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Vanishing wetlands

By G. Ananthakrishnan

India's wetlands are in danger of disappearing unless urgent action is taken.

NEARLY A year after he announced the Government's intention to progressively "repair, renovate and restore all water bodies that are directly linked to agriculture," Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram unveiled in his recent budget speech a pilot plan to take the scheme forward. The restoration plan is to be launched in the current month with a pilot covering 700 water bodies in 16 districts of nine States, funded by an outlay of Rs.100 crore for the year.

The modest renovation scheme pales into insignificance when viewed against startling findings emerging from a study conducted by a national research agency. Scientists have made the shocking revelation that almost all wetlands that they studied in 14 States are polluted and that all 1,249 specimens of fish drawn from 115 water bodies contain pesticides or heavy metals.

Many other disturbing conclusions emerge from what is seen as the most exhaustive study so far of these sites carried out by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) under the aegis of the Union Environment Ministry and the UNDP. These findings should persuade policymakers in the States and at the Centre to revisit the existing policies on all wetlands and adopt with a sense of urgency, a multi-stakeholder approach to reversing the damage. The role of the States is particularly significant as the fortunes of such water bodies depend on their land use policies and classification norms.

Wetlands, which are often dismissed as wasteland by policymakers, contribute actively to the economy. One research study quantifies this value at $14,785 per hectare, comparable only to the forest ecosystems that are, for obvious reasons, less accessible.

India has 19 wetlands of international importance listed under the Ramsar Convention of 1971, the most famous of which is arguably the Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. This major ornithological research area attracting scientists and bird lovers from all over today stands threatened due to non-availability of water from the Panchana dam on the Gambhiri river, an environmental crisis that has been widely reported.

As one of the most populous nations, heavily dependent on the bounty of the monsoon for economic progress, India should logically provide greater protection to the meagre 2.42 per cent of the earth's surface that it possesses. A significant part of this asset is present in the form of water bodies, both natural and man-made. Water security for the country depends on the health of its wetlands, but the SACON study has concluded that irreversible losses on a large scale have already occurred. During the last 10-year period, nearly 290,000 tanks and ponds have been lost, representing 38 per cent of all such water bodies; in some districts the loss is as high as 88 per cent. The States that have suffered the greatest losses are Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, SACON reports.

Perhaps the most striking instance of unscientific evaluation of wetlands that is brought out by the study relates to the Pallikaranai marsh in Chennai. A major habitat for flora and fauna and a critical link in the city's natural floodplain scheme, this vast marshland is found to contain the rare wild rice Oryza rufipogon, described by SACON as "precious germ plasm." The study found, however, that this marsh is inexplicably treated as a wasteland and seen as good only for use as a dumping ground for thousands of tonnes of municipal waste and millions of litres of sewage annually. A paper on conservation genetics of wild rice in the journal Molecular Ecology has this to say about O.rufipogon: "This is the most agriculturally important but seriously endangered wild rice species." Such biodiversity resources in Pallikaranai and thousands of other similar wetlands are today threatened by real estate lobbies and unplanned civic growth.

A national action plan for conservation has been presented by SACON that would initially be implemented over a 15-year period from the current year.

The starting point would be the provision of a strong legal foundation for protection. A National Wetland Conservation and Sustainable Use Act has been suggested. To address the question of pollution, experts have suggested the creation of a buffer zone around wetlands where organic farming would be actively encouraged; all other activity such as conversion into real estate, waste dumping and sewage disposal must be banned.

Of immediate importance is the SACON finding that there are 655 wetlands in the country that are in need of conservation. India's record of listing its precious water bodies under the Ramsar Convention is dismal considering that the scientists led by Professor V.S. Vijayan of SACON have found 199 wetlands fit for recognition as Ramsar sites, and we have only 19.

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