Wetlands and climate change

Climate change poses a threat to all ecosystems. In the case of the wetland ecosystem, not only will the water bodies and their economic benefits be lost; they could directly contribute to climate change by releasing a large amount of trapped greenhouse gases. That assessment from scientists taking part in the Eighth Wetlands Conference held in Brazil by INTECOL, the International Association for Ecology, will hopefully stir governments into action. It is vital that they recognise the gravity of the problem and act to stop the degradation, draining, and land-filling of wetlands. The volume of greenhouse gases sequestered by wetlands is immense. Although they occupy only six per cent of the land area worldwide, and have suffered sharp declines over the past hundred years, scientific estimates say marshes, river floodplains, lagoons, swamps, and other water bodies store almost the equivalent of the current atmospheric carbon levels within water and slow-decaying vegetation. Moreover, freshwater wetlands are a repository of biodiversity, upon which many external species depend. The developing world, unlike the west, has managed to retain many vast historic wetlands. But most countries, including India, have failed to preserve their integrity. The effort to curb industrial pollution, fertilizer and pesticide run-off from intensive agriculture, encroachment, and the dumping of municipal waste has been too feeble to make any visible change.

The conservation of India’s wetlands requires a strategy and action plan that will restore their health over the next decade. An exhaustive study by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History in 2004 identified 655 inland wetlands worthy of priority conservation action. Their importance cannot be overstated, now that their role as carbon sinks is evident. Preserving them is a low-cost mitigation option compared with extensive future restoration. Far-sighted action can save the country the costs that the developed world incurs on restoring and creating artificial wetlands. There is an urgent need to protect wetlands using stronger land use laws. State and local governments must enforce the laws unflinchingly. There is also a case for the mandatory creation of water bodies as a part of large real estate projects. Such measures will ensure not just aesthetic and recreational values for people but well-known ecosystem services such as flood control, water security, nutrient recycling, and preservation of biodiversity. It is increasingly clear that wetlands have a key role to play in slowing down climate change. Now is the time for serious action to protect them.

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