Wetlands are unique ecosystems serving as transition zones where terrestrial and aquatic habitats meet. They are one of the freshwater habitats other than lakes, rivers etc. They are neither totally dry land nor totally underwater and have characteristics of both. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, fen, peat, and or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters.” Wetlands are a kind of natural waste-water treatment places as they are able to trap pollutants and neutralize harmful bacteria. Due to their carbon sequestration capabilities, wetlands play an important role in mitigating climate change. Wetlands are also an important source of food and provide rice and fish that feed billions.
In view of loss of wetlands and considering them as wastelands to be drained, filled and converted for other purposes, World Wetland Day is observed every year on 2nd February to raise global awareness about the pivotal role these important water bodies play in sustaining ecosystems. The Day also marks the adoption of the ‘Convention on Wetlands’ on 2nd February 1971 in the Iranian City of Ramsar. The theme of the World Wetlands Day 2022 is ‘Wetlands Action for People and Nature’ to emphasize on the importance of actions to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands for anthropogenic purposes.
Apart from recharging groundwater, wetlands can also act like giant sponges or reservoirs that can absorb excess water during heavy rains. They support a very rich aquatic bio-diversity and act as important nutrient transformer. Several bird species use wetlands as breeding grounds. Wetlands also carry immense tourism potential and could be inviting places for popular recreational activities including hunting, hiking, fishing, bird watching photography etc. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a universal agenda that recognizes the need for restoration and management of water related ecosystems including wetlands to address water scarcity. Overall, wetlands are key to address several challenges around the world related to water, food and climate.
The conservation of wetlands is particularly significant in river rejuvenation as it helps in protecting the ecological and geological entity of rivers. The contribution of wetlands in maintaining e-flows in rivers is one of the most important functions of these water bodies in protecting rivers, especially Ganga.
India has nearly 4.6% of its land as wetlands, covering an area of 15.26 million hectares. There are 47 sites in India designated as Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites), with a surface area of more than 1.08 million hectares. Out of 47 Ramsar sites in India, 21 are in the Ganga Basin. The maximum Ramsar sites are in the State of Uttar Pradesh (9), a Ganga basin state.
Wetlands are inextricably linked to one of the most herculean river rejuvenation project in the world – Namami Gange Programme. The wetlands play a crucial role in the overall hydrology of a river’s basin region and contribute to water flows in sub-surface and in river streams. The Ganga Basin is the richest riverine system in India and is bestowed with diverse natural and human-made wetlands regime, ecologically and hydrologically interconnected with River Ganga and her tributaries. More than 4,500 reservoirs form an integral component of the Ganga basin's wetland regimes. Of the 180 wetlands identified as national priority by MoEF&CC, 49 are located within the Ganga Basin (1 in Himachal Pradesh, 7 in Uttarakhand, 2 in Haryana, 4 in Rajasthan, 9 in Madhya Pradesh, 16 in Uttar Pradesh, 3 in Bihar and 7 in West Bengal).
In 2020, out of total 14 sites declared in India, 9 Ramsar sites have been declared in the main stem of Ganga – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Bihar. Sur Sagar Keetham, Kabar Taal, Aasan are a few examples. The latest entrant to the elite list of wetlands is also from Ganga Basin - Haiderpur Wetland in Uttar Pradesh, which was notified in December 2021. Other wetlands included in 2021 and 2022 are Tsokar Wetland Complex, Ladakh, Lonar Lake, Maharashtra, Thol Lake Wildlife Sanctuary & Wadhwana Wetland in Gujarat and Sultanpur National Park & Bhindawas Wildlife Sanctuary in Haryana. The Sundarbans, a saltwater swamp that runs through territories of India and Bangladesh, has the largest mangrove forest in the world and is also located on mud flats near the delta of the Ganges River in West Bengal. Working closely with the Environment Ministry, State Wetland Authorities are being strengthened in Ganga Basin and other States who are encouraged to notify wetlands and also work for recognition as Ramsar sites.
Namami Gange Programme has been working closely with several partners like World Wild Fund (WWF), Wildlife Institute of India (WII), State Wetland Authorities etc. for developing an institutional structure for the conservation of wetlands. A project ‘Conserving and Sustainably Managing Gangetic Floodplains of Uttar Pradesh’ was sanctioned in June 2020 for comprehensive conservation and management of 282 Gangetic floodplain wetlands in the State within the buffer of 10 kilometers of River Ganga spanning 27 districts. A tool kit titled ‘Urban Wetland/ Water Bodies Management Guidelines’ for management of Urban Wetlands has also been developed by SPA, New Delhi. Given the role of small wetlands in providing drinking water by acting as decentralized water storage systems, NMCG in collaboration with WWF has initiated an engagement programme with District Ganga Committees to support the district-level institutions in identifying wetlands, prepare good inventory, conduct ground verifications and develop actions plans for their preservation. Protection and conservation of wetlands is one of the foremost priorities of NMCG, which is trying to bring wetland conservation to the basin level.
In the recent past, the conservation and preservation of wetlands is being increasingly brought to the forefront of India’s water conservation efforts in general and river rejuvenation initiatives in particular. Acknowledging the importance of wetlands in ensuring water security, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) established a first-of-its-kind Centre for Wetland Conservation and Management (CWCM) as part of the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, Chennai. The Centre has been established “to address specific research needs and knowledge gaps and aid in conservation, management and wise use of wetlands in an integrated manner.” The Centre was launched last year on the occasion of 50th anniversary of signing of the Ramsar Convention. The theme of last year’s World Wetlands Day (Wetlands and Water) was also significant insofar that it signified the inseparability between Water, Wetlands and Life. On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti 2021, the MoEF&CC launched a web portal – ‘Wetlands of India’ – as a single point access website to all information related to wetlands. All these initiatives are a testament of the importance accorded to wetlands in India, especially in the wake of Jal Shakti Abhiyan and Jal Jeevan Mission that, through source sustainability, aims to make water conservation a people’s movement and provide safe drinking water to every household in India.
It is the need-of-the-hour to spread awareness on the importance of wetlands – and their direct correlation with water, food and climate security. The Government of India is committed to preserve these, sometimes small, yet extremely crucial part of India’s riverine systems. This World Wetland Day, let us take the onus of respecting and revering our wetlands to make India water-rich.
(The Author is Director General, National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG))