Land or wetland?
A waste of land?
A look at our curious bipolarity towards wetlands, which teem with life but are valued more as land than waterbody.
This piece appeared in February this year, since then the National Green Tribunal has called for the re-establishment of the National Wetland Regulation Authority.
(Photo: foggy morning in Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Delhi)
On February 2, the world celebrated the International Wetlands Day. This is fitting particularly for India, where wetlands have always been celebrated and used in some form. We rejoice when it rains, have built our cities next to rivers, and have created acres and acres of paddy fields, all joining up into a living, ethnographic entity.
It is also fitting then that it took years of hard work to create a legislation for the diverse array of wetlands that India possesses, but tragically, this is mostly on paper. Taking note of this, the National Green Tribunal recently sent a notice to the states asking for action taken to protect wetlands.
Our legislation maps out the various corporeal forms of wetlands, and importantly, also the natural forms in which they do not resemble wetlands. The Wetland Rules, 2010, say that wetlands are an area of marsh, fen, peatland or water, natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water (with depth of six metres or less), which includes all inland waters such as lakes, reservoirs, tanks, backwaters, lagoons, creeks, estuaries and man-made wetlands along with the wetlands’ zone of influence.
Thus, wetlands are waterbodies endowed by nature, or made by us; many wetlands are ecologically water bodies even if they are seasonally dry.
Further, the Wetland Rules set down governance which mandate that wetlands fulfilling ecological parameters need appropriate protection. Yet, despite this legislative definition which considers both ecological and social dimensions, the Wetland Rules have not been implemented.
Consider this: the Wetland Rules mandated the creation of a Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority (CWRA) which will oversee issues related to wetlands identified for protection. Not only have most states not fully identified wetlands for protection, but the CWRA has been defunct since 2012.
At the primary level, this creates a huge gap in the protection matrix for wetlands. Wetlands, as habitats for biodiversity and repositories of ecosystem services, do not get adequate protection unless they are already in protected areas. At the secondary level, this creates conflict in land uses. The Wetland Atlas says there are 1,88,470 natural and manmade wetlands in India. But several times, they are seen as ‘land’ rather than ‘wet’ and annexed for terrestrial purposes.
There is a lot of finger-pointing on the 2015 Chennai floods. But there is a consensus that the floods were exacerbated (if not caused) by building over wetlands and swamps. The fact that wetlands are not considered in planning exercises has led to losses in billions of dollars, and psychological trauma for all those who were flood-affected. ‘Zones of influence’ of wetlands were not protected in Chennai: notably the catchments and water sheds of the Adyar river. While wetlands comprise waterbodies, the zone of influence of the wetland includes run-offs, areas which are swampy (thus turning dry in non-monsoon or summer season), sources of water bodies, drainage outlets et cetera.
If the zone of influence of the wetland is encroached, then the wetland often ceases to exist. With rapid real estate development in National Capital Region, Bhadkal, Damdam and Surajkund, lakes have had their zones of influence gobbled up. A result today is that these lakes have shrivelled up, and for all purposes behave more like land than wetlands. This is likely to further impact the rather desertified, dry Aravali stretch and Haryana’s low water table.
Given the Chennai and the Srinagar floods, are we going to break down the roads, houses and flyovers that we have built over canals, swamps and drainage streams to stop the floods of tomorrow? While the past cannot be undone, surely the future can be better.
If you look at satellite maps of the Great Northern Plains of India, you will see strings of wetlands and wetland complexes, like beads on a necklace. This is the North Plain, where much of our food is produced. Attracted to wetlands, and wetland complexes, each year, tens of thousands of water birds, ducks, cranes and others sweep down on them.
‘Barren land’ for housing
Look at the same bodies in peak summer, and these wetlands are dismissed as “barren land” or wasteland. These are then earmarked for quick housing all over the country (the Commonwealth Games village complex on Delhi’s Yamuna river bed, and Bengaluru’s numerous lake-sides) for compensatory afforestation schemes, and for non-wetland purposes.
Wetland governance needs to involve the community, because of the very manner in which wetlands are being used today. In Srinagar’s Dal Lake — which incidentally, has been built over, shrinking from over 75 square km to about 18 sq km, important stakeholders are traditional horticulturalists and vegetable growers.
In a meeting and site visit there last year, I was told that ‘organic’ flowers and produce — cultivated over generations with no fertiliser or chemical input — are no longer so organic. This is because the lake is so choked with sewage that the bounty is no longer clean. Much of the wetland’s zone of influence is encroached, even as sewage is continuously going in.
Both the Wetland Rules and the International Ramsar Convention say that wetlands which are ‘of outstanding natural beauty’ are to be protected. Unfortunately, many would have us believe that this is a whimsical condition divorced from reality.
Wetlands are not lands waiting to be colonised. Perhaps, real estate and ‘development’ plans would prefer it more if wetlands could float in the sky like rainclouds, thus giving a clear field for colonisation of ‘land’.
We do not need more floods to recognise the ecological and ecosystem services that wetlands provide. What we do need is zonation that clearly sets aside drainage systems and zones of influence in town and city planning. In the case of wetlands, the cost of policy inaction would create a thirst that no engineering would be able to replace.
This first appeared in The Deccan Herald