Caught in the wet

Caught in the wet The state of India's wetlands, a good way to judge the health of the ecosystem, is coming in for increasing criticism. A fresh set of nails have been driven into the coffin of wetland management by the recently published reports of 3 "Ramsar Sites" by the Worldwide Fund-India (WWF).

The intergovernmental Ramsar Convention, adopted in 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar, promotes international cooperation for the conservation of wetland habitats of global importance. The WWF reports indicate that there is no special action plan for the Indian Ramsar Sites -- the Keoladeo National Park and Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan and Loktak Lake in Manipur.

"The problem with wetlands conservation is not merely the local economic pressure. More pertinent is the fact that most wetland development policies of the government are proving detrimental to the natural functioning of the eco-cycle of the Sites," says Rashmi De Roy, programme coordinator of wetlands, WWF.

The Loktak report points out that the Loktak Hydel Project has jeopardised the area's ecology by converting the lake into a permanent reservoir and doomed the economic life of a large part of the population. Experts feel that the situation will be further exacerbated by the proposed economic development programme of the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) because it is not geared to local needs. In Keoladeo, the move to strictly regulate the activities of local inhabitants in the park is proving counter-productive to the growth of the wetland.
Paper glory De Roy holds that by declaring some wetlands Ramsar Sites, the government has recognised their importance only on paper. Their significance has not been extended to their treatment, which is as indifferent as that of any other wetland, she feels.

"There must be a balance between encouraging resource utilisation of a wetland and wetland protection strategies," agrees C L Trisal, joint director, Union ministry of environment and forests. However, he states that strategies for the Ramsar wetlands, or even a national policy for wetlands, are still a long way off because "we are yet to define our conservation objectives. More knowledge and experience of these areas is required, as each wetland has its own unique eco-cycle."

However, the measures already initiated by the government have drawn a lot of flak. Critics hold that the Loktak Hydel Project, initiated by the Union ministry of irrigation and power in 1983, completely changed the character of the 288.96-sq-km wetland by converting it into a reservoir. This altered the lake's hydrology and biota and created problems for the local communities which depend on the lake for food, fodder and fuel.

The LDA, set up in 1987 to redress these very problems, has also run into trouble. Tombi Singh and R K Shyamananda Singh of Manipur University, the authors of WWF-India's Loktak lake report, point out that LDA has proposed destroying many of the hillocks present as islets in the lake and encircling it with an artificial dyke. Lake dyking is a "forbidden practice" worldwide because it shrinks lake area and degrades water quality. Protective measures suggested by LDA, such as banning cultivation in the park and building fences to prevent people's entry, has only earned the hostility of local villagers. "Development" in a hurry
De Roy points out that the pressure on the wetlands is not so much from the largely benevolent utilisation by local communities as from the entry of outsiders in a hurry to "develop" the area through schemes for tourism or modern fisheries which may be economically beneficial but not ecologically compatible. Loktak lake gets short shift as various interest groups -- like those who want to convert the lake into profitable fisheries, engineers who view the lake as a reservoir for generating hydel power, and developers who want to make a fast buck from the lake's resources -- fight it out.

The importance of traditional management practices involving local communities in conservation has not been taken seriously while deciding management strategies for wetlands, emphasises Lata Vijayan of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore, who has prepared the Keoladeo report based on a 10-year study of the park's ecology by the Bombay Natural History Society. There is a consensus that active human management is essential in the tiny 29 sq km Keoladeo park that supports a wide variety of migratory wildlife including, till recently, the Siberian crane.

Once a natural depression that was flooded during the monsoons, the area was converted into a permanent wetland and waterfowl refuge in the 18th century by the rulers of Bharatpur to provide game hunting, grazing for cattle and protecting Bharatpur from frequent floods. The very existence of the park, which dries up almost completely every summer, depends upon the release of water into the park from the Ajan bund, a reservoir constructed 250 years ago. The water in the reservoir, fed by the Banganga and Gambhir rivers, is regulated by a traditional system of canals and dykes.

The increasing droughts in the park since the '80s have been caused by uncontrolled use of the waters of Banganga and Gambhir rivers for irrigation. A proposal to bring additional water from the Chambal river should, therefore, be part of an integrated development programme for the area, Vijayan feels. She points out that wetlands like Koeladeo are "vulnerable because they are open systems influenced by activities from outside and also by the inadequacy of the support and participation of the local people".

Where the wetland management strategy could result in a catastrophic choking of the wetland, says Vijayan, is the ban on village buffaloes grazing inside the park. The park was meant to support neighbouring villages for whom the buffalo is the main economic support and who face a perennial scarcity of fodder. In the absence of cattle, the uncontrolled growth of vegetation has diminished the expanse of open water, making it an unsuitable habitat for waterfowl. Clearing the area by cutting, scraping and bulldozing have proved to be dismally inadequate, besides affecting the ecosystem adversely. Experts have recommended reintroducing a controlled number of cattle in the park.

Management or lack of it
Wetland ecosystem management is almost entirely absent in the case of the saline Sambhar Lake. Although honoured as a Ramsar Site in 1990, no environmentally-oriented study has been conducted on this forgotten wetland, located 60 km west of Jaipur. The WWF report on Sambhar is in fact the first of its kind. Not even the state government, comment authors Brij Gopal of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and K P Sharma of Jaipur University, is aware of the lake's importance to the area's ecosystem. It is regarded merely as a source of salt and not as rich ecosystem that needs to be conserved.

"There is no sustainable management strategy for the lake," says De Roy, even though this is urgently required with the growing human pressures in one of the few winter habitats of the flamingo. Already, small check-dams are being constructed all over the area. These could impede the flow of water, with its nutrients and organic matter, into the lake. While the production of salt itself has not affected the lake's ecosystem, the salt industry's efforts to suppress algal growth, the only food of the flamingos, is potentially threatening.

The development strategies for conservation and sustainable utilisation suggested by the reports are applicable to all important wetlands, says De Roy. These include a shift in emphasis from the government's resource exploitative strategy to ecological rehabilitation; taking into account the area's entire drainage system rather than treating the wetland in isolation; avoiding gross physical modifications; and incorporating traditional management practices.

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