Somewhere in Karnataka… Photo: subharnab/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Bengaluru: India has lost nearly a third of its wetlands to urbanisation, agricultural expansion and pollution over the last four decades, according to the ‘Living Planet’ report, released on September 10 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) together with the Zoological Society of London.
The population of freshwater species including fish, birds and amphibians have declined by 84% around the world since 1970. The findings substantiate previous indications that Earth is currently going through its sixth mass extinction in history, driven by human industrialisation and consumption.
And “the fact that until today there is no law in the land that specifically protects the integrity of wetlands indicates the lackadaisical approach by lawmakers” towards wetlands, Manoj Mishra, the convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a consortium of organisations trying to help revive the Yamuna, said.
Unlike other threatened ecosystems like forests, governments and people have seen wetlands as wastelands. And so they’ve been “drained and usurped for conversion and polluted to no end be it by the forces of urbanisation, industrialisation or chemical agriculture,” Mishra said.
On the other hand, dams and other engineering intrusions are changing wildlife habitat for the simple reason that “rivers are far more than water or watercourses,” Steve Lockett, an education and outreach officer at the Mahseer Trust, UK, which works to conserve mahseer fish (genus Tor) as a flagship species. He added that while some changes to river systems “are known and ignored, such as illegal and even licensed sand mining, others are unexpected and can be devastating, like halting sediment transportation, or raising water temperature by lowering flows and depths, and removing tree cover.”
The other threat to biodiversity in freshwater systems in India is the trade for fish to use as ornaments. “Northeast hill states and the Western Ghats are particularly rich in endemic fish species and are, therefore, under much larger threat from trafficking for the ornamental trade,” according to Lockett. Much of the stock is routed through Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. “Despite being subject to [wildlife] laws similar to those applying to tigers and pangolins, being fish, the trade is virtually invisible.”
“Currently, the focus [in terms of conservation of freshwater ecosystems and aquatic biodiversity ] is on the Ganga,” said Suresh Babu, the director of the rivers, wetlands and water policy, WWF India.
In similar vein, freshwater species need more focus. In 2009, the Government of India declared the Ganges river dolphins to be India’s national aquatic animal, thus promoting their conservation and protection. Ten years later, the government of Punjab declared the Indus river dolphin to be its state aquatic animal, similar raising this species’s conservation status. And in keeping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address on Independence Day 2020, a ‘Project Dolphin’ is currently in the works.
Other species like gharial, turtles, fish and wetland birds need to be part of a nation freshwater conservation strategies to ensure overall conservation of freshwater biodiversity. “There is an urgent need for a unified strategy for freshwater conservation in India… This will require a multi-disciplinary, multi stakeholder approach,” Babu said.
Around the world as well, the WWF report noted that freshwater biodiversity is dropping faster than the corresponding declines in oceans and forests.
“Species population trends are important because they are a measure of overall ecosystem health,” the report’s authors write. “In the last 50 years, our world has been transformed by an explosion in global trade, consumption and human population growth, as well as an enormous move towards urbanisation.”
Until 1970, humanity’s ecological footprint was smaller than Earth’s rate of regeneration but this changed in the 21st century – when, according to the authors, humans overused the planet’s capacity to sustain life by at least 56%.
So what do we need to do? “As a country, we need to map all the last remaining free-flowing rivers and ensure they have legal protection” so we don’t lose connectivity, Babu said.
Flows of water, nutrients, and sediment through freshwater ecosystems are important processes that regulate biodiversity. But dams “fragment longitudinal connectivity and, through flow alterations, also affect lateral, vertical and temporal connectivity,” according to Babu. Embankments and other flood management structures also separate rivers from their floodplains.
For fragmented rivers, Babu suggested the targeted removal of obsolete dams, reconnecting floodplains and rivers, wetland conservation for aquifer recharge and vertical connectivity.
The WWF report also touched on the fact that India wastes (as a result of poor planning, accidents, etc.) 23 million tonnes of grains, 12 million tonnes of fruits and 21 million tonnes of vegetables every year. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, more than 40% of the food produced in India is lost or wasted. And like climate change, the WWF report’s authors write, food loss and waste can also multiply “environmental, social and economic impacts”.
Raghavendra Bhat, a farmer in Karnataka, said there are different types of agricultural losses. In terms of causes, for example, there are losses due to natural calamities, wildlife and disease. Then there are marketing-related losses, especially of fruits and vegetables that have a low shelf-life. “The major thing to avoid is wasting harvested food,” he said. This includes farmers being unable to sell their harvest within a certain time, waste in restaurants and at events like marriages. One way out, according to him, is for the government to provide cold storage facilities.
The impact of agricultural waste on biodiversity is a vicious cycle because lost biodiversity disrupts ecosystems, which then frustrate or dampen agricultural production.
A major hurdle to reducing food loss in India is that our distribution systems are inefficient. “India produces 10-12% more food than is consumed to ensure food stock for the country,” Murli Dhar, the director of sustainable agriculture at WWF India.
Panjab Singh, former president of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, agreed and said that given many people in India still go hungry, the dual problem of food waste and hunger can be fixed simply by improving the logistics. “If we can save at least 50% of this waste, we can ensure food security in the region by feeding Bangladesh and Pakistan, and we can also add value to farmer incomes in the country,” he said.
And since, according to Dhar, 90% of India’s freshwater “goes into agriculture,” making food production and distribution more efficient could directly and indirectly help freshwater systems recover, and with that their biodiversity as well.
Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru.