Assam wetlands need protection
The green signal given by Union Home Minister Amit Shah to the North East Space Application Centre (NESAC) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)
The green signal given by Union Home Minister Amit Shah to the North East Space Application Centre (NESAC) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to conduct a joint study during the monsoon on the scope of diverting the water of the Brahmaputra to the 5902 sq km wetlands in Assam which cover over 5900 sq km area, is very big news. Assam's both valleys comprise a large number of wetlands – fresh-water lakes (beels), ox-bow lakes (era-suti), marshy tracts and pukhuris, which together constitute an amazing and unique ecosystem. Leaving aside the area occupied by rivers, Assam has over 3,500 wetlands as identified by Assam Remote Sensing Application Centre a few years ago. Of these again, 861 are ox-bow lakes or cut-off meanders (era-suti). All these, in addition to the several hundred marshlands, had originally provided vital space to the rising waters of the Brahmaputra, the Barak and their 100-odd tributaries during the monsoon months. But with time, a sizable portion of these wetlands have been encroached upon, mainly by the migrants of erstwhile East Bengal or East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh. In urban areas like Guwahati, Jorhat, Tinsukia, Bongaigaon, Nalbari, Nagaon, Morigaon and Silchar etc, rapid and unplanned urbanization, coupled with encroachment by land-hungry indigenous people have led to such a situation that there is no space left for the rain-water of residential areas to flow out. In Guwahati, the rapidly deteriorating status of Deepor Beel and the impending death and disappearance of Barsola Beel, Sarusola Beel, Silsako Beel and Bondajan are enough to comprehend the situation. The unfortunate story in Assam is that successive governments, public leaders, political parties, intellectuals, NGOs, academic institutions and universities – all have miserably failed to look at the wetlands of the state with due seriousness and urgency. They have all failed to realise the importance and positive contribution of wetlands towards the natural ecological system in particular and overall human development in general. There is little appreciation among the educated section in Assam that apart from providing space for diverse life forms, apart from fish, fuel and fibre, apart from trapping pollutants and removing toxic residues, these wetlands also help in reducing flood intensity by storing surface water. The Ramsar convention held in 1971 in Ramsar city of Iran is said to be a landmark event in the history of mankind in modern times for wetland conservation. Among all countries of the world, the Netherlands has set one of the best examples of arresting systematic degradation of wetlands and conserving them. Covering 16 per cent of the globally important wetlands, more than half of the land of the Netherlands is today reclaimed wetlands. Among the states of India, Assam probably can claim to be a state of wetlands. But then, there is only one Ramsar Site in Assam, that being Deepor Beel, which is probably the most threatened wetland in the entire country. It is however heartening that Assam Chief Minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma has shown keen interest in protecting the wetlands and exploring the possibility of utilizing them for flood cushioning during the monsoon months by diverting excess water of the Brahmaputra to them. It is also very important that the North Eastern Space Applications Centre (NESAC) – a joint initiative of the Department of Space (DOS) and the North Eastern Council (NEC) – has been roped in to conduct a pilot project in this regard. NESAC has already prepared a river atlas of Assam, in which all the major and minor rivers entering Assam have been mapped. In addition, NESAC has also prepared land resources inventory maps of Assam, which cover mapping of land use land cover, erosion areas, drainage, and water bodies. Needless to reiterate, land and water resources are the keys to attain food, water and environmental security, and Assam is lucky that the man at the helm of affairs now understands and appreciates these aspects with due seriousness. What could probably be also launched alongside the proposed pilot project is a systematic drive to evict without any consideration all kinds of encroachers from all wetlands, so that more space could be created for the Brahmaputra and its tributaries to push in excess water during the monsoon months.