Updated: Jul 4, 2021
On a foggy winter morning, a grey-headed fish eagle, perched on a Lagerstroemia parviflora branch arching over a waterbody in the Agratoli range of Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, fixated at the muddy pool below. A pair of black-necked storks (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) guardedly walked – necks upstretched – in the shallow pool. Its long and coral-red legs splashed water and caused ripples. Sometimes they galloped, wings stretched. The fish, in plenty by any standards, navigated to avoid the piercing eyes of the storks. Occasional slosh from a fish jumping in water made the eagle turn its neck and saintly meditate. A romp of smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) descended and followed the ripples caused by the storks’ feet. Very soon, one of the otters displayed its sharp canines as it lifted its catch of a fish like a Wimbledon Champion would lift a trophy and smile for the camera. The others took a turn to hunt down fish. With a split left ear and broken horn, a male rhino continued to sleep, submerged in water unaffected by the otters’ opportunistic adventures. The eagle, Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus, continued focusing on what was happening under its feet, still perched on the tree.
The 200 odd waterbodies – often interconnected – in Kaziranga are an integral part of Kaziranga’s complex ecosystem and play a vital role in maintaining diversity, both floral and faunal. After an aerial survey of the park in 1949, Salim Ali, the revered ornithologist, had penned down words of praise for Kaziranga’s wetlands and emphasized their ecological role. The wetlands in Kaziranga – the most protected wetlands that I have come across – continue to support life, attract avian visitors in winter, and help Kaziranga retains its World Heritage site tag. Yet, they face grave risks due to siltation, loss of channel linkages, and invasive weeds like Ipomea and water hyacinth. The anthropogenic disturbances in the Brahmaputra River’s catchment area have increased the amount of silt. Blockage of flow due to cane (Calamus tenuis), water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and Ipomea aquatica causes deposition of a vast amount of silt. The ecological processes, though seemingly natural, are accelerated by human forces.
The wetlands across India do not get the same attention and protection as their cousins in Kaziranga. Wetlands (like birds) are not limited to protected areas and are not universally identified by a standard definition. There are more than 50 definitions of wetland across the world. Ramsar Convention (an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands) defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters.” This broad definition of wetlands pools together over 27,000 wetlands in India. Millions of Indians, directly and indirectly, depend on these wetlands for goods and services. Arguably, socio-economic services like fisheries, agriculture, fuelwood, regular water supply, energy resources, livestock grazing, and sustaining diverse flora and fauna make wetlands the lifeline of ecosystems. Sadly, India has lost nearly half of its wetlands since independence. Most of the major cities are testimony to India’s gross neglect for wetland conservation (despite being a signatory to Ramsar Convention).
Bangalore comes to my mind first. Renaming it to Bengaluru didn’t bring any insight and hope for urban planning, ecological restoration, and ecosystem management. Why do I pick up Bangalore to forward my concern? This happens to be the city of the supposedly best brains in the country and because it happens to be the city with the best educational and research institutions. It has a God-fearing and law-abiding populace too. Bangalore, the fifth largest metropolis in India, once carried a prized tag of ‘city of lakes’ due to around 400 waterbodies at the time of independence. This was possible because Bangalore strategically delineated Hebbal, Vrishabhavati, and Koramangala-Challaghatta watersheds and benefitted from its geographical position. Booming industrial growth fuelled rapid urbanization. It took a few decades to get a new tag, again a prized one in a different sense, the Silicon Valley of India. An IT hub – recognized at the global IT map – attracted ancillary industries, services, and job-seeking migrants. Clubbed together, these make the best recipe for an ecological disaster. A large-scale change in land use became the norm. In a few decades, Bangalore lost three-fourths of its prized waterbodies. An equivalent fall in the vegetation during the same period was inevitable. The city swelled, but the civic services didn’t match the pace of its growth.
The Energy and Wetlands Research Group (2015) at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore highlights how a poorly managed city allows massive inflows of untreated sewage, domestic and municipal solid wastes in its remaining water bodies. An earlier study by the same centre in 1999 had conclusively established that most of the five waterbodies’ analyzed parameters under the investigation exceeded the limits set by Indian Standard for Industrial and sewage effluent discharge (IS:2490-1982). A complete disruption of water purification has resulted in high contamination of heavy metals, unchecked algal growth, and other pollutants. The same study reported that nearly 90% of the population depended on the groundwaters. The risk to the people is colossal.
More than 3000 km from Bangalore, Loktak Lake, a Ramsar site in Manipur, northeast India, paints an equally dismal picture. The Nambul River, one of the most polluted rivers in Manipur, discharges enormous amounts of insecticides, oils, municipal waste, and non-biodegradable waste in Loktak Lake. The Bishnupur River drains heavy loads of sediments through the deforested hilly region. Nambul and Bishnupur are just two rivers out of 30 rivers that feed Loktak Lake.
The Ithai barrage of the hydroelectric power project on Loktak Lake has disrupted the ecological seasonal recharges of floating phumdis (heterogeneous mass of vegetation, organics matter, and soil) as the power project maintains a constant full reservoir level. The phumshongs (floating huts) that once symbolized the ethnic culture of the natives are now built with plastic ropes, iron rods, heavy rocks, zinc plates, and bamboos. Hundreds of them dot the Loktak Lake’s horizon and cause severe environmental degradation as they progressively decay. The phumshongs block light for the aquatic vegetation and thus, alter the aquatic microenvironment.
State-sponsored introduction of non-native fish species like grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon Idella) and silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) has caused a marked decline in native fish species like snakehead (Channa punctata), and climbing perch (Anabas testudineus). Rapidly changing ecological processes have not helped the native aquatic plant species like lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), Pullei (Alpinia galanga), and Kakthrum (Alisma plantago). The famed ‘Dancing Deer’ (an attribute to its peculiar gait due to floating phumdis) – Sangai (Cervus eldii eldii) – faces the gravest risk of its time in evolutionary history. The shortage of food species like Zizania, Carex, and Coix is a grave concern. The Endangered brow-antlered deer stares at the risk of extinction with nearly 200 individuals remaining in the Keibul Lamjao National Park, part of Loktak Lake. Thousands of families risk their water and food security.
If I now start narrating Deepor Beel’s plight, another Ramsar site in northeast India (that could have rightly decorated itself with a tag of ‘Jewel of Guwahati’), pessimism may blanket our outlook to the future. So, I refrain from depicting how Deepor Beel is encroached, exploited, and endangered. The coastal wetlands and the Himalayan wetlands aren’t ecologically less vulnerable, unlike popular belief.
Make no mistake of falling into the illusion that India lacks laws, acts, treaties, and committees to safeguard its wetlands. Over a dozen acts and notifications – from colonial Indian Fisheries Act, 1857 to democratic Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 – decorate our law books seemingly to protect wetlands in their entirety. The last one in the series of rules and acts, the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, is now followed by recent government guidelines to support state governments in the implementation of those rules.
The new avatar of the rules – being labeled as a dilution of its previous version – still has enough wisdom and insight to notify and protect the remaining wetlands. It prescribes wise use of wetlands that is compatible with conservation. It prohibits activities that cause reduced water flow, diminishes water holding capacity, encourages invasive species, and adversely affect the biodiversity of a wetland. It permits the harvesting of wetland products not beyond regenerative capacity though. The rules by themselves don’t protect. Implementation is the key; the domain where we have failed.
India’s blatant disregard for scientific temperament in political discourses clouds all the wisdom. It blurs vision too. The rules, the acts, the technological advancements, and the ecological know-how turn pale and remain inert in front of dubious political definitions of development. India is yet to scientifically map its wetlands and make an immaculate inventory. The eagle, perched on the tree; the otters jointly hunting for fish, long-legged storks, rhinos with their calves, and millions of humans risking food and water insecurity stand perplexed. The collective wisdom of Homo sapiens has defied logic when it comes to protecting wetlands, the lifeline for all life forms.
Originally published by Saevus as How Wet Are Our Wetlands, available at https://www.saevus.in/how-wet-are-our-wetlands/
(Dr Naveen Pandey is a writer, traveler, and conservation medicine professional who helps make lives better for animals and people. He serves The Corbett Foundation as its Deputy Director and Veterinary Advisor in Kaziranga, Assam. He can be reached at email@example.com)