Remembering Wetlands on World Environment Day

Above: Wetlands in Western Ghats Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

On this World Environment Day, a number of images leap to mind from the past year: Prime Minister of India performing the famous Ganga Arati after elections to new species of fish and frogs discovered (again) from Western Ghats. From TSR Subramaniam justifying his Committee Report which seeks to disintegrate the environmental governance of the country to Jadav Payang, single-handedly planting thousands of trees in Assam.  From the filthy Yamuna flowing through the national capital to the unseasonal rains that damaged crops of millions of farmers.

But arguably, one the most dramatic and enduring images highlighting the environmental crises of the country has been of Varthur lake in Bangalore literally frothing at its mouth and spewing foam over the streets, followed by a Bellandur lake, actually on fire…

Foaming Bellandur Lake on fire Photo : Deccan Chronicle

Foaming Bellandur Lake on fire Photo : Deccan Chronicle

Dramatic while it is, some of this is not completely unexpected looking at the state of Indian Wetlands. This Environment Day, lat us look at how we are managing our wetlands: one of the world’s most productive ecosystems in the world, providing us with innumerable invaluable services and home to astounding biodiversity.The timing is important as the only dedicated regulatory tool protecting Indian Wetlands: Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 is currently under review by the MoEF&CC.

Foaming Varthur Lake in Bangalore in May 2015 Photo: The Blaze

Foaming Varthur Lake in Bangalore in May 2015 Photo: The Blaze

Some call wetlands as the Kidneys of the planet because of their energy dissipation and water purification qualities. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (called for by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000[1]) estimates that wetlands cover 7% of earth’s surface and deliver 45% of the world’s natural productivity and ecosystem services. Benefits of these are estimated at $20 trillion a year[2]. Despite these benefits, wetlands are the first target of human interference and are among the most threatened of all natural resources. Around 50% of the earth’s wetlands are estimated to already have disappeared worldwide over the last hundred years. India has lost as much as 38% of its wetlands in just the decade between 1991-2001 (SACON) and in some districts, wetlands loss has been as high as 88%.

Temple Tank, also an irrigation wetland in Western Ghats Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

Temple Tank, also an irrigation wetland in Western Ghats Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

While places like Bharatpur, Loktak and Chilika flash across as we say wetlands, wetlands themselves are far more diverse than that. They include high altitude lakes, bogs, swamps, marshes to rivers, floodplains, ox bows, deltas, estuaries, lagoons, flooded forests, to reservoir behind dams, tanks, rice paddies, and even shallow marine shelves and coral reefs. Indeed it looks like there is very little that is water, but not wetlands!

India’s Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010, define them as: “an area of marsh, fen, peatland or water; natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters and includes all inland waters such as lakes, reservoir, tanks, backwaters, lagoon, creeks, estuaries and man-made wetland and the zone of direct influence on wetland that is to say the drainage area or catchment region of the wetlands as determined by the authority but does not include main river channels, paddy fields and coastal wetlands”.

While this definition is clearly based on the Ramsar Convention’s definition of Wetlands, it takes out a very important wetland type from any protection: Rivers! Ramsar definition and even National Wetlands Atlas of 2011 brought out by ISRO included Rivers and streams as major types of Inland Wetlands. Most wetlands are associated with river systems in one way or the other: they are either feeder lakes, or dissipating channels, or floodplains/ ox bows or estuaries, etc. But rivers do not receive any protection from Wetland Rules. In fact, Rivers do not receive dedicated protection from any specific legislation thus far. Let us hope this changes in the new, reviewed Wetland Rules.

When promulgated in December 2010, the final Wetland Rules ignored almost all of the earlier drafts which were put up for public consultations. A draft put out for comments just a few months before the final Rules, included a nuanced management system including Central Wetland Regulatory Authority, State Wetland Authority, State Wetland Appraisal Committee, even District Committee, including Zilla Parishads and villages, etc. Wetlands were categorized in classes based on their sizes and uses and wetlands important for drinking water purpose were also recommended for protection.

But strangely, in the final draft just a few months later, all this was dropped and the only structure recommended was the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority, chock-full of bureaucrats, which would restrict few activities and regulate some more. All this would happen only for the “Notified” wetlands which excluded Rivers, wetlands smaller than 500 hectares in plains, socially and culturally important wetlands (like water sources or fishing grounds), etc., it did not talk anything about existing community rights and how to integrate them. In short, it omitted most of critical wetlands from its ambit, leaving it all to the states, but without any regulatory mechanism at state level in the rules.

Harvesting Nadru (Lotus stem) in Dal Lake Photo: The Tribune

Harvesting Nadru (Lotus stem) in Dal Lake Photo: The Tribune

When SANDRP talked with past member of Central Wetlands Authority, he said that he had no idea if the Authority still exists or not and if he is still a member or not. Last meeting of the Authority happened way back in April 2012 and they have heard nothing since. So for over three years, there has been no meeting of Central Wetlands Authority!

An MoEF and CC official (on condition of anonymity) involved in the process, told SANDRP that this is happening because National Lake Conservation Program (NLCP) and National Wetland Conservation Program (NWCP) is being integrated into a single National Program for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems and this means that new procedural guidelines will have to be worked out. Both NLCP and NWCP do not have any grand successes to report. NWCP was started in 1985-86[3] & it initially looked after only Ramsar Wetlands and has not addressed the water supply issues, while the NLCP formed in 2001 to look mostly at urban lake issues seems to have helped only cosmetic beautification of a few lakes. Together, they have spent more than hundreds of crores till now, without an independent credible assessment of their performance. In fact the same holds true for the entire National River Conservation Directorate Program (NRCD). Although it funds pollution control for some river stretches year after year, there has been no real improvement in the water quality of these rivers, even in these stretches.

It needs to be explained how and why the National Program on Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (which excludes rivers) will be any different from these programs.

This also means that Wetlands Rules have been dysfunctional for the past 5 years. According to the MoEF&CC Official, the Authority has not received a single “Brief Document” from any state, which is the first step in identifying, delineating and finally, Notifying Wetlands as per the Rules. So, no new wetland has received protection under the Rules till date.

MoEF&CC and other organizations closely associated with the formulation of guidelines tell us that State Wetland Authorities have been formed in nine states in the meantime and we should be happy about it. When SANDRP talked with a member of State Wetland Authority (constituted by the Forest Department) from Maharashtra, he was clearly confused. He said he is not aware whether there is still any State Wetland Authority, whether he is still a member, whether there have been any meetings or not: he has not been invited for any meeting till date. Seems like Central Wetland Regulatory Authority story repeating all over again. In fact, responding to a case in Hon. Bombay High Court, the Maharashtra government’s lawyer has said that Wetlands Authority has no actual powers!

The absence of accountability, transparency and efficiency in the functioning of any mechanism under the Wetland Rules, 2010[4] since the past 5 years is shocking.

Ironically, the 2010 Rules themselves do not state anything about State Wetland Authority, so this initiative has been taken independently by some states, without any legal backing? While it is good that states have taken a proactive stand, but it does not seem to be working, looking at the Maharashtra example.

So will the new rules be any different? A senior wetland expert involved in the framing of the guidelines and new rules says that the MoEF&CC simply wants to pass off this hot potato to the states as quickly as it can. It does not want any significant role in wetland management, stating that water and land is a state subject. But that is highly problematic. Wetlands are crucial ecosystems and deserve protection under the Environment Protection Act 1986 and Environment is Center’s domain.

Since the past 5 years the Wetlands Rules and the Central Wetlands Authority has remained mostly on paper, functioning only for 3 meetings and ineffective NWCP. The reason why this Authority could function with so much unaccountability was also because there were no participation of actual stewards of wetlands from the ground in any mechanism of the Wetland Rules 2010. There was no one who could demand accountability from the system as no one had their livelihoods at stake. If there was any representation from fishermen from Chilika or Loktak, Houseboat-owners from Kashmir valley, farmers from Vembnad Kole, etc., then some accountability would have been demanded and displayed and the scenario would not be so depressing.

So will the new reviewed rules have any space for local communities?

Fishing in Loktak Lake Photo: e-pao.net

Fishing in Loktak Lake Photo: e-pao.net

One more striking issue is that in constituting the 2010 Rules, there were several rounds of open consultations by the MoEF&CC, but all the activity related to formulating/reviewing new rules and procedural guidelines are now happening behind closed doors, involving only a few organizations. That’s not a good sign.

We urge the MoEF and CC to put out the amended Wetland Rules 2015 for discussions. We hope the role of the Center in the new Rules is firm and uncompromising, though not interfering, that states have independence, but also clearly spelt out responsibilities and procedures to be followed, that communities and stakeholders like environment organizations have a central place in managing the wetlands and there are clear steps for integrating and upscaling these management decisions to higher levels, and not the other way round.

Wetlands are not only remarkably rich habitats for wildlife, they are also rainwater harvesters, flood absorbers, climate regulators, disaster managers, water purifies, ground water recharges, food, shelter and drinking water suppliers! They play a huge role in mitigating impacts of Climate Change, perhaps one of the biggest challenges of today. We are looking forward to effective participation of stakeholders in formulation of new Wetland Rules as well as operationalizing the Rules for protecting our dwindling wetlands. We also urge the Comptroller and Auditor General to take up Environmental Audit of the wetlands and their governance thus far.

On the World Environment Day, Wetlands truly deserve special mention and urgent protection.

– Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP

END NOTES:

[1] http://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/About.html#1

[2] Source: www.MAweb.org

[3] http://envfor.nic.in/division/national-wetland-conservation-programme-nwcp

[4] http://www.moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Wetlands-Rules-2010.pdf, http://www.moef.nic.in/sites/default/files/Notification%20for%20Wetland%20Rules.pdf, for SANDRP critique of the rules, see: http://www.sandrp.in/rivers/SANDRP_PR_WETLANDS_RULES_NOT_GOOD_ENOUGH_FOR_PROTECTING_WETLANDS_Feb_3_2011.pdf, also see: http://www.sandrp.in/rivers/Indias_wetlands_in_peril_Feb_2011.pdf, https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/02/02/world-wetlands-day-2015-bleeding-our-wetlands-dry-rivers-and-wetlands-need-hydrological-protection-too/,  https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/world-wetlands-day-2013-include-rivers-in-indias-definition-of-wetlands-follow-the-ramsar-convention/

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