Health cards of wetlands

India’s total Ramsar sites increasing to 80 with the addition of five more wetlands is indicative of wetland conservation receiving increasing global attention.
Health cards of wetlands

India’s total Ramsar sites increasing to 80 with the addition of five more wetlands is indicative of wetland conservation receiving increasing global attention. The number of Ramsar sites has increased from 26 to 80 in the last ten years, with 38 added in the last three years alone, which speaks volumes about the policy push by the government. Identifying new conservation threats to wetlands already notified as Ramsar sites, as well as other wetlands in the country, is crucial for the long-term sustainability of life and livelihood. The rising pollution threat to Deepor Beel on the outskirts of Guwahati, the lone Ramsar site in Assam, has sounded a warning bell for the health of this wetland of global importance. Unfortunately, the authorities concerned have failed to demonstrate urgency to address such threats on a priority basis, even after intervention by the Gauhati High Court and the National Green Tribunal. Conservation of the wetland is critical to the survival of fish and other aquatic life, which in turn sustains residents as well as migratory birds and also provides livelihood to fisher folk. Apart from pollution caused by the drainage of liquid waste, other threats like encroachment, dumping of solid waste, and overexploitation of its resources by humans pose conservation threats that need to be addressed through collaboration between the government and society. The theme of this year’s World Wetland Day, “Wetlands and Human Wellbeing,” underscores the importance of keeping the wetlands healthy so that they continue to provide clean water and food and sustain biodiversity and livelihood. The Amrit Dharohar initiative launched by the Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Climate Change exclusively focuses on the Ramsar Sites so as to create demonstration, replication, and upscaling effects on other wetlands of national and international importance. The initiative consists of four key components: species and habitat conservation, nature tourism, wetland livelihoods, and wetland carbon. All four components of getting equal attention are crucial to achieving the goal. Guwahati city, lacking a sewage treatment plant, has led to untreated sewage water finding its way to Deepor Beel and other wetlands in the city and polluting the water. The prevailing situation points towards the gaps in wetland conservation planning and execution, which need to be bridged urgently. It also reminds policymakers that mere notification of the Ramsar sites is not going to ensure wetland conservation, and awareness has to be built among people dependent on them for ecosystem services and official functionaries who are mandated to monitor the health of wetlands and take timely measures. Activities under Amrit Dharohar include protecting and promoting unique conservation and cultural heritage values, creating nature tourism opportunities and income generation for local communities, encouraging optimal use while ensuring maintenance of wetland ecological character, safeguarding and enhancing biological diversity and carbon stock, and enabling integrated management to ensure sustained provision of a full range of ecosystem services. Spreading awareness about these activities beyond the Ramsar sites will be crucial for the active participation of people dependent on other wetlands in conservation initiatives. India has over two lakh wetlands, but the Wetland Health Card Dashboard shows that health cards for only 672 wetlands across states and Union Territories have been uploaded so far. The health card of Deepor Beel uploaded on the website reveals alarming trends. More than 40% of the Deepor Beel area is covered by invasive macrophytes, and more than 20% of the wetland has been converted to non-wetland use since 2000. Uploading health cards for more wetlands of importance and updating data regularly will help wetland experts come up with timely solutions to various conservation issues. It will also go a long way in the preparation and adoption of the right strategy to overcome the challenges. Conservation of the wetlands is not possible in isolation, and the preparation of integrated management plans is a must. Roping in panchyats and local wetland experts to undertake periodic health assessments of wetlands under their jurisdiction can be useful. Traditional knowledge of communities about wetland conservation needs to be mainstreamed into policies and strategies. For centuries, the communities were the natural custodians of wetland, which also helped them build a knowledge base on wetland wildlife and water regime as they were dependent on the wetlands for water needs and fishing. They have also observed how some of the wetlands have vanished or degraded due to manmade activities, including the expansion of farmlands, infrastructure development leading to the choking of inlets, and the deposition of silt during floods, which can therefore explain the problems to researchers looking for causes and solutions. Climate change impacts and global warming have brought new challenges to wetland conservation due to changing rainfall patterns and drastic changes in flood intensity. It is high time that all stakeholders come together to contribute to Ramsar site conservation so that success stories have a rippling effect and motivate government authorities and communities to undertake collaborative initiatives for the conservation of every single wetland.

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