Though they play a vital role in sustaining the eco-system, the country’s natural wetlands are falling prey to rising pollution and urbanisation

The World Wetlands Day (WWD) was observed sporadically across India on February 2 and yet many of us are not aware about the richness and necessity of wetlands in our lives. While wetlands are nature’s water storage and water purification zones, they are also a paradise for wildlife, fishing, angling and bird-watching, water sports, relaxation and rejuvenation. Scientists believe that wetlands are the kidneys of nature. Unfortunately, wetlands today have become mere dumping grounds for garbage, rapidly throttling the water bodies.

Over the centuries, India had a number of sustainable natural wetlands and these were the lifeline of local communities who depended on these water bodies for staple food, livestock grazing, fodder, fuel-wood transport and irrigation. In addition to the natural wetlands were a number of man-made traditional reservoirs constructed virtually in every town and village — supplying water for everyday needs. However, with booming population and burgeoning urbanisation, these self-sustaining water bodies have become increasingly filthy and unfit for human utilisation. Even the beautiful lotus and water lilies, which were part and parcel of wetlands, have disappeared in many regions.

The country’s rivers have turned into giant gutters carrying waste released by thousands of towns and cities. Although considerable money has been spent to cleanse these waterways, the government’s indifference and citizens’ ignorance have resulted in the continuation of debris being dumped into the rivers. It is estimated that three billion litres of sewage flows into the Ganga alone daily with industries also contributing their effluents.

Over the years, wetlands have been neglected and have not gained importance as other areas of nature and wildlife conservation. It is imperative that wetlands occupy the heart of conservation efforts as water management is at the core of sustainable uses of wetlands. Water scarcity today is becoming an urgent problem for mankind that needs effective remediation.

For the WWD this year, the theme set by UNESCO’s Hydrological Programme was ‘Wetlands Take Care of Water’. It reflected the interdependence between water and wetlands. “Making the link between wetlands and water is essential because without water there will be no wetlands — and without wetlands there will be no water! Wetlands such as mangroves, bogs, freshwater swamps are home to a wealth of biodiversity. Wetlands fulfil vital roles in carbon storage, pollution control and protection from natural hazards such as floods and storms. Millions of people around the world relay on wetlands as it provide ecosystem services such as food, fresh water and fuel,” says Mark Smith, director of IUCN’s Global Water Programme.

By the virtue of its geographical location, varied terrain and climatic zones, India supports a rich diversity of inland and coastal wetlands; but they are in distress currently. The Wular Lake in Kashmir or Kolleru Lake in Andhra Pradesh, two of the largest lakes in the country, are depleting as they are losing their vitality to regenerate. The story is similar for other lakes and rivers across the subcontinent.

The National Wetland Atlas, prepared by Space Applications Centre (SAC) of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), has classified 67,429 wetlands in India occupying 60 million hectares, including paddy cultivation. The majority of these inland wetlands are dependent on major rivers like the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Narmada, Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery. However, with rising water pollution, drought and water battles between various States, conservation of wetlands needs to be taken up on a war footing.

Fortunately, some of the wetlands are receiving their due importance for their contribution to the natural wealth. For instance, the Chilika Lake in Odisha is about to become the first lake from Asia to adopt the “Ecosystem Health Report Card” — an effective means of tracking and reporting the health of a wetland. The Chilika will join the elite club of iconic wetlands like Chesapeake Bay (U.S.A) and the Great Barrier Reef (Australia).

“Increased human population around wetlands adds to ecological degradation due to unsustainable practices like agriculture expansion and over-exploitation. Due to this both wildlife and people suffer, particularly water birds like the cormorants. The condition of the existing wetlands needs to be conserved as our natural assets. With judicious use of numerous useful aquatic bacteria, plants and animals associated with wetlands, harmful impurities can be removed and water can be purified,” says Emeritus Professor C.R. Babuin, in-charge of Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems, University of Delhi.