Nearly two and a half years after it had notified the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 for conservation and management of wetlands in the country, the Indian government’s Environment Ministry has now come out with guidelines to support state governments in the implementation of the rules.

The document aims to guide states in preparing a list of wetlands; identifying wetlands for notification under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017; delineating wetlands, wetlands complexes and zone of influence; developing a list of activities to be regulated and permitted; and developing an integrated management plan for wetlands, which are rich reservoirs of biodiversity.

The guidelines come just ahead of February 2, which is celebrated as World Wetlands Day every year.

The guidelines clarified that all wetlands, irrespective of their location, size, ownership, biodiversity, or ecosystem services values, can be notified under the Wetlands Rules 2017, except river channels, paddy fields, human-made waterbodies specifically constructed for drinking water, aquaculture, salt production, recreation, irrigation purposes, wetlands falling within areas covered under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2011.

The Ramsar Convention, which is an international intergovernmental treaty for conservation of wetlands, to which India is a party, defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, 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”.

In India, 26 wetlands are identified as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. As on date, under the Ramsar Convention, 2,339 sites covering an area more than 252 million hectares have been identified making it one of the world’s largest protected area networks.

The wetlands support rich biodiversity and help stabilise water supplies, cleanse polluted waters, protect shorelines, and recharge groundwater aquifers. However, factors such as infilling for agriculture and construction, pollution, overexploitation of resources, invasive species and climate change threaten their existence. It is estimated that wetlands are vanishing three times faster than forests and their rate of disappearance is increasing. For instance, 87% of wetlands have been lost since the 1700s and 35% have disappeared since the 1970s.

These guidelines are significant for a country like India, which is endowed with a rich diversity of wetlands – ranging from high altitude wetlands of Himalayas, floodplains of rivers like Ganga and Brahmaputra, lagoons and mangrove marshes on the coastline and reefs in the marine environments.

Wetlands account for about 4.6% of India’s total geographical area. Credit: Harvinder Chandigarh/Wikimedia Commons

According to Indian government’s Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Babul Supriyo, Indian Space Research Organisation has carried out a National Wetland Inventory and Assessment using Indian remote sensing satellites during 2006-2011 and subsequently brought out national- and state-level wetland inventory atlases.

“A total of 757,060 wetlands have been mapped in the country. The total wetland area estimated is 15.26 million hectares, which is around 4.63% of the geographical area of the country,” Supriyo told Parliament while replying to a query in July 2019.

State-level authorities

In September 2017, the MoEFCC had notified the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017 to replace the 2010 version of the rules. The 2017 rules called for setting up a wetlands authority comprising ministers, officials and experts, in all states. The authority would formulate a list of activities to be allowed, regulated or prohibited within wetlands and their zone of influence, define conservation strategies and wise use of wetlands.

As per the 2017 rules, these authorities were required to designate an expert each for wetlands ecology, hydrology, fisheries, landscape planning and socioeconomics. The latest guidelines recommended that “at least one member may be drawn from civil society to enable stakeholder representation.” The 2017 rules had also stressed that the state governments shall designate a “department as nodal department for wetlands”, which “shall provide all necessary support and act as secretariat to the authority.”

The guidelines for states prescribe that the state or union territory administrations may allocate budget and human resources to ensure smooth functioning of the authority and conduct of its various activities. “The authority and the nodal department may identify a professional institute(s)/organisation(s) that would assist them in their various functions such as preparing a list of wetlands,” said the guidelines, while stipulating that these authorities “shall meet at least thrice in a year.”

The guidelines for the states further instruct on comprehensive listing of wetlands, basing them on Ramsar Convention and to consider previous lists of wetlands by various agencies, including revenue records. The guidelines state that authorities must ensure that the wetlands are either registered appropriately or take steps in registering the wetland in land revenue records for protecting encroachment or illegal claims. “The states/union territories may seek the assistance of state remote sensing agencies and local experts for preparing such wetland inventory expeditiously,” the guidelines said.

Jayshree Vencatesan, who is the managing trustee of the Care Earth Trust, a Chennai-based NGO that works for biodiversity conservation and particularly wetlands restoration, explained that the reason behind their faster rate of disappearance compared to forests is the historical and stringent protection that forests have in India.

“Forests in India have been historically protected since colonial times, while wetlands have been ignored from long. What has added to the problem is that over the years people who were traditionally involved in managing wetland sare no more there. Even in the way, wetland systems were considered by the government authorities has changed. All this together has impacted the wetlands and their future,” Vencatesan told Mongabay-India.

“But there is still some hope as in recent times, there has been a lot of focus on restoring their health. Though not all may get saved there is still a chance for some,” she said. The central government was providing financial assistance to states under the National Wetlands Conservation Programme for conservation and management of identified wetlands till 2012-’13. But subsequently, it was merged with the National Lake Conservation Plan and a new scheme National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems was devised.

“So far, an amount of Rs 9.69 billion has been released to the state governments for various conservation and management activities in wetlands including lakes,” informed Babul Supriyo.

Wise-use approach

Explaining further, the guidelines said the management of notified wetlands is recommended to “be based on wise-use approach” as they are impacted by the use of resources by humans. “The wise-use approach recognises that restricting wetland loss and degradation requires the incorporation of linkages between people and wetlands. The wise-use principle emphasises that human use of these ecosystems on a sustainable basis is compatible with conservation,” noted the guidelines.

They explained that wise-use, through an “emphasis on sustainable development, calls for resource use patterns which can ensure that human dependence on wetlands can be maintained not only in the present but also in the future.”

It stressed that a wetland use is “not wise use” if the human “intervention leads to adverse changes in ecosystem components and processes, such as reduction in water flowing into the wetlands, in the area under inundation, water holding capacity, in diversity of native species, or fragmentation of wetlands into small patches of water, degradation of water quality, emergence of invasive species, decline in wetlands resources like fish and aquatic plants.

For instance, it explained that in an urban lake type of wetland, intervention like concretisation of shoreline for beautification will increase the aesthetic value and tourism benefits but will lead to decrease in the “ability to accommodate monsoon flows” and thus may not be a “wise-use”.

India’s 2017 wetland rules prohibit many activities within the wetlands to protect their ecology. Credit: Aditya Bhattacharjee/Flickr

“The 2017 wetland rules had diluted the 2010 version of the wetland rules. There have been no steps taken to protect them even after the 2017 rules. The authorities have not taken any step to upgrade their protection. No ground-level studies have been done to identify and notify the wetlands in most of the states,” said Noida-based environmentalist Vikrant Tongad, who has been fighting for the protection of wetlands in Uttar Pradesh.

Scope expanded

The 2017 rules had listed out activities prohibited within notified wetlands, such as the setting up of any industry and expansion of existing industries, manufacture or handling or storage or disposal of construction and demolition waste, solid waste dumping, discharge of untreated wastes and effluents from industries, cities, towns, villages and other human settlements.

The guidelines now recommended that “state/union territory wetlands authority, based on consideration of site-specific conditions, may consider expanding the list of prohibited activities for a notified wetland [or wetlands complex],” adding that “activities within a notified wetland and its zone of influence, which when contained within a specific threshold or area, are not likely to induce an adverse change in wetlands ecological character may be placed under the ‘regulated’ category.”

For instance, activities like subsistence level biomass harvesting, sustainable culture fisheries practices and plying of non-motorised boats, when regulated, are not likely to induce an adverse change in wetlands. “Each activity, however, would need to be considered on a case to case basis, keeping in mind the ecological character of wetland or wetlands complex,” said the guidelines, while stressing that the generic listing of a set of activities for all wetlands of a state may not be desirable.

“For example, releasing treated sewage may not be advisable for high altitude wetlands that have slow decomposition rates,” it said. Meanwhile, the guidelines also came out with a list of activities that are aligned with the “wise use” of wetland that “may be permitted within the wetland or its zone of influence.”

It said activities like ecological rehabilitation and rewilding of nature, research, environmental education and participation activities, habitat management and conservation of wetland-dependent species, community-based ecotourism with minimum construction activities, harvesting of wetlands products within regenerative capacity, integrating wetlands as nature-based solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptation are likely to be aligned with the “wise use”.

However, it clarified that permitted activities may need to be identified considering the ecological character of each wetland to be notified. “It is likely that an activity may be benign for one wetland, yet would need regulation for others. For example, ecotourism may not be desirable for all wetlands,” the guidelines said.

The guidelines recommended that the management of each notified wetland is guided by an “integrated management plan” which details strategies and actions for achieving “wise use” of the wetland and includes objectives of site management.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.