A forlorn tale: From wetlands to dry lands

Wetlands per se constitute an ecosystem and wetlands combined with geographical location and topography of a region usually act as a major determinant of the region’s climatic conditions. Wetlands are typically shallow so sunlight can penetrate the surface to facilitate subterranean photosynthesis, making these ecosystems one of the most biologically productive areas on the planet.  It is generally understood that wetlands are flooded by water seasonally, if not perennially and they provide a unique ecosystem for birds, fishes and other aquatic creatures, reduce damaging impacts of flood and most importantly wetlands have always been significant climate regulator. Till the beginning of the 20th century, wetlands abounded in Manipur and there were hundreds of wetlands scattered across Manipur Valley. As a new era of modernisation set in, the number of wetlands got reduced to just about 50 in the 1950’s.  With more and more wetlands reclaimed for different purposes, there are now only around 17 wetlands in the State, and if their current pathetic state is any indication, they will disappear sooner than later. When so many wetlands have disappeared over the years, frequent floods and droughts at irregular intervals is only a natural corollary. Likewise, one cannot put the entire blame for the soaring temperature in Manipur on global climate change or global warming. In addition to rampant deforestation, disappearance of wetlands is another major factor for the soaring temperature.  The report that all wetlands of Manipur except Loktak and Pumlenpat have virtually vanished is a wakeup call for the Government, NGOs, the civil society and the general public to do something significant to save these dying wetlands.
Loktak Lake and the other wetlands which are now fast vanishing have been constant sources of varied aquatic food, in addition to water creatures such as fish, mollusk and others. Legends talk of how various water bodies have supported livelihood of the general populace of Manipur. People living in the vicinity of such water bodies developed skills, which later on became traditional occupation of the area, passed down from generation to generation as forms of knowledge. Then is it the traditional occupation of the people living in the vicinity which has been threatening wetlands or has led to loss of wetlands? Perhaps, people dependent on these wetlands might have harmed them inadvertently, out of compulsion to some small degree.  But it is largely modernisation and urbanisation projects which have taken a very heavy toll on wetlands. Unfortunately, almost all these modernisation and urbanisation projects are directly executed or patronised by the State. Wetlands across the world have been increasingly facing several anthropogenic pressures and Manipur is no exception. Rapidly expanding human population, large scale changes in land use/land cover, multiple development projects and improper use of watersheds have caused serious impacts on wetlands. As such, it is these areas which the State, NGOs, the civil society and the general public must pay extra attention if the vanishing wetlands of the State must be saved. It is a hard fact that our ecosystems have been shrinking exponentially as the wetlands vanish one after another. If conservation measures are not taken up at the right earnest with the required dose of political will and dedication, the limited number of wetlands that still exist would vanish sooner than later. Unfortunately, it appears both the Government and the public are conveniently overlooking the fact that it would be impossible to retrieve or regenerate any of the wetlands which are closely associated with our world view and of course, livelihood, if they are once lost completely. It is indeed a forlorn tale of transformation from wetlands to dry lands.