Rough weather ahead for wetlands committee

Rough weather ahead for wetlands committee THE MINISTRY of environment and forests (MEF) has merged the two separate committees on wetlands and mangroves to constitute a National Committee on Wetlands, Mangroves and Coral Reefs. But if the new committee is to achieve any success in saving these precious ecological resources, it will have to solve the old problems of encroachments, harmonise the conflicting interests of conservation and resource use by local people, and integrate the sectoral approaches of development agencies.

The merger of the two committees was done to avoid what the government felt was parallel activity by two bodies. A single committee headed by the Union secretary for environment and forests would, it was felt, be in a better position to manage these ecosystems.

Wetlands alone cover about 17 million ha (nearly 5 per cent) of the country"s land area. The committee will identify wetlands of national importance for their conservation. It will also monitor research work and implementation of policies, including collaboration with international agencies.

The new committee faces a major challenge from encroachers. According to a senior official of the MEF, who did not wish to be identified, "Though money is being spent, the overall management of wetlands continues to be far from satisfactory. Critical problems like encroachments, overexploitation of economic resources and discharge of effluents continue." He also argues that the condition of mangroves was somewhat better than wetlands because they had received more attention. But this is disputed by others in the ministry like C L Trisal, joint director, who contends that last year, four wetlands had received Rs 156 lakh each, while only Rs 94 lakh each were given to three mangrove systems.

S A Hussain, assistant director of the Asian Wetlands Bureau, cites the case of the Vedaranyam swamps in Thanjavur district where unbridled fishing and trawling have ravaged the whole ecosystem in just 10 years. The commercial potential of this wetland, fed by both the Bay of Bengal and the Kaveri river, was discovered about 15 years ago. Now, according to Hussain, the entire resource base of the area has been eroded and the rich trawler operators have moved to greener pastures, leaving the neighbouring fishing community in a lurch. Similarly, intensive aquaculture has reduced the Kolleru lake, which once spanned about 200-sq km, into several fishing fields.

The problems of the Chilka lake too are, to a great extent, caused by heavy encroachment for fishing, says J M Patnaik, director of the department of forests and environment of Orissa. Many people in the surrounding villages have abandoned agriculture to take up fishing in the lake, the prawns of which fetch a high price. The situation is going to be further aggravated when the Tatas start prawn farming there, adds Hussain.

The encroachments in the Gangetic plains take place largely because of agriculture. As floods or rain waters recede, people rush in to sow seeds in the fertile silt. As a result, the wetlands not only get deposits of top soil eroded from the fields, but are also poisoned with the pesticides and fertilisers used for crops. This was a common problem in the wetlands of north Bihar, says D K Srivastava, adviser to the department of environment in the state.

Trisal points out another bottleneck in wetland management, namely, the lack of a holistic approach. He claims that "a lot of research is going into these ecosystems and yet there are strong differences of opinion over their management. Wetland experts themselves tend to be highly sectoral."

One school of opinion argues that the wetlands are fast transforming into drylands and, hence, there is no need for human intervention. The argument is that nature will take care of the eological balance. It is on this ground that there is opposition to desilting of some of the lakes. But the counter-argument is, since a lot of degradation has come about due to human intervention, its reversal should also be brought about by human beings. The case in point is the Chilka lake where a cut was made in the 1840s to bring in sea water to save the lake. On the other hand, the Wullar Lake in the Kashmir Valley, which covered an area of 189 sq km until a few decades ago, has shrunk to merely 60 sq km in the absence of effective measures.

MEF sources say that, because of lack of adequate checks, the only uncorrupted lakes to be found in the country today are in the upper reaches of the Himalayan mountains, where there is no population pressure. Unfortunately, there is still no clear understanding within the government as to how to deal with pressures from local people. At a workshop held recently in New Delhi on wetland conservation and management, several participants mentioned resistance even from those who drew their livelihood from these ecosystems.

"Preservation efforts cannot succeed unless the aspirations of local people are taken into consideration," says S Kaul, a senior scientist of the MEF. He points out that the ecological restoration efforts in the Sunderban mangrove swamps in West Bengal began to bear fruit only when the villagers were given alternative fuel for use. Similarly, the pressure on the major wetlands of north Bihar has eased since the Fish Farmers" Development Programme was introduced in the area, according to V D Singh, a joint commissioner in the ministry of agriculture.

To ensure better monitoring, the national committee has set up steering committees in all the states headed by their chief secretaries (except in Orissa, where it is headed by the chief minister himself because of the importance of the Chilka lake). The chief secretaries are involved so that all conflicts can be resolved at the state level itself and leave national body free to concentrate on policy issues. But in many states, the steering committees have still to start in earnest.

There are also many instances of unintelligent and bureaucratic approaches to conservation of wetlands. The dredging being done at the Loktak lake in Manipur is reportedly useless as the dredged silt, which is dumped on the banks, flows back into the lake during the monsoons. The Khajiar lake in Himachal Pradesh is facing the same problem. Besides, smaller lakes that cannot make it to the list of "wetlands of national importance" are getting wiped out. Thus, the new committe"s biggest task is to spread the message that wetlands are more than mere water bodies, say wetland experts.

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