“As soon as they get water and light, they just spring to life, the frogs and toads and newts, all the insects like mayflies, dragonflies, damselflies,” says Nick Anema, a farmer in Dereham who has restored ponds in his property. Really wetlands are the cradle for biodiversity.
February 2 was the World Wetlands Day, marking the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971. It is the only global treaty to focus on one single ecosystem, the wetlands.
“Wetlands Action for People and Nature” was the theme for World Wetlands Day 2022. This theme is selected to demonstrate the vital role of wetlands for humanity and nature, specifically their relevance towards survival of living beings.
Livelihoods from cultivation, fishing, farming, travel, tourism, and water provision all depend on wetlands. They are the ecotones, providing a transition between dry land and water bodies and provide the wildlife habitats for the aquatic animals and the migratory birds. Wetlands are highly productive and bio-diverse eco-systems that support a home to about one-third of all threatened and endangered species.
Wetlands cover about six per cent of the earth’s surface and they provide an important contribution to the economy of the country and the livelihoods of rural communities.
Unfortunately, wetlands are often viewed as wasteland. In reality, wetlands play a critical role in maintaining many natural cycles. Thus the wetlands are called the biological supermarkets for their excessive food chains and rich biodiversity they support.
The value of world’s wetlands are increasingly receiving due attention as they contribute to a healthy environment in many ways. They retain water during dry periods and recharge when the surrounding water table is low and as a discharge zone when it is too high. During periods of flooding, they mitigate flood and trap suspended solids and attached nutrients.
Wetlands are aquatic islands in terrestrial sea harbouring a limited array of species populations that arrange themselves in a number of configurations (Pomeroy, 1991). In addition, wetlands are important feeding and breeding areas for many wildlife, migratory birds and waterfowl (Prasad et. al., 2002). Not only stabilization of the local climatic conditions, wetlands are important in supporting species diversity of the biosphere being the habitat of 15 to 20 per cent of all living organisms representing all taxonomic groups on the earth. (Mitsch and Gosselink, 1986).
Almost 90 per cent of the world’s wetlands disappeared over the past three centuries, according to the Ramsar Convention. This rapid decline means that access to fresh water is worsening for almost two billion people worldwide, while flood control, disaster risk reduction, carbon storage and traditional wetland livelihoods are all suffering and our futures with them.
These are the home to more than 100,000 known freshwater species but the richness of wildlife and our biodiversity - has also been affected declining by 76 per cent in the last 40 years, according to WWF’s Living Planet Index.
Wetlands ensure fresh water for us and wetland sediments are porous allowing water to filter down through the soil and overlying rock into aquifers which are the source of 95 per cent of the world's drinking water. Wetlands purify and filter harmful wastes from pesticides, industry and mining, including heavy metals and toxins. Wetlands guarantee our food supply. Rice and fish from wetlands are the staple food for nearly three billion people, and accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s nutritional intake. Wetland stimulates plant recruitment from diverse seed bank and increase productivity by mobilizing nutrients.
Wetlands act as nature’s shock absorbers. In the river basins, they act as natural sponges, absorbing rainfall, creating wide surface pools and reduce the impact of flooding in rivers. The same storage capacity also safeguards against drought. Wetlands help fight climate change. Peatlands alone store more than twice as much carbon as all the forests in the world. In the cultural legacy, wetlands are also related to our emotional history such as the tied knot between the Khamba and Thoibi and the Loktak Lake.
The role of forests to our wetland is vital for all living being. The freshwater availability and its quality on a global scale depend on our forests. It’s simple: the health of our wetlands is linked to the richness of our forests in the catchments. We cannot manage wetland without forests and thus forest has the critical role – for water, food and livelihoods of all living beings.
India has recorded 757,000 wetlands and 46 Ramsar sites occupying 11.4 per cent of country’s geographical area (Parikh and Parikh, 1999). Thus 10.2 per cent of the earth’s total wetlands are found in India. Our wetlands support around 5,100 species of flora and fauna. They represent 23 per cent reptiles, 13 per cent amphibians, 23 per cent fishes, 65 per cent birds and 26 per cent mammalian species. Wetlands in India support 20 per cent of all the known range biodiversity in the country (Deepa and Ramachandra, 1999). But we have lost 30 per cent of our wetlands due to urbanization, land use change and pollution.
Wetlands in Manipur
Manipur, surrounded by many hills with numerous wetlands but majorities of them are in dying state, need to observe such a global red light day. Almost all the migratory birds in the state are coming on these wetlands. According to the Remote Sensing Application Centre, the state has 155 lakes and 2 ox-bow lakes occupying 2.37 per cent of the geographical areas as Wetlands. About 134 waterlogged marshy and swampy wetlands are also found in different districts. But more than 64 per cent of our wetlands have disappeared in the last eight decades.
Highest numbers of water logged areas are recorded in Imphal valley (69) followed by Kakching (30) and Bishnupur districts (21). The numbers of wetland floras so far identified are 86 species in which 13 are clear water and 73 are semi aquatic. The state has 110 species of amphibians and reptile among 580 species so far found in the country. We also have counted 120 species of fishes while the country owned 1,700 fish species. Such a faunal richness of our wetland represents 10.80 per cent of the whole country though we have only 0.7 per cent of the geographical area.
It has been observed that about 78 per cent and 72 per cent respectively of the wetlands in the state are found infested with a number of weeds and aquatic vegetation during the pre-monsoon and post-monsoon season. The lakes in the state are comparatively old with their own distinct characteristic life-span, topographic, physiographic as well as hydrologic features. These features have been closely related to the evolving geo-physical features of the state.
Loktak Lake with an area of 287 sq. km, is the largest fresh water lake in Northeast. Around 12 towns and 52 settlements with over 14 per cent of the state’s population depend directly or indirectly upon Loktak Lake. But due to indiscriminate felling in the catchments, 4.5 million cu m of soil are eroded each year and 0.65 m cm are deposited in the Loktak Lake reducing 4 m cm of water holding capacity in the last 10 years. About 18 rare indigenous fish species also have lost from the Lake. If it’s the trend, then we may not see the Loktak Lake in the 2050.
Other important existing but degraded lakes are Kharungphat, Khoidumpat, Pumlenpat, Lokoipat, Sanapat, Yaralpat, Poiroupat, Ikopat, Waithoupat, Ngakrapat and Loushipat. These lakes remain threatened due to artificial eutrophication and large-scale encroachment for cultivation and fish farming. Since the healthiness of our wetlands is so much challenged, this year the number of migratory birds coming to the state have been reduced drastically. It is really a challenge for our ecosystem.
Soil erosion due to large-scale deforestation in the catchments areas followed by the change in the land use pattern and fish farming inside the wetlands are the root causes for the loss of our wetlands. Development activities such as roads and canals inside the wetlands are also another reason. And this is again made worse with the excessive deposition of plastic and other harmful wastes and water being diverted to make dams, ponds, channels and canals.
Enabling people a decent living and at the same time ensuring the conservation and safety of wetlands is our primary objectives today. We need to educate the younger generation about the importance of wetlands and wetland conservation. The dream of Manipur of becoming a world tourism hotspot will come true only when we conserve our hills, forests, wildlife and the wetlands. Therefore, let’s join hands today to save and secure our wetlands for a better tomorrow.
(The views expressed are personal)