Wetlands: Why we should care?

Dr Konthoujam Khelchandra Singh
World Wetlands Day is celebrated internationally every year on 2 February. It marks the anniversary of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention)in Ramsar, Iran, on 2February 1971. We celebrate World Wetlands Day to raise awareness about the importance of wetlands for people and for the Mother Earth. The focal theme for this year is “Wetlands for Sustainable Urban Future”, highlights the important role of wetlands for sustainable urbanisation.Urban wetlands are essential and contribute to making cities liveable.
The statement released by Martha Rojas Urrego, Secretary General of Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, on the occasion ofWorld Wetlands Day indicates that “4 billion people, about half of the world’s population live in the urban areas today”. It will be an enormous challenging task for urban planners and managers because of the rapidly increasing urban population. It is estimated that the number of mega-cities with more than ten billion inhabitants will take a steep rise from 31 to 41. Today’s current development of human settlement is a major concern for wetland conservation and wise use. The rapid expansion of cities leads to increase in the demand for land, this leads to problem of encroachment on the wetlands. Wetlands are often viewed as wasteland available for dumping waste or be converted for other purposes. This is a very disturbing thinking, which is an important factor for depletion of wetlands.
According to the WWF’s Living Planet report 64% of wetlands worldwide have been lost since 1900, and that 76% of populations of freshwater plants and animals have disappeared in the last 40 years alone, which is worse than any other ecosystem. So, special attention should be targeted towards management and conservation of wetlands. To combat the downward global trends in loss and degradation of wetlands, Ramsar works with governments and conservation organisations as well as bringing in private sector and scientific expertise.
What are wetlands?Wetlands are generally regarded as the transitional areas between the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated plant and animal life. Wetlands are wide ranging areas which may be temporary seasonal water bodies or water saturated lands, natural and man-made permanent water bodies. The wetlands distributed all over the world possess the common characteristics of free water supply and an abnormally hostile chemical environment to which the plant roots are exposed. An immense variety of species of microbes, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals can be part of a wetland ecosystem. Climate, landscape shape, geology and the movement and abundance of water help to determine the plants and animals that inhabit each wetland. The functions of a wetland and the values of these functions to humans depend on a complex set of relationships between the wetland and the other ecosystems in the watershed. A watershed is a geographic area in which water, sediments and dissolved materials drain from higher elevations to a common low-lying outlet or basin a point on a larger stream, lake, underlying aquifer or estuary.
What are the major threats to wetlands?The main threats facing our wetlands today aretremendous anthropogenic pressure resulting in rapid destruction of habitat, massive encroachment by the people living in the vicinity of the wetlands. At the same time, over-exploitation of faunal and floral resources, aquaculture and human settlements in rural areas and for construction of buildings and other infrastructure in urban areas, shrinkage of habitat due to conversion of wetlands for agriculture leads to further threats to wetlands. Then, uncontrolled siltation of rivers and wetlands, thereby reducing the water holding capacity, which reduces the amount of available water during dry period, discharge of water and industrial effluents into reservoirs, altering the water quality as well as the natural population of several sensitive species. The problem of accelerated eutrophication of natural wetlands due to pollution, surface run-off and uncontrolled growth of weeds and consequent decay and limited awareness and public participationare equally vulnerableto degradation of wetlands.
Why are wetlands important?We should all know that wetlands provide fresh water for us all.Less than 3% of the world ‘s water is fresh, and the rest is saltwater. Most of this is frozen. Among the available freshwater, the largest share can be found in aquifers. Wetlands help purify and replenish the aquifers humanity depends on. Wetlands performs variety of important environmental functions, which includes maintaining good water quality by trapping the sediments, filtering out pollutants and absorbing her nutrients that would otherwise result in poor water quality for downstream users. Wetlands helps in reducing the impacts from storm damage and flooding, recharging groundwater storing carbon. Wetlands also helps to stabilize climatic condition and acts as important sites for biodiversity.
Wetlands are also nature’s shock absorbers as they act as natural sponges, absorbing rainfall, creating wide surface pools that ease any flooding to rivers. The same storage capacity will also safeguard against the impact of drought. Wetlands also provide significant economic, social and cultural benefits. Wetlands are important for primary products such as agriculture, fisheries and forestry. Wetlands support agricultural activities because they are source of water for irrigation and livestock and for domestic consumption. Many coastal and inland wetlands are popular for tourism and recreational activities such as swimming, boating, fishing, camping and bird watching.
The need of the hour is retaining and restore the existing wetlands in a practical way. It is heartening to know that Manipur State Government under the under the able leadership of N. Biren has recently renamed Loktak Development Authority (LDA) to State Wetland Authority.It is also right step towards conservation and restoration of wetlands by planning to expand to other water bodies like Pumlenpat, Kharungpat, Ikoppat, Khoidumpat etc. However, it is very pertinent to properly identify the various threat to number of existing lakes and water bodies in Manipur. I also basically feel modification to the present Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act 2006 is necessary to incorporate changes to include important actions and strategy for conservation of wetlands in Manipur.
It is right time to take corrective and effectives measures for preserving and restoring wetlands in Manipur. We have seen an increased in the frequency and magnitude of flooding in valley areas of Manipur during 2017. So, if we take immediate necessary steps to conserve our PRECIOUS WETLANDS, we can reduce the risk of flooding by slowing down floodwaters along rivers and releasing over time. We should also remember that river systems with intact wetlands close to sources have consistent flows than rivers where the catchment and its wetlands have been largely cleared. So, on this World Wetlands Day,let’s us all Pledge to conserve our wetlands for our better lives tomorrow.
(The author is currently working as Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Science, Mizoram University. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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