Wetlands 2020: Positive Developments

Pondicherry Collector led the revival of over 300 waterbodies The then District Collector and present Secretary to the Chief Minister, A. Vikranth Raja, stepped in with the idea of digging into revenue records to locate the region’s traditional water bodies.  It all started with a query raised at the meeting. When someone asked if Karaikal had the capacity to store 7 tmcft of river water allotted by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, “the response from officials was an emphatic no,” says Selvaganesh, Assistant, District Collectorate of Karaikal.

In June 2019, in the tiny coastal enclave of Karaikal, administration officers brainstormed about putting in place a sustainable water resource management model for the town’s two lakh people. They found 549 ponds within a small territory spread over 157 sq. km. 40% of these water bodies were in various stages of extinction. Most of them turned out to be dumping yards.

This meeting sowed the seeds of a mass movement that would rejuvenate water bodies across Puducherry: within less than three months of the meeting, 178 ponds in the Cauvery basin in Karaikal were revived, and channels bringing water from Arasalar, Noolar and Thirumalairajan rivers were cleared, inspiring similar efforts all across Puducherry. Taking a cue from Karaikal, the Puducherry administration also formed an action plan on similar lines and desilted 191 water bodies and 206 km of canals in the Puducherry region. https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/how-a-collector-led-the-revival-of-over-300-waterbodies-in-a-puducherry-town/article31110547.ece (21 March 2020)

Tamil Nadu Children make art to save Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary Vedanthangal is a centuries old lake and bird haven. It is an Eri – a traditional manmade reservoir in South India, to conserve water. It is one among nearly two thousand of them in Kanchipuram and Chengalpet districts. Each Eri is part of a larger cascading system of reservoirs, linked by overflow from rivers and each other. This region is traversed by only seasonal rainfed rivers, which flow for a few months. People built Eri-systems to store rainwater, prevent flooding and recharge ground water for yearlong use. This is known to have transformed this landscape. The oldest known inscription on Eri-science is from 1291 AD in Cuddapah, Andhra Pradesh.

Kruti Patel is an artist based in Bangalore. Her panoramic-painting of the Vedanthangal landscape captures the relationship and interdependence between the birds and farmers here. Viklap Sangam.

Vedanthangal is one such Eri, with an extraordinary history. Vedan in Tamil is ‘hunter’. ‘Thangal’ is a reservoir, often a protected one. The name has been interpreted both as ‘hunter’s reservoir’ and as ‘a reservoir protected from hunters’. The latter meaning rings truer. The agrarian community in this village understood that when water mixed with bird guano is used to irrigate their paddy fields, their yield is abundant. Hence this lake has been a community-protected heronry for centuries. It has been built such that its embankments fade into grassland and scrub to its West and Northwest, where its catchment is open to the floodplains of Cheyyar river. Over the Eastern and Northern embankments of the lake, hundreds of acres of paddy fields abound. Irrigation canals from the bund take the lake’s water into these fields. http://vikalpsangam.org/article/vedanthangal-art-to-save/  (20 July 2020)

Protecting mangroves by digging over 3000 canals “I knew how marine animals make the roots of the mangroves their home & how they are also sometimes used as breeding areas, but after my association with scientists & researchers, I got to know how mangroves help in maintaining an ecological balance among the sea, land & rivers,” says Sankar, a fisherman.

3,000 canals were dug across 5,000 hectares in Muthupet to feed fresh water to the mangroves while flowing into the sea. Salinity levels in Muthupet increased due to changes in rainfall patterns and reduction in river water levels. Image from Google Maps/ TNM.

There were 200 traditional fishing canals in Muthupet, but on realising the importance of the inflow of fresh water to keep the soil salinity in control, Sankar began to mobilise his community to dig more canals — with the help of the Tamil Nadu Forest Dept — leading the Cauvery river water into the wetland.

But, with scarce and erratic rainfall patterns, and an ongoing tug of war between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for Cauvery water, the hope for restoring the diversity of the mangrove forests are slim. Selvam says, “Unless more river water is released into the sea, the soil salinity levels are unlikely to get better. It is this fresh water that flows into the sea through the canals while feeding the mangroves. But since the State receives erratic rainfall and has often faced drought, the govt is keen on saving the water for citizens, especially farmers.”

Most govt authorities consider letting the river water flow into the sea waste and as a result, they try to ensure that very little is allowed to be “wasted”, the researcher adds.

Sankar, however, is optimistic. “When I was little, when the monsoon would set it, we would have a big festival and worship Paampatti Siddhar (a sage with an affinity towards snakes). We believe that he protects us from snakes when we venture out to catch fish. Now, even though the rains set in around Nov, we have maintained the tradition and continue to celebrate the festival on July 15. It has become a way to keep us connected to our past,” he says. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/tn-man-has-been-protecting-mangroves-digging-over-3000-canals-135941  (22 Oct. 2020)

Fisherwomen use food to fight Adani’s port expansion Pulicat’s (the second largest brackish water lake in India, 55 kms north of Chennai) fisherfolk are fighting against Adani group’s port expansion, which will convert 1145 ha and seawater to industrial real estate, possibly erasing close to 50 villages. Even if their villages aren’t displaced, the project will reclaim land from the wetlands and shallow seas surrounding the lake, not only impacting the Pulicat-Ennore ecosystem but also hogging the fishing grounds of Pulicat’s residents and severely affecting their livelihood.

At least 15 fisherwomen are busy cooking up a seafood storm for the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, an annual festival which celebrates local art forms, people and spaces. This year, Theru Vizha will host a three-day seafood festival at Sea Salt, a Chennai restaurant, in collaboration with In Season Fish, a sustainable seafood guide, where these women will co-create a seafood thaali named Pazhaverkadu Meen Virunthu, featuring classics from the age-old Pulicat cuisine. To celebrate the World Wetlands Day on February 2, the Pazhaverkadu menu curated by the Pulicat fisherwomen will be on offer for three days from January 31 – 2, at Sea Salt in Nungambakkam, Chennai. 

The impact of Adani’s port expansion could mean that Pulicat’s ecosystem could change from fishing to an industrial ecosystem, with fishers eventually having to give up this space, explains Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based writer and environmental activist. Presently, the entire economy around the Pulicat wetland is dependent on one thing – fish. “Most residents here earn their bread through fishing. The others have ancillary businesses such as ice sales, fish sales, labour, truck contracts to transport fish, tea and coffee shops etc which have cropped up with fishing money. If Adani’s proposal gets cleared, all these businesses could vanish, leaving thousands without livelihoods. We are talking about 30,000 families here,” he adds. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/fisherwomen-tamil-nadu-town-use-food-fight-adani-s-port-expansion-116760  (24 Jan. 2020)   

Maharashtra Navi Mumbai couple fights to save a bird haven A Navi Mumbai couple has been fighting to save 80 ha of wetlands that are home to thousands of flamingos. The wetlands were proposed to be converted into a golf course and residential complex but in 2018, based on their petition, the Bombay High Court (HC) quashed a notification to this effect. The forest dept now plans to declare the area a conservation reserve but is facing resistance from within the govt. While these wetlands constitute a small percentage of the area of Navi Mumbai, they support more than a hundred species of birds, including many migratory species. https://india.mongabay.com/2020/11/navi-mumbai-couple-fights-to-save-a-bird-haven-from-becoming-a-golf-course/  (23 Nov. 2020)

Returning to traditional practices to save Vidarbha’s ‘Lake District’ The 300-year-old lakes of Bhandara face two prominent problems among others: proliferation of invasive species of fish leading to decrease in local species and habitat destruction. A bird-enthusiast turned development worker, an older Dheevar (fisherfolk community) and a gutsy young woman from the same community have fallen back on traditional wisdom and encouraged local participation to safeguard their livelihood. The triumvirate of Malgujari lake conservation in eastern Vidarbha has not just rejuvenated over five dozen lakes and water bodies in Bhandara and Gondia districts but have also given a new hope to the local community, especially the women, of a dignified life. https://india.mongabay.com/2020/12/returning-to-traditional-practices-to-save-vidarbhas-lake-district/  (16 Dec. 2020)

A group of women protect Sindhudurg’s mangroves through ecotourism Sindhudurg, the southernmost district in Maharashtra, covers only 3.8 percent of the total mangrove vegetation in the state. However, with occurrences of some rare and endangered species, it is the richest in terms of its biodiversity.

Shweta Hule (front) and other members of the Swamini Group near Mandavi Creek, Vengurla. Photo by Alisha Vasudev for UNDP-GEF Sindhudurg Project/ Mongabay.

The ‘Swamini’ self-help group, a group of ten individuals led by Shweta Hule, have been organising ‘mangrove safari’ for tourists in the Mandavi creek of Vengurla taluka in Sindhudurg, since 2017. The mangrove safari programme by Swamini has been recognized a model for community-led conservation through ecotourism and the State Forest Department has made efforts to replicate the model in other parts of coastal Maharashtra. https://india.mongabay.com/2020/11/a-group-of-women-protect-sindhudurgs-mangroves-through-eco-tourism/  (13 Nov. 2020)

Demolition of skywalk over heritage wetland begins The Sindhudurg dist administration has complied with the orders of the NGT, which was issued in Oct, by starting the demolition of an illegal skywalk built by the PWD over Dhamapur Lake at Malvan, a 490-year-old heritage wetland. In a compliance affidavit filed on Oct 23, the Sindhudurg dist collector, K Manjulekshmi, told the NGT that a departmental enquiry had been initiated against the PWD authorities for neglecting previous decisions of the tribunal and failing to take remedial steps to destroy the skywalk.

The Dhamapur Lake, an inland wetland and a permanent freshwater lake that is spread over 61.7 ha, was constructed in 1530 AD between villages Are and Katta. The wetland has been recognised by the MoEFCC among top 100 wetlands in India that need ecosystem restoration.

The NGT had been hearing a plea by Sindhudurg residents Dr. Harishchandra Purshottam Natu & Omkar Keni since 2017 alleging various encroachments & the construction of skywalk around Dhamapur Lake by the PWD authorities, which was leading to shrinking of the lake and causing environmental degradation. https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/maharashtra-in-keeping-with-ngt-orders-demolition-of-skywalk-over-heritage-wetland-begins/story-8p1pzN55WrgFw2ndBOw88H.html (3 Nov 2020)

Kerala Panel denies permission for reclaiming wetlands land A request for reclaiming nearly 36 ha of wetland at Kottukal, Thiruvananthapruam, which was “severely inundated” in the 2008 floods, for Vizhinjam seaport project has been declined citing ecological reasons. An expert report of the State Level Monitoring Committee (SLMC) of the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2008 turned down the application, besides flagging the illegal reclamation carried out at the site. The company wanted to fill up the area for putting up warehouses and constructing roads to the project site.

In its report, the SLMC expert member noted that the “flood map of Vizhinjam panchayat prepared using the remote sensing data from Bhuvan, ISRO, clearly indicates that the site was severely affected during the Aug 2018 flood.” The land is recorded as ‘Nilam’ (field) in the data bank and the permission was sought for filling up 35.6984 ha. The two streams, ‘nadu thodu’ and ‘valia thodu’, that pass through the proposed site and the two ponds at the site shall be protected. The reclamation would reduce the water holding capacity of the region by 36 crore litres and lead to shortage of drinking water. The development of the site “can aggravate the future flood impact of the already flood-hit area,” the report cautioned. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/panel-denies-permission-for-reclaiming-wetland/article30444188.ece  (31 Dec. 2019)

Karnataka Saving Lakes Using Judicial Orders Issued In ESG PIL On 11th April 2012, a Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court issued a final order in a Public Interest Litigation filed by ESG (WP 817/2008) seeking an end to the policy of privatisation of lakes, and for advancing a participatory schema that would assist protection and rehabilitation of lakes (and their canal networks) in Bangalore and across Karnataka.

A direct result of this PIL is that the State Govt enacted a special law to protect lakes & its canals (raja kaluves) across the state The Karnataka Tank Conservation And Development Authority And Certain Other Law (Amendment) Act, 2018.

Compliance with judicial directives and laws has been weak largely due to lack of coordination between different agencies, systemic inadequacies, weak (or no) participatory planning and lethargic responses to encroachment and pollution of lakes and other wetlands. Read about an example of ESG’s effort in protecting Krishnarajapura Kere, Mavallipura, North Bengaluru: https://esgindia.org/new/campaigns/lakes/saving-lakes-using-judicial-orders-issued-in-esg-pils/  (28 July 2020)

W Bengal Kolkata civic body starts razing illegal buildings on EKW Mayor Firhad Hakim announced that Kolkata Municipal Corp (KMC) would demolish illegal structures on East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW). Pulling down the illegal structures that have dotted the Ramsar site in the past decade and a half had already begun a week earlier.

ToI Infograph.

The action taken last time against encroachment in EKW was in January 2012 when EKW Management Authority (EKWMA), KMC and Kolkata Police had in a joint move pulled down a wall that had been built around Collector’s Bheri near Heritage School. While the action then came following the initiative of the chief technical officer at EKWMA and consistent pressure from green action groups in the city, this time the razing the illegal structures has been forced by an NGT order.

“The NGT has ordered the demolition of all structures that have been illegally constructed in the wetlands. There are thousands of such structures and hundreds of FIRs have been filed by both EKWMA and KMC. We shall conduct surprise drives to pull down these structures and pre-empt any resistance,” said the civic official. The pressure to convert land on 12,500 ha EKW is maximum on the fringes that have urban settlements and wide roads. Of the 32 moujas that comprise EKW, West Chowbagha and Chowbagha (Ward 108) and a part of Dhapa Manpur (Ward 58) are under KMC jurisdiction. Of these, the first two moujas have had major encroachments and conversions. In West Chowbagha, densely packed four-storied buildings have come up after filling up water bodies.

Bonani Kakkar of the environment action group, Public, said the drive needed to be systematic and sustained to undo the encroachment that threatened the character of EKW. Kakkar’s PIL at Calcutta High Court in 1992 had led to the formal regulations for protection of EKW and its ultimate listing as a Ramsar site in 2002. Legal activist Subhas Datta, whose petition before the NGT had led to the setting up of a task force under the chairmanship of state chief secretary to implement the law, too called for a continued action. Till now, 357 FIRs have been filed against encroachment on EKW. Total number of encroachments on the EKW has been pegged at over 25,000.   https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/kolkata-civic-body-starts-razing-illegal-buildings-on-wetlands/articleshow/73068556.cms  (2 Jan. 2020)

Odisha Eurasian otter found in Chilika Lake Researchers at the Chilika Lake have found the presence of a viable, breeding population of a fishing cat in the brackish water lagoon. It is a globally endangered species that is elusive and found in very few places in south and south-east Asia. Another globally endangered species, smooth-coated otter, has also been recorded from the study’s data. Both the species are supposed to enjoy conservation measures of the highest accord in India according to the country’s laws, much like the tiger and elephant. https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/eurasian-otter-found-in-chilika-lake/article30959220.ece  (2 March 2020)

Fishing cat to be the ambassador of Chilika Lake The fishing cat will be the ambassador of Chilika Lake, the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia and India’s oldest Ramsar Site, which is being dubbed as an important step towards conservation of the vulnerable species. The Chilika Development Authority (CDA) designated the fishing cat as ambassador at a meeting held to conclude the wildlife week.

The fishing cat is the only wild cat species in India that is a wetland specialist, and it’s mostly found in marshlands fringing the north and north-eastern sections of the lake, according to a recently concluded study by The Fishing Cat Project (TFCP) and the Indian wing of Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance (FCCA) in collaboration with the CDA. The CDA plans to manage the marshes with a socio-ecological approach involving local stakeholders and ecologists. Estimation of fishing cat population will be done through camera traps soon.

“Projecting the fishing cat as the face of the marshlands will raise the profile of the fishing cat and marshland ecosystems globally and nationally, which are otherwise neglected ecosystems. Locally, it will nurture their value among multiple stakeholders in Chilika,” said Tiasa Adhya, co-founder of the Fishing Cat Project.

Chilika’s marshes receive the maximum freshwater flow from the tributaries of Mahanadi and seasonal rivulets. Analysis of long-term data collected by the CDA shows that this area also has high fish abundance. This is significant given that fish are the lifeline of Chilika, sustaining 2 lakh fishermen families and globally threatened piscivorous mammals like fishing cats, smooth-coated otters and Eurasian otters. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/fishing-cat-to-be-the-ambassador-of-chilika-lake/article32809444.ece  (09 Oct. 2020)

Uttar Pradesh How an engineer found his calling in conserving wetlands As urbanisation and modern structures have taken over Greater Noida, wetlands are being encroached upon and deteriorating. Ramveer Tanwar, an engineer who gave up a cushy job to work on reviving wetlands in his home region, has revived atleast 20 ponds and lakes in Noida and Greater Noida region.

His work has brought the spotlight on important wetlands like the Surajpur wetland in rapidly urbanising Gautam Buddha Nagar which has now caught the district administration’s attention too. Reviving wetlands, specially urban wetlands, is an important step towards water security. Drying up of waterbodies can worsen the water crisis and with vanishing wetlands, the allied biodiversity could disappear too. https://india.mongabay.com/2020/10/how-an-engineer-found-his-calling-in-conserving-wetlands/  (14 Oct. 2020)

4 new wetlands discovered in Meerut A set of new wetlands have been “discovered” with the help of a govt-directed remote sensing agency, and now it will be developed by the forest dept of Meerut in UP.

According to forest officials, the size of these four wetlands ranges from 0.03 ha to 2,563 ha – all present in the vicinity of Ganga. The action plan funded by Namami Gange will involve removal of hyacinth, lantana weed, securing boundaries and introduction of biodiversity in a phased manner. At present, the largest wetland in the region is Haiderpur near Bijnor barrage which witnesses thousands of migratory birds every year. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/meerut/four-new-gangetic-wetlands-discovered/articleshow/77640695.cms (20 Aug 2020)

J&K Eco Watch group to protect wetlands The floods brought increased awareness among the people on the need to protect wetlands and other water bodies in Kashmir. In Jan 2020, the Jammu & Kashmir Eco Watch, a voluntary environment group was created to bring together volunteers on to a single platform to take up eco-initiatives to protect the wetlands, forests or lakes in their own neighbourhood.

Featured image: (L to R) Tariq A. Patloo, Jannat and Nadeem Qadri from Kashmir are trying to protect the state’s wetlands and inspire others to join the movement. Illustration by Ghazal Qadri for Mongabay.

Currently, the group has 25 functioning Eco Watch teams (across 23 districts of J&K and one each in Kargil and Leh). In the last few months, these teams have taken up cleaning various water bodies – from freshwater springs at Verinag, Chatlam wetlands to a cleanliness drive at Kausar Nag at an altitude of 13,000 feet above sea level.  Every effort is recorded in their respective district Facebook pages.

Hydraulic engineering expert Ajaz Rasool who acts as the Technical Advisor said that in the past, they have had individual groups to protect lakes like Dal and Wular. But now, with increased public awareness, more volunteers have joined the Eco Watch in each district.

Apart from conducting regular clean-up drives for the last six months, Eco Watch volunteers have become “green intelligence.. they are our eyes and ears when it comes to protecting the environment,” shares Qadri. Rasool agrees. “There is a sense of empowerment, the volunteers do not allow any mafia to cut trees illegally or throw garbage into our water bodies.”

The crux of this initiative is the participation of local communities in conserving their regional water bodies and wetlands. Yousuf tells us that in the past, farmers traditionally would make a passage (known as Vyen Kadun in Kashmiri) in the peatland to enable the water to flow out to the Jhelum with ease. This kept the water from flooding the neighbouring farms. With urbanisation, this process died out. “I feel that this could have been a good flood mitigation strategy for the peat or wetlands,” he said. https://science.thewire.in/environment/jammu-and-kashmir-wetlands-protection/ (10 Oct 2020)

Delhi-Haryana Najafgarh Jheel countdown to rejuvenation or extinction Ritu Rao. a PhD scholar and working with INTACH on water bodies of Delhi, have created a group on Facebook on Najafgarh jheel which lies in Delhi and Gurugram. It is the largest water body after Yamuna in this region. Sadly like all urban water bodies, this jheel is on the verge of extinction. Request all concerned to join this group & help raise awareness about the plight of this water body. Plz share this link with likeminded people. https://www.facebook.com/groups/231361664822750/.

Book “WETLANDS OF THE INDIAN DESERT: ECOLOGY AND BIODIVERSITY” based on research and findings on the ecology and biodiversity of the wetlands of the Indian desert. http://desertlimnology.wikifoundry.com/page/Wetlands+of+the+Indian+Desert

Wetlands course at Shiv Nadar University A Certificate Course on Lakes & Wetlands and Water & Ecosystem Services was offered. The course was run from 26th Oct to 20th Nov 2020. Dr. Rajeswari Raina and Dr. Moumita Karmakar were the Course instructors. It Included a module on two major freshwater ecosystems (lakes and wetlands) & how we conceptualize and measure the ecosystem services provided by the water bodies. The module was taught Online. https://applications.snu.edu.in/OnlineAppCert/public/application/register/index

Compiled by SANDRP (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)  

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