s first notified community reserve following a Punjab Government Notification on June 25, 2007. Keshopur Chhamb was renamed Keshopur Chhamb Community Reserve in March 2013 after the wildlife department decided to develop it as a bird sanctuary.
Like other wetlands in the state, the Keshopur Chhamb has also been recording fall in the number of migratory birds. As per the annual bird census conducted on January 11-12, 2020, a total number of 20,528 birds have visited the wetlands against 22,500 last year.
Similarly, in absence of basic amenities access and unrepaired roads, the tourists have also stopped visiting the wetlands. Construction of a tourist interpretation centre, at Rs 8 crore cost with the financial support from Asian Developmental Bank (ADB) has been abandoned[xxxviii] half-built. There are talks to boost tourism around the wetlands but there is not much information about involvement[xxxix] of dependent community in government plans to protect and maintain the wetland.
Beas Conservation Reserve: Fate of aquatic life at the mercy of BBMB, industries
The Beas river provides habitat to critically endangered Indus River Dolphins and Ghariyals. The government in 2019 has declared the Beas as Heritage River and also proposed Beas Conservation Reserve for Ramsar site.
The Beas river suffers from lack of fresh flowing water due to the Pong dam built upstream. In March 2018, the aquatic life in the Beas river was under serious threat due to extreme shortage[xl] of water. The flow in the river fell after a decision of the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) limiting water release. While doing so the BBMB gave no thought to water needs of aquatic life in river and at Harike wetland.
The report mentioned of Ghariyals moving upstream to deal with the scarcity. The Wildlife Department tried requested BBMB release at least minimum supply of water needed to sustain aquatic life. However the BBMB Chairman DK Sharma was reported stating that they were more worried about water for humans during the peak summer and could not do much about the aquatic life in Beas.
Secondly the industrial and domestic waste are being discharged in the river without treatment. In one of the worst industrial disasters[xli], around ten thousands kilo litres of molasses got leaked into the river in May 2018 severely affecting the aquatic eco-system.
Six more sites in the Uttar Pradesh has been declared as Ramsar sites in 2019, taking the total tally in the state to seven. Earlier Uttar Pradesh had only one Ramsar site which was 265.90 sq km area of Upper Ganga river from Brijghat, Garh Mukteshwar to Narora in Bulandshahr stretch which was declared a Ramsar site in August 2005.
The six new sites added to Ramsar list are 2.25 sq km area of Nawabganj Bird Sanctuary in Unnao (Sept 19, 2019), 7.22 sqkm of Parvati Agra Bird Sanctuary in Agra (Dec 2, 2019), 5.26 sq km are of Saman Bird Sanctuary in Mainpuri (Dec 2, 2019), 7.99 sq km area of Samastipur Bird Sanctuary in Rae Bareli district (Sept 26, 2019), 3.09 sq km area of Sandi Bird Sanctuary in Hardoi (Sept 26, 2019) and 1.61sq km area of Sarsai Nawar Jheel in Etawah district (Sept 19, 2019).
Upper Ganga river: Dolphins need more protection
The 85 km long river stretch of Upper Ganga and 2,073 sq km Hastinapur wildlife sanctuary covering parts of five districts of Bijnor, Meerut, Hapur, Amroha and Muzaffarnagar forms important habitat for the dolphin population in the river.
On January 16, 2020, a dead body[xlii] of an adult dolphin with deep injury by harpoon, was found near Jalalpur Jora village in protected Hastinapur wildlife sanctuary. The post-mortem report revealed that the harpoon had hit the spine of the mammal leading to death.
In October 2019 in dolphin survey by forest department and WWF 36 dolphins were counted in this river stretch. Now the number has come down to 35. The incident shows loop holes in conservation measures as the area is earmarked exclusively for dolphin conservation. The site has also been included among 130 sites across the country by union environment ministry for protection on priority basis. As per the report, the dolphins are facing threats[xliii] from poaching for oil and pollution in the river.
Nawabganj and Sandi Bird Sanctuaries: Dry wetlands being filled with groundwater
Nawabganj Bird Sanctuary established in 1984 in Unnao, has a 90-ha pond which is fed by Sharda canal. While Garra river supplies water to the 214 ha pond in Sandi Bird Sanctuary which was established in 1990 in Hardoi.
Over the years the natural water sources comprising river catchment and rain water had either dried up or did not supply enough water to feed the ponds at these bird sanctuaries. Consequently the number of migratory birds taking refuge in the two reserves had declined.
As per a January 2017 report, under endangered species project of the forest department had to install three tube wells[xliv] to keep the ponds alive as a permanent solution. The department was shockingly terming it successful effort and was reportedly working on the possibility of installing solar pumps.
The Sandi wetlands also locally known as Dahar Jheel spread over 300 ha is important location for migratory birds. It is hardly 20 km away from district headquarters. As per locals it had natural water sources including rain water and Gira river water, but for many years rainfall had decreased turning the lake dry and hence birds have also stopped visiting the area.
Another December 2017 reports finds that installation of two tube wells to fill the lake could not help much[xlv]. As per the report, the previous government had also approved a Rs 4.66 crore budget to arrange water for the wetlands through a lift canal system which bore no fruit and money was lost in corruption. The Jal Nigam failed to fill the lake in July month against its promises.
Parvati Agra Bird Sanctuary: Name changing not helping wetlands biodiversity
The Parvati Agra Bird Sanctuary is officially known as Sur Sarovar Bird Sanctuary and locally called Keetham lake. When and how the name changed to Parvati Agra Bird Sanctuary is not known. Keetham Lake is about 20 km from Agra in Sur Sarovar Bird Sanctuary which was declared as National Bird Sanctuary in 1991 by state forest department. Keetham Lake is pentagonal in shape. There are artificially created islands for shelter and breeding grounds for migratory birds.
The lake is an important bird habitat and fed by Yamuna canal water which is totally polluted. As a result the lake is facing frequent death of aquatic life. In January 2019, about 100 fish were found dead[xlvi] in lake area due to suspected contamination of water being supplied from the Okhla barrage through the Agra canal.
Deputy conservator forest, National Chambal Sanctuary, Anand Kumar said that most of the dead fish were “Kahawai”, which have a solid body with strong swimming muscles. It swims fast and hunts smaller fish. Their average size is 40-50cm long and weighs 1-2 kgs.
Then again in June 2019, hundreds of fish were found dead[xlvii] in Keetham due to the severely polluted water being dumped into the lake from Agra canal. The pollution caused sharp drop in oxygen level causing fish to die out en masse.
In the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ), the Keoladeo Ghana Bird sanctuary and Soor Sarovar (Keetham) Bird sanctuary are known for the wide variety of aquatic birds. Every year, thousands of domestic and international tourists come to visit these sanctuaries where the migratory birds from various countries can be seen.
The principal food of these migratory birds at the Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary are the 8 varieties of freshwater fish living in the Keetham lake. The survival of these birds depends on the large number of fishes in the lake.
The 230-km-long Agra canal was constructed in the British era, along with the Keetham lake, to maintain year-long water supply to Agra. Constructed in 1874, the canal continued to be used for transportation of passengers and goods till 1904. At present, the water from this canal irrigates large tracts of land in Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
In May 2016, the sanctuary suffered three fire incidents[xlix] damaging the natural vegetation inside the sanctuary. The 800 ha sanctuary has only nine officials, including a range officer, to patrol the entire area.
In January 2018, the Northern Bypass road project to link Delhi-Agra National Highway to Yamuna Expressway cutting through the Keetham forest was dropped[l] after serious objections raised by the experts. Similarly, government had announced a leather park inside the Keetham forest which was stayed following PILs by activists.
Saman Bird Sanctuary, Samastipur Bird Sanctuary, Sarsai Nawar Wetland
Saman Bird Sanctuary is spread over an area of 5 sq km are in Mainpuri district. It was established in 1990. In May 2019, there was a fire incident[li] in the sanctuary area creating threats for the bird population.
The Samastipur Bird Sanctuary was established in 1987 and is spread over 780 ha in Salon of Rae Bareli district. The wetland is important habitat for migratory and native birds.
However the wetland is facing regular fish deaths[lii] and water hyacinth problems for long time. As per January 2018 report, the basic tourist facilities in the sanctuary are lying in dilapidated conditions[liii] despite allocation of Rs 25 lakh fund for annual maintenance.
There is not much media coverage on Sarsai Nawar Jheel in Etawah. The google earth images show that the lake is facing water scarcity.
Summary The condition of wetlands in North India has worsened despite the Ramsar tag. This compilation shows that mere declaration of Ramsar sites has not helped the wetlands much in the North India. There is serious lack of planning, monitoring and management from the central and respective state governments.
Also the unsustainable tourism projects in hilly areas, the increasing pollution and decreasing fresh water flows have adversely affected the Ramsar sites and there has not been any remarkable intervention by central or any of the state governments.
The case of Pong reservoir is quite peculiar. It seems thriving however the BBMB has not looked into the impact of dam operations on aquatic ecosystems of river and Ramsar sites downstream in Punjab.
Why the Ramsar Convention is overlooking these aspects while providing them Ramsar tags? What does the Ramsar convention do to ensure that the wetlands with that tag are protected? It seems to have hardly any role in improving the health of the wetlands with regularity guidelines, periodic review, recommendations.
Most of the Ramsar sites are integral part of rivers. They are source of life and livelihoods to masses apart from important habitats for migratory birds, aquatic and wildlife around them. If the status of Ramsar sites is so alarming we can well imagine what would be the status of other wetlands.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)