World Wetlands Day 2024: Before we save them, we have to know where they actually are

Correct mapping and boundary demarcation are critical steps in the wetland restoration process

By Venkatesh Dutta
Published: Friday 02 February 2024

Illustration: Yogendra Anand / CSEIllustration: Yogendra Anand / CSE

About 90 per cent of wetlands in Uttar Pradesh are outside protected areas. Majority of them are even yet to be notified as wetlands. This is leading to easy conversion of the land, from waterbodies to real estate. Many of these wetlands had originally been leased out by the revenue department to local fisher folk and farmers for fisheries and aquaculture. However, as the water levels gradually diminished, these farmers transitioned to cultivating the wetlands. As the leases were never officially revoked, the land, in numerous instances, was sold to real estate developers for housing projects.

Wetlands provide habitat to a variety of native species of plant and animals as well as thousands of winter migratory birds. They prevent settlements from getting flooded by absorbing  excess rainwater and then releasing it slowly during dry seasons or during droughts. They also help sequestrate carbon, which helps mitigate climate change.

The first national inventory of wetlands was prepared by the Space Applications Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Ahmedabad, at the behest of the Union environment ministry using remote-sensing satellite data of 1992-93. The inventory put the extent of inland as well as coastal wetlands at about 8.26 million ha. These estimates did not include rivers, canals and irrigation channels.

In 2007, the Space Application Centre prepared another digital database of wetlands under “National Wetland Inventory and Assessment” using remote-sensing techniques on a 1:50,000 scale. The state inventory was also prepared to develop a wetland information system. The district-wise data with the state inventory shows that Uttar Pradesh has 43,614 wetlands; there could be many more as not all wetlands can be recorded on this scale.

Wetlands in Uttar Pradesh are largely riverine wetlands, usually occurring in depressions along rivers, permanently flooded large lakes along embankments and older courses of rivers where they are subjected to periodic flooding. There are many oxbow lakes (U-shaped lakes) formed naturally by the meandering streams. They act as transition zones between the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and share properties of both. Uttar Pradesh has a unique and vast Gangetic wetland ecosystem that harbours a rich diversity of plants and animals. There are about 120,000 wetlands outside forests in the state, of which about 24,000 are bigger than 2.2 ha and should be conserved on priority. The total area of wetlands in Uttar Pradesh is about 1.5 million ha.

On February 25, 2020, the National Green tribunal (NGT) set March 31, 2021 as the deadline to demarcate all the wetlands and prepare a management and conservation plan for them. However, at present, there is no scheme to restore the degraded wetlands.

The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules of 2010, enacted under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, make it compulsory for the state government to identify, demarcate and officially designate all wetlands across the state within a stipulated period of two years. Further, the state has created a State Wetland Authority after the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules of 2017 shifted the emphasis of wetland management from a central authority to state-level bodies. The State Wetland Authority is responsible for the conservation and management of wetlands in the state. Apart from these, various laws and regulations have been formulated to protect wetlands and their biodiversity, such as the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. Yet, wetlands in Uttar Pradesh continue to face multiple threats, primarily from encroachments.

The wetlands outside the protected areas are never fenced or demarcated properly leading to encroachments. As per the 2017 rules, district-level wetland authorities for all the 75 districts in the state are to be made with district magistrate as chairperson. However, mapping and demarcation of all wetlands has not been done yet. Many districts have not even convened the meeting of the district wetland authority. Correctly mapping all the wetlands in the state is a critical step in the wetland restoration process.

Till October 2023, as many as 75 wetlands in the country have been categorised as Ramsar sites, out of which 10 are in Uttar Pradesh. The 10 Ramsar sites in Uttar Pradesh provide protection to almost 40,000 ha of waterbodies. The 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance is the oldest convention related to protection of waterbodies. The convention came into force on December, 21, 1975 and India became signatory to it on February 1, 1982.

Wetlands outside the protected areas are being frequently transformed into built-up areas for various development projects, including housing, businesses and road construction. Such activities cause heavy destruction to their existence and the ecosystems they support. There are thousands of wetlands in the districts of Rae Bareli, Hardoi, Lucknow, Barabanki, Sitapur and Baharaich. Hardoi alone has more than 2,000 wetlands. Rae Bareli has lost around 89 per cent of wetlands since 1972. Lucknow lost around 70 per cent of wetlands in the last 50 years. Baghel Taal in Bahraich district, whose perimeter is almost 42 km, is not even declared as wetland, despite being one of the largest wetlands in the state. Its jurisdiction is a subject of confusion between the forest division of Bahraich and Katarniaghat, a nearby protected wildlife sanctuary that encompasses several swamps and wetlands.

Many wetlands are divided between revenue departments of two districts, creating conflicts and confusion in their protection. For example, Haiderpur Wetland, which falls under Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary, is on the border of Bijnore and Muzaffarnagar districts. But the land does not come under the jurisdiction of the forest department of Bijnore.

In the absence of any protection, over-extraction of groundwater for intensive irrigation is causing the demise of many of these wetlands. They are routinely tilled; tractors can be seen ploughing wetlands even in the protected areas.  Due to various anthropogenic threats, including high loads of pollutants from agricultural runoff, industrial waste and sewage, native species of wetlands are being replaced by invasive species. Invasive species have the capacity to outcompete native plants and animals within wetlands. This can lead to a disturbance in the ecosystem, ultimately diminishing the overall health of the wetland.

It is important to delineate the boundary of the wetlands correctly; generally pre-monsoon water spread of the wetlands is almost half of the post-monsoon water spread. Therefore, the best time to mark the boundary is post-monsoon which shows the actual spread of the wetlands. The boundary should include all structural components such as marshy area, mudflats and aquatic vegetation. Of the four types of aquatic vegetation found on wetland—floating, emergent, submerged and benthic—only floating and emergent vegetation can be captured by the drone camera or satellite pictures.

Duration and extent of flooding is important as it would determine the vegetation and habitat for birds and other animals. The depth of the water table relative to the ground surface would also determine how quickly water is going to disappear. If the groundwater table is declining fast and shallow aquifers are stressed, the water in the wetlands will not last long. Wetlands support predominantly hydrophytes, the drying would mean replacement of hydrophytes with upland vegetation. This is how many wetlands are fast disappearing in Uttar Pradesh. 

Venkatesh Dutta is a professor of environmental sciences at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow

This will be first published in the forthcoming State of India’s Environment 2024

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