Wetlands and Wise Use Principle of the Ramsar Convention
Wetlands are distinct ecosystems, that are flooded either permanently or temporarily resulting in an anoxic (oxygen-free) environment and hydric soils. These may be considered as ecotones, providing a transition between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. These are characterized by the hydric soils and hydrophytes (aquatic plants) adapted to wetland conditions.
Types of Wetlands
The most comprehensive definition of the wetland is provided by the Ramsar Convention of 1971. Its broad definition encompasses:
- Freshwater wetlands: Floodplains of rivers and boundaries of streams, natural lakes, artificial reservoirs; springs, fens, and seeps; freshwater marshes and swamps, bogs, and vernal ponds.
- Brackish water wetlands: Tidal marshes and mangrove swamps, estuaries, and deltas.
- Marine Wetlands: Coastal lagoons and coastal waters up to the depth of 6m at low tide and any island, rock, or coral reef lying within these wetlands.
Wetlands, which are among the most productive ecosystems, provide supporting, regulating, provisioning, and cultural services, hence contributing to human well-being. These are discussed below:
1. Regulating Services: Wetlands are natural sponges, which absorb run-off water and slowly discharge water. The high biodiversity of vegetation also slows down the run-off speed. The combined effect results in flood prevention. This service is of utmost importance if a wetland is found within or downstream an urban area, where concretization has intensified the rate and volume of run-off. This prevents water-logging of agricultural fields. Also, diminished run-off rate prevents soil erosion and helps recharge underground aquifers. Wetlands’ diverse flora and fauna are part of global nutrient cycles of Carbon, Sulphur, water and Nitrogen. The carbon sequestration by the soil and plants of the wetlands play an important role in moderating the climate of the earth and improving the local air quality. Mangrove swamps are famous for protecting the coastal population against tsunamis and cyclones. Wetlands also provide free purification of water service through bioremediation.
2. Provisioning Services: Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth, matching rainforests and coral reefs in biodiversity. The detritus formed by dead plant tissues form food for a large number of mosquitoes and fishes, which in turn feeds migratory birds, amphibians, reptiles, predatory fishes, and mammals. Also, some medicinal plants are endemic to wetlands. Hence, wetlands provision for fishes, medicines, timber, a variety of exotic fruits like cranberries for human consumption.
3. Supporting Services: As already seen, wetlands provide habitat for a large number of animals and birds. The complex food web in the wetland ecosystem helps in preserving the genetic diversity of the wetlands.
4. Cultural Services: Wetlands are great spots for recreation and tourism. Some of the wetlands like Chilika lake in India are a paradise for bird watchers. It attracts not just the local population of birds, but migratory birds from as far as Siberia.
Degradation of Wetlands
Globally, about 50% of the wetlands have ceased to exist as a result of human actions. While the temperate region was mostly responsible for their disappearance till the 1950s since then tropical countries have accelerated the pace of wetland conversion into alternate land uses like dams construction, agriculture, and urbanization. India also lost over 30% of wetlands over the last three decades. While Chennai lost about 90%, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, and many other large cities have lost more than 50% of wetlands.
As per Global Wetland Outlook, current wetland coverage is about 12 million square kilometers area. It is suspected that much of this is now degraded. The factors responsible for the degradation of wetlands are:
- over utilizing provisioning services like fishing, water withdrawal, etc, which in turn impact regulating, supporting and cultural services
- indiscriminate use of fertilizers in agriculture leading to eutrophication
- invasion by alien species
- land use change for urban sprawl and agricultural expansion
- high sediment load and hence sedimentation rates due to enhanced levels of soil erosion and increased particulate matter in the air
- climate change
The swift decline of wetlands is causing the loss of services, which directly impacts human well-being. This prompted some countries and NGOs to start discussing ways to conserve wetlands globally. The negotiations started in the 1960s and 18 nations agreed to the text of the Ramsar Convention in the Ramsar Conference held in 1971. The Convention came into force in 1975 and Australia became the first country to accede to the convention. This is the only treaty exclusively for a particular ecosystem. Originally focusing on the water birds, the convention has evolved it’s scope to cover all aspects of wetland conservation.
As per the 3 pillars of the Ramsar Convention, the countries will:
- Ensure wise use of all wetlands within their territories.
- Declare eligible wetlands within their territories as Wetlands of International Importance, the list of which is called the Ramsar List, and ensure their effective management.
- Cooperate internationally for trans boundary wetlands.
Currently, there are over 2400 wetlands in the Ramsar convention list, and it entered into force in India on 1st February 1982 and initially declared Chilika Lake and Keoladeo National Park as Ramsar sites. Today India has declared 47 wetlands as Wetlands of International Importance.
Wise Use Principle
One of the pillars, the wise use of wetlands is simply sustainable use of wetlands using ecosystem approach. The wise use principle appreciates the fact that ecosystem services of the wetlands are to be utilized for human well-being and land-use change for development is bound to happen, but such utilization should be subjected to nondisturbance of ecological character of the wetland (combination of components, processes, and services) and within the limits of sustainable development. In other words, a trade-off is made between the loss of ecosystem services due to degradation of wetlands, and development and economic gain, while ensuring that degradation of wetlands is not pushed beyond their regeneration capacity.
The guidelines on wise use encourage parties to:
- Enact laws, adopt policies and establish institutions for wise use of wetlands.
- Educate and train people and spread public awareness regarding wise use approach and establish a mechanism for inventory management and monitoring.
- Take action on the field, ensuring their wise use and reverse any practice harming the wetland ecosystem.
India and Wise Use Policy
Based on the above guidelines, India has taken a number of steps in the direction of conserving wetlands. Some of them are:
1. Policies, Laws and Institutions
a. National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Systems is launched for comprehensive conservation of wetlands and lakes, so as to get the desired quality of water along with conservation of biodiversity.
b. Wetlands Conservation and Management Rules, 2017 establishes the National Wetland Committee (for monitoring implementation of rules and recommending policy actions including the declaration of wetlands as Ramsar sites) and State Wetlands Authority (for regulating and permitting activities within a notified wetland).
c. Centre for Wetland Conservation and Management (CWCM) was launched on 2nd February, 2021 to address knowledge gaps and specific research needs.
2. Inventory management and monitoring
a. Formulation of a toolkit under National Mission for Clean Ganga in January 2021 for management of water bodies and wetlands in urban areas.
b. On World Wetland Day 2021, a health card of 10 wetlands covering more than 50 Ganga cities was released to help monitor and manage the ground level situation
c. National Wetland Inventory and Assessment done by ISRO has mapped more than 2 lakh wetlands across the country with the help of remote sensing satellites.
Wetlands are important to the well-being of humans as they provide several services. As the importance of wetlands is dawning on to the general public, conservation and restoration efforts have picked up. The lessons from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami have generated interest in restoring lost mangroves swamps and estuarine ecosystems. The extreme floods in major cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai, and Chennai in recent years have made it crystal clear that wetland ecosystems are not to be exploited to the levels which prove to be harmful to humans themselves.