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Alarm bells sounded over disappearing wetlands

By Bindu Shajan Perappadan

NEW DELHI, MARCH 27. The Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) has warned about the alarming pace of disappearance of wetlands and estimates that by 2050, freshwater biodiversity will witness a drastic decline across the country.

In the first ever-comprehensive data collection and evaluation of its kind in the country, SACON has brought out a report card of the number and condition of the wetlands in the country. And the results, according to SACON members, aren't very encouraging.

The report besides providing the status of wetlands in the country is also hoping that the information will help initiate conservation planning of the wetlands on a national scale. Reliable and updated information on the extent of wetlands, their biodiversity values, ecosystem service values and socioeconomic importance are vital for evolving long-term conservation policy, legislation and administrative interventions.

"At present we neither have such information available with us nor do we have a system in place to generate and update them periodically. Moreover, only a few of the ecologically sensitive regions are protected by the Wildlife Protection Act, while the rest are becoming an easy target for anthropogenic exploitation,'' said a SACON official.

The National Wetland Committee of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had previously recommended a number of proactive steps, one of which was an inventory of wetlands in the country. Following this and realising the importance of wetlands in the rural economy and biodiversity conservation, the United Nations Development Programme along with the Government of India entrusted SACON with a project to develop a comprehensive inland wetland inventory, mapping and classification on a large spatial scale and also generating additional information.

The primary objective of the survey was to prioritise the freshwater wetlands for conservation action. The task involved mapping the wetlands and collecting data on the wetland biodiversity.

"Biodiversity values were assessed using primary and secondary data and checklists of aquatic plants, fishes and reptiles were prepared for each State through an exhaustive literature survey and finally verifying them with experts in the field concerned. Primary data were collected on wetland birds by a coordinated effort of more than 500 personnel from various States organised through 15 State co-ordinators. A broad classification of wetlands based on use values was also attempted,'' said the SACON official speaking about how this very crucial exercise was carried out.

"The survey showed us that the wetlands in the country were fighting a losing battle and also at stake are the flora and fauna that survived on these wetlands. We need to rethink about how to protect these precious resource,'' said the official.

Meanwhile, what this multi-dimension survey came out with included prioritisation of 655 wetlands in the country for conservation, projection of 199 wetlands for recognition at the international level, providing a broad characteristics such as turbidity level and vegetation of all the wetlands in 72 districts, compiling site records of threatened and near threatened species of wetland birds in various States, understanding of the 109 endemic aquatic plant species in the country and a classification of wetlands on socioeconomic use values.

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