World Wetlands Day, celebrated annually on February 2, is dedicated to raising global awareness of the value of wetlands to the environment and humanity. This year’s theme is “Wetlands and Human Wellbeing,” which follows last year’s focus on wetland restoration.
In this context, it’s essential to understand why protecting wetlands is not just a matter of ecological importance, but also crucial for human wellbeing.
Wetlands are ecosystems known for their abundance of water which can be found year-round or during certain seasons. They encompass a range of habitats, including marshes, peatlands, floodplains, rivers, lakes, and coastal areas such as mangroves, coral reefs and lagoons.
Why They Matter
Wetlands, being natural water management systems, offer a myriad of ecosystem services crucial for maintaining environmental balance. These ecological powerhouses play a key role in hydrological processes, acting as natural sponges, absorbing and storing excess rainfall, which is pivotal in flood control, reducing the extent of inundation by slowing and buffering water flow. During drier periods, wetlands release stored water, mitigating water scarcity and maintaining natural hydrological cycles. Their role in water purification is equally significant. Wetlands filter contaminants from water, ensuring improved water quality essential for human health, agriculture, and wildlife.
Beyond their environmental functions, wetlands hold profound cultural and recreational importance, while also being vital for livelihoods by bolstering agriculture and fisheries. With regard to climate regulation, they act as significant carbon sinks, helping to stabilise global climate conditions, especially as they regulate micro-climates in their surrounding areas.
The loss of wetlands would have far-reaching impacts, from heightened flood risks, water quality issues to economic and cultural losses. As per the latest estimation by the Space Application Center, Ahmedabad, Government of India, the country has approximately 15.98 million hectares of wetlands, which is around 4.86% of India’s total geographical area. India recognises the importance of wetlands and has been instrumental in conserving them through laws and policies such as the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and the Wetland (Conservation & Management) Rules, 2017, addressing management needs and wetland ecosystems.
The Threats They Face
Wetlands face threats due to rapid urbanisation, pollution and changes in land use in India. The country’s increasing urban population has led to a higher demand for water, resulting in intensified competition for this resource among agricultural, domestic, and industrial sectors. Urban wetlands play a crucial role in mitigating these challenges by offering services such as water purification, flood control, and groundwater recharge. For example, the wetlands in east Kolkata have been instrumental in treating wastewater and providing livelihoods to over 50,000 people through activities like fish farming.
Despite their benefits, urban wetlands in India are often overlooked in urban planning and policy-making. Initiatives like the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) and the Master Plan Delhi 2041 (MPD 2041) have started focusing on integrated management of water bodies and encouraging public participation in their conservation. The MPD 2041, for instance, aims to protect and develop an integrated network of Delhi’s ‘green and blue assets’ to maintain biodiversity and microclimate, as well as to enhance public engagement with nature.
Urban wetlands are critical for balancing ecosystem services with development in a rapidly urbanising nation. An overarching approach incorporating multiple stakeholders and considering the multiple benefits of wetland conservation is essential for creating sustainable and resilient urban environments.
Wetlands vary in their appearance and characteristics. Each type supports different ecosystems and offers various benefits, from breeding grounds for fish and birds to carbon storage in peatlands. They can be classified into various types based on their origin, location, water chemistry, and vegetation.
Types of Natural Wetlands:
- Marshes: Usually found near river mouths and in areas with low drainage. They are often dominated by herbaceous plants.
- Swamps: Characterised by the presence of trees and shrubs and are commonly found in floodplains.
- Fens: Similar to bogs but are fed by groundwater and therefore are less acidic. They support a wider variety of plant species.
- Lagoons: Shallow coastal water bodies separated from the ocean by a barrier.
- Mangroves: Coastal wetlands found in tropical and subtropical regions, characterised by salt-tolerant trees.
Ecosystem Restoration Tools
Ecosystem restoration tools for wetlands involve a variety of methods and technologies aimed at rehabilitating these crucial habitats.
Restoration Using Green-Grey Infrastructure:
- Constructed Wetlands: These are artificially created for the purpose of treating wastewater, managing stormwater runoff, or creating wildlife habitat. They are designed to mimic the functions of natural wetlands.
- Floating Wetlands: These are a type of constructed wetland where plants are grown on a floating mat, allowing roots to hang in the water. They are used for water treatment, habitat creation, and aesthetic purposes.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing are used for mapping and monitoring wetlands, tracking changes in vegetation and water levels. Hydrological modelling helps in understanding and simulating water flow, essential for designing restoration strategies. Bioengineering employs living plants and natural materials for landscape stabilisation and habitat improvement. Managing invasive species, a key aspect, involves their removal and controlling their spread.
Also, monitoring water quality is vital for maintaining wetland health, guiding management against pollution. Community engagement and education promote stewardship and support conservation efforts. Legislation and policy frameworks enforce land use and habitat conservation regulations.
Tools for measuring carbon sequestration emphasise wetlands’ role in climate change mitigation, while biodiversity assessments before and after restoration gauge success and guide future strategies, ensuring a comprehensive approach to wetland preservation.
ICLEI South Asia’s efforts for Wetland Restoration
ICLEI South Asia has been actively involved in several initiatives focused on wetland restoration and sustainable development in urban areas.
One notable project is the development of a feasibility report for the restoration of Pandarachirathod Canal in Kochi, using green-grey infrastructure, with the support of Swiss Re Foundation, and in partnership with bechtel.org and Swiss Re. The canal, once vibrant and essential for various activities including irrigation, fishing, and transportation, has been impacted negatively by urban expansion and pollution, thereby affecting the overall quality of life and eco-tourism.
In the Federal Environment and Consumer Protection Ministry (BMUV) supported The International Climate Initiative (IKI) – Integrated sub-national action for biodiversity: Supporting implementation of National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans through the mainstreaming of biodiversity objectives across city regions (INTERACT-Bio project), the Local Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (LBSAP) for Kochi has been developed by ICLEI South Asia. The city has identified 9 critical ecosystems in the LBSAP, of which canals is one. The LBSAP further lays out steps on restoration of all the critical ecosystems, including the canals. Pilot restoration of the Thevara- Pandanur canal has been taken up through this project. Organic waste dumping is the major cause of pollution in this canal. In order to address the same, an organic waste composter (1TPD) has been established. The compost generated will be used in the gardens and lawns maintained by Kochi Municipal Corporation. Green infrastructure, in the form of floating wetlands, are also planned to be installed in the canal.
ICLEI South Asia is also studying the ecosystem services provided by a restored urban wetland. This project is supported by the HCL Foundation. The work aims at estimating the ecosystem services provided by a wetland in Police Lines, Greater Noida, which has been ecologically restored by HCL Foundation through other partners.
In a project supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), ICLEI South Asia supported the rejuvenation of Ekrukh Lake in Solapur, using constructed wetlands. This served as an example of wetland restoration and water governance on a rural-urban platform. Ekrukh Lake falls under the jurisdiction of the district authorities and is surrounded by villages. Solapur city receives a major portion of its water from this lake.
With support from Azim Premji University, ICLEI South Asia is carrying out research on urban khazans in Goa and their role in sustainable development. The project aims at the development of a strategy and action plan to mainstream urban khazans into urban planning. Urban khazans are traditional coastal wetland systems used for agriculture, aquaculture, and salt production, characterised by their rich cultural significance and adapted for managing tidal waters and flooding in urban settings. Read more about urban khazans here.
The Way Forward
Looking ahead, wetland protection in India hinges on effective policy implementation, community involvement, and sustainable development practices. Emphasising education and awareness about the value and ecosystem services of wetlands, investing in research and restoration projects, and strengthening legal frameworks are crucial towards ensuring the longevity and health of these ecosystems.