Kannampalayam Lake, about 20 kilometres from Coimbatore in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is tucked away in an undisturbed, rustic environment. Pelicans and cormorants are commonly found here. Birdwatchers have sighted rare birds, like the Eurasian Sparrowhawk, as well.
This rich diversity in birds is perhaps because this lake, unlike most urban wetlands, is free from plastic waste, toxic waste and debris dumping – core issues affecting most urban wetlands in Tamil Nadu.
Now, with the recent move by the Tamil Nadu State Wetland Authority to notify 100 wetlands as “priority wetlands”, the state’s choking urban wetlands may finally breathe.
Almost two years after the inception of the state’s wetland authority, a survey is underway to identify important wetlands in Tamil Nadu. The board was set up after the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change notified states to constitute wetland authorities for conservation, as per the new wetland rules. Each state’s wetland authority would identify and prioritise wetlands in the respective state, constitute wetland authorities, develop integrated management plans, bring in resources for implementation, strengthen rules, research, monitor and evaluate wetlands.
This authority is also empowered to guide and monitor the constitution of district-level state wetland management committees.
Experts from Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History are in the process of shortlisting these wetlands for Tamil Nadu. This list would then be handed over to the forest department, who will take over conservation of wetlands.
As the project unfolds, experts are focusing on the importance of determining how many wetlands currently exist in Tamil Nadu and how many of these are usable.
The state of Tamil Nadu’s wetlands
K Varunprasath, Assistant Professor, Zoology at the PSG College of Arts and Science in Coimbatore, has been surveying wetlands in Coimbatore district.
“So far, we have identified 49 wetlands in Coimbatore under three categories. Out of 49, wetlands less than 10 acres occupies 26%, between 11-100 acres represent 51%, 101-250 acres occupies 17% and the largest, above 250 acres, make up 6% of the wetlands,” said Varunprasath.
Though data for large wetlands is easily available, this is not the case for smaller wetlands. Also, a small wetland can be easily encroached. Varunprasath said, “If dumping happens continuously in a two-acre wetland, in two-three years, the size of the wetland will reduce and in five years, there will be no wetland.”
Ritesh Kumar, Conservation Programme Manager, Wetlands International-South Asia concurred, “Larger wetlands still have visibility but smaller wetlands are lost at a much higher rate.”
According to Varunprasath’s surveys, 49% of wetlands vanished within 20 years of time due to human activities in Coimbatore district.
Another finding that emerged while he was researching the wetlands was how the water holding capacity of wetlands reduced over years. Varunprasath said, “Every year when there is silting, the depth of the wetland reduces. As a result, the water does not stay. The key reason for this is lack of maintenance. There are huge wetlands between 100-200 acres, however, without water.”
The wetlands in rural areas are better maintained by the local communities. Varunprasath said. “Since communities need water in dry season, they desilt and dredge. However, these wetlands are smaller in size.”
Similar research done by Varunprasath in Tirupur, which is located about 50 kilometres east of Coimbatore, shows that most wetlands there were lost due to toxic pollution.
“It would be a waste working in Tirupur as, of 150 wetlands, only 20 remain usable. Industrial pollution and effluents have degraded the wetlands, rendering them useless,” said Varunprasath. “Though they can be repaired, it would be cost-intensive. Even if half of the wetlands – about 75 – would have been conserved, Tirupur, which is a water-deficit region, would not have had water issues.”
The loss of wetlands, however, is not Tamil Nadu-specific and has been observed nationwide. According to Ritesh Kumar of Wetlands International, “One of our recent estimates indicated that in the last 25 years every one square kilometre increase in built up area has led to loss of 25 hectares of wetlands in urban areas. We are examining the number of wetlands and have found that 40% of wetlands (excluding rivers) have been lost in the last four decades alone.”
Will updating legislation save India’s wetlands?
In 2017, new rules for wetland conservation in India replaced the existing 2010 rules. However, the new 2017 rules received criticism for modifying the definition of wetlands which, in the 2010 rules included “all inland waters such as lakes, reservoir, tanks, backwaters, lagoon, creeks, estuaries and man-made wetlands and the zone of direct influence on wetlands”. The new wetland rules omitted salt pans and manmade wetlands from the list.
Commenting on the omissions in the 2017 rules, Neha Sinha, an environmentalist said, “Tanks are important for biodiversity. This omission is big as lot of wetlands have been created by people. Also, salt pans are crucial not just for birds, but also turtles. If we say that manmade wetlands are not wetlands, who will monitor these places? Do they not deserve any protection? Is it okay to pollute them?”
Now, with the creation of the state-based wetland authorities, the power to decide on land use vests with the state. “In the 2010 rules, the Central Wetland Authority were to monitor, regulate and take action. Now that has been done away with – this enables transition of wetlands into other land use,” added Sinha.
Kumar, however, is in support of updating the rules. “The current piece of legislation would be a step forward because in 2010, despite having all the right elements, it had limited implementation,” he said.
He added, “Let us look at the rule as one piece of legislatory instrument. The government has the right intent. There are several other instruments by which wetlands can be protected. If the state has the bent not to lose an inch of wetland, they won’t.”
Giving the example of Uttar Pradesh, where an inventory of 20,000 wetlands and necessary amendments in land records have been made. Kumar said, “Now, that means converting anything wetland for land use would require permission. And that permission can always be refused. They have started working at the fundamental level. To me, the biggest important stepping stone is, if our land record recognises wetland boundary as a genuine land use, then it becomes all the more difficult to convert a wetland.”
There are different parameters on which these wetlands need to be recognised for protection status. It is essential to look at water quality, and if it is usable. Second, other than presence of fishes and birds, aquatic vegetation is an important criterion.
So far, around 18 states in India have nominated experts to identify wetlands, according to Kumar. However, he is concerned at the steps following identification and stresses that the wetlands outside the notified protected areas need protection too.
“After identifying wetlands, are we going to manage pollution in a systemic scale so that water bodies don’t get polluted? It is not enough to say that waste will not be discharged into the wetland, it is also important to say how waste treatment is going to be done,” he said. “You can create a rule and say don’t discharge into the wetland, but then it will go to the river or to the sea. It will create an undesirable effect. We need to work on systemic solutions.”
Environmentalist Sinha meanwhile recommended consulting local communities and said, “The communities are the first stakeholders and they need to come into the conversation and can be a great feedback mechanism in what is happening.”
Kumar believes that the current management plans have been designed based on the principles of convergence with nature. This accommodates communities as well.
In Tamil Nadu, the new rules have brought in decentralisation and empowered the state forest department to take action. Dr Jayshree Vencatesan, Managing Trustee, CARE Earth Trust said, “If these wetlands are designated as protected, there will be more funds to deploy people. If the forest department is involved, they will have more teeth to book offenders.”
However, Kumar said that wetlands need a different approach from terrestrial systems like forests. “You cannot determine a boundary and say that protecting the boundary will save the wetland. Even if the boundaries are intact, the wetland could still be killed. The forest department would need additional capacities on how wetlands should be managed. Some training in [this regard] will help.”
He further added, “Let us also recognise that several success stories of conservation have come from the forest department, including the famous Chilika lake case led by an Indian Forest Service officer.”
Regarding the issue of concretisation of wetlands, Kumar stressed that wetlands need to be understood as natural infrastructure and their natural settings left undisturbed. He said that the efforts have “to come from the ministry and different agencies who are entrusted with these wetlands.”
Varunprasath adds that citizens should also play a role in the conservation of wetlands. “We can also look at adopting wetland, as it is not possible for the government to do everything,” he said.
One third of the world’s freshwater is available as groundwater, every third drop of water is recharged by a wetland. Wetlands should function in a way that they facilitate ground water recharge.
“As India’s water story unfolds, wetlands need to be at a centre stage, for this is not an environmental issue. We need to be look at how wetlands could augment water security. In the current mechanism, lot of avenues have opened for wetlands conservation,” said Kumar.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.