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Near the Baghjan Blowout, Assam’s Critical Wetland Habitat Is Burning

Near the Baghjan Blowout, Assam’s Critical Wetland Habitat Is Burning

Located less than 10 km south of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park is Maguri Motapung beel [footnote]Assamese for ‘wetland'[/footnote]. It is spread over 9.6 sq. km. It derives its name, ‘Maguri’, from the local term for an invasive catfish, and Motapung is the name of the village nearby. Maguri Motapung beel was declared an important bird and biodiversity area in 1996. It is host to over 110 bird species, including eight listed as threatened on the IUCN Redlist, such as the swamp grass babbler, the ferruginous duck, the white-winged wood duck and the falcated duck. Other rare and migratory birds that visit this wetland include the lesser adjutant, the swamp francolin, the lesser teal and the bar-headed goose.

Maguri Motapung beel is also home to 84 species of fish, including the golden mahseer. Most of the people living in the beel‘s surrounding villages fish for living, and nearly 95% of them directly depend on the wetland, which is included in the Dibru-Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve. This reserve connects the national park in Assam to Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh, creating a big wildlife corridor of immense importance in the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot. The reserve is located within the Brahmaputra’s floodplains, and is limited by the Lohit river in the north and the Dibru in the south.

This landscape is mostly water and comprises wetlands, swamp forests and grasslands. In all, it’s home to 37 species of mammals, 503 species of birds, 42 species of reptiles, 17 species of amphibia, 104 species of fish and 105 species of butterflies, according to one 2016 survey. Its endangered endemic fauna include the clouded leopard, the Indian leopard, the Bengal tiger, the jungle cat, the Asiatic wild dog, the Malayan giant squirrel, the Chinese pangolin, the slow loris, the pig-tailed macaque, the Assamese macaque, the capped langur and the Asian elephant. The Ganges river dolphin, India’s national aquatic animal, depends on the riverine stretches of this biosphere reserve for its survival.

Oil and water don’t mix

While the beel falls within the eco-sensitive zone of the national park and biosphere reserve, the lure of oil is seemingly too great to resist. The wetland’s management plan specifies oil leaks as a potential hazard to ecosystem health – and just this threat has been brought to bear by the blowout and subsequent inflammation of a natural gas leak at the Baghjan oil well nearby.

The blowout happened on May 27, sending crude oil and gas into the air and the waters nearby in a near-continuous spurt for nearly two hours. When the fire started on June 9, the waters of the wetland began to burn as well.

The Baghjan well is around 500 metres from the boundary of the buffer zone and 900 metres from the park’s core area. As the monsoon season is already underway in Northeast India, the condensate from the blowout mixed with running water and has already entered parts of the wetland system. Previous visits by the National Board of Wildlife to inspect oil pipelines in the area warned against expanding oil-drilling activities there. Since the park is proximate to the confluence of the Brahmaputra and other major Northeast Indian, rivers such as the Lohit, the Dibang and the Siang, the contamination and subsequent destruction is likely to spread to the largest willow swamp forest in Northeast India and critical habitats.

Local authorities have already evacuated over 2,500 people around Baghjan, including those around Maguri Motapung beel. Apart from being threatened by the fire and smoke themselves, people’s lives are also at risk because the monsoon has caused the Brahmaputra to flood – as it does every year – and the oil’s condensate has mixed with the floodwater and is entering households. Crops and livestock have been severely damaged in similar fashion, and residents of the area have said the land will be difficult to farm for years to come. At least 50 houses have been burnt down by the fire itself. There have been no casualties but it’s yet another headache, to put it mildly, even as the people are already dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

No country for wetlands

The situation at Maguri Motapung beel only highlights India’s lack of concern for its wetland ecosystems. The fire and oil leak in Tinsukia district, where the Baghjan oil well is located, is happening in the midst of numerous ‘development’ projects that the Indian government has mooted in an effort to industrialise the northeast. At the same time, wetlands themselves bear much of the brunt of India’s industrial tendencies across the country. Two recent examples include land appropriation for housing development projects, which will damage the mangroves of Kakinada Bay on the Godavari river, and Tamil Nadu mulling denotifying a part of the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary in Chengalpattu district to benefit a pharmaceutical company, in violation of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.

Also read: Why Does Tamil Nadu Wish to Denotify Part of the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary?

It shouldn’t have to be said – but wetlands are incredibly important ecosystems that provide a variety of ecosystem services. Some prominent examples include fisheries, tourism, wildlife habitats, water purification, drinking water supply and coastline protection. When Cyclone Amphan barrelled into eastern India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans mangrove forest reduced the cyclone’s impact after landfall by attenuating the tidal surge. Mangroves and other swamp-flora also have a high carbon sequestration potential, a useful feature in our fight against climate change.

Wetlands also filter waste and prevent the spread of waterborne diseases from sewage and pollutants to nearby settlements. So it’s quite strange that they are also among the first types of ecosystems to be razed in the mad rush for development and urbanisation. As The Wire Science has reported, “Mumbai has destroyed 71% of its surrounding wetlands, followed by Ahmedabad, 57%; Bengaluru and Greater Bengaluru, 56%; Hyderabad, 55%; and Delhi-NCR, 38%” – all between 1970 and 2014.

This is why, despite the Indian government’s initiative to include 10 more wetlands in the country under the Ramsar Convention, which identifies wetland sites of international importance, there appears to be no room for wetlands in India.

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist.

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