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Explained: What Are Wetlands and Why Are They Important?

Explained: What Are Wetlands and Why Are They Important?

Flamingoes and waders in a wetland area of Navi Mumbai. Photo: Shawn Dsouza/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

Just as forests are called as the ‘lungs of the earth’, wetlands are the ‘kidneys’ that regulate water and filter waste from the landscape. The kidney comparison aside, wetlands are the primary sources of freshwater, buffers of floods and droughts, recycler of nutrients and chemicals, and inextricably intertwined with our culture and identity. These ubiquitous ecosystems usually throw up beautiful mental images – a picturesque river, a houseboat on a lake, fishing in a pond and more. They are the subject of poetry and songs, provide the backdrop of films and books and are sacred to many people. More directly, wetlands are a source of livelihood, food and home to biodiversity.

Around 4.63% of the geographical area of India are wetlands. A total of 757,060 wetlands have been mapped in the country. These ecosystems are among the most ubiquitous, but also quite overlooked despite their increasing confluence with human lives.

For the important role they play in our lives, do we really know enough about them?

What are wetlands?

Wetlands are areas that are inundated with water permanently or seasonally. They occur where water meets land.

The Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for conservation of wetlands, ratified by Government of India in 1982, defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, fen, peatland 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 tides, does not exceed six meters”. The Convention also provides that “wetlands may include riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six meters at low tide lying within the wetlands.”

The biological composition of wetlands, from the fish that live there to the migrating waterbirds that visit, depends on the ways water moves within a wetland.

Loktak Lake in Manipur hosts 38 indigenous fish species. Wetlands shelter biodiversity and provide livelihood and other services to humans. Photo: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay

What are the different types of wetlands?

Wetlands include mangroves, peatlands and marshes, rivers and lakes, deltas, floodplains and flooded forests, rice-fields, and even coral reefs. Wetlands exist in every country and in every climatic zone, from the polar regions to the tropics, and from high altitudes to dry regions.

India has a diversity of wetlands ranging from the floodplains of rivers like Ganga and Brahmaputra to the high altitude wetlands of the Himalayas, lagoons and mangrove marshes on the coastline and reefs in marine environments, among others.

Why are wetlands important?

Wetlands ecosystems are vital parts of hydrological cycle, highly productive, support rich biodiversity and provide a wide range of ecosystem services such as water storage, water purification, flood mitigation, storm buffers, erosion control, aquifer recharge, microclimate regulation, aesthetic enhancement of landscapes while simultaneously supporting many significant recreational, social and cultural activities.

Several people depend on wetlands for their livelihood as well as for food and water. Some wetlands also play a role in combatting the impacts of climate change like floods and extreme weather events. Wetlands are also amongst the earth’s top carbon stores and their conservation can help in reducing carbon emissions.

In India, currently, 42 wetlands, with a surface area of over a million hectares are designated as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

What are the threats to wetlands?

The world has lost around 87% of natural wetlands since the 1700s and 35% have disappeared since the 1970s. India has lost nearly one-third of her natural wetlands to urbanisation, agricultural expansion and pollution over the last four decades.  It is estimated that wetlands are vanishing three times faster than forests and their rate of disappearance is increasing.

Wetlands are threatened by reclamation and degradation through drainage and landfill, pollution (discharge of domestic and industrial effluents, disposal of solid wastes), hydrological alteration (water withdrawal and changes in inflow and outflow), over-exploitation of natural resources resulting in loss of biodiversity and disruption in ecosystem services provided by wetlands.

A road cuts a wetland in half, severely compromising the water flow, near Pallikaranai marsh in Chennai. Destruction of wetlands leads to an increase in urban floods. Photo: India Water Portal/Flickr CC BY NC SA 2.0

Does India have a policy to protect wetlands?

On an international level, India is party to the Convention on Wetlands, called the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

As part of the natural environment, wetlands are also protected by legislation. The Indian Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 is a legislation to provide protection and improvement of the environment, including inter-alia, wetlands. The National Environment Policy, 2006 recognises the ecosystem services provided by wetlands and emphasises the need to set up a regulatory mechanism for all wetlands so as to maintain their ecological character, and ultimately support their integrated management.

Specific to wetlands is the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 notified by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The rules serve as a regulatory framework for conservation and management of wetlands in India. In early 2020, the ministry also released guidelines to support the state governments in implementing the rules.

National Wetland Inventory and Assessment (NWIA) was conducted in the country using Indian remote sensing satellites during 2006-2011. Subsequently, national and state-level wetland inventory atlases were released which have spatial data on wetlands for each State and UT.

A total of 757,060 wetlands have been mapped in the country. The total wetland area estimated is 15.26 million hectares that is around 4.63% of the geographical area of the country.

The central government provides assistance to state governments for implementation of management plans for prioritized wetlands. The National Wetlands Conservation Programme has been in operation since 1986. Since 2013, the programme is known as National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems. The Ministry of Jal Shakti operates a scheme for Repair, Renovation and Restoration of Water Bodies.

How can I protect wetlands?

The fundamental duties of citizens, as listed in the Constitution of India too stipulate that it shall be the duty of every citizen of India “to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.”

All over the country there are stories of individuals and communities protecting their local wetlands – a father-daughter duo cleaning up Dal lake in Kashmir, an old man in a village in Karnataka digging ponds for wild animals, citizens in Mumbai and Noida protecting their urban wetlands from construction activities and a women’s group in a coastal Maharashtra district protecting their mangroves through ecotourism initiatives. For most of these people, it is passion that drives their individual initiatives and they are examples of what common citizens can do to protect these ecosystems.

For inspiration, check out our series, Wetland Champions.

This article was first published on Mongabay India.

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