Neglecting wetlands could be suicidal

World Wetlands Day is celebrated every year on February 2 to commemorate the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on that date in 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar. The theme for World Wetlands Day of 2017 is “Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction”.

This theme is chosen to raise awareness and to emphasise the vital role of healthy wetlands in reducing the impacts of extreme events like floods, droughts and cyclones on humanity, and in helping build resilience.

Water is the epitome of holism. Every living being, from the earth itself to the tiniest single cell organism, needs to both contain and be surrounded by vibrant water. Water is what brings interconnectedness to all of life. There is a vast mythology linked to it.

Water symbolises purity, clarity and calmness. It cleanses, washes away impurities and pollutants. It can make an object look as good as new and wipe away any signs of previous defilement. Because of this purifying function, water is commonly included in the rituals and ceremonies of most religions.

When water cleanses, it gets contaminated. Purity and clarity of polluted water are retrieved by filtration. Just as kidneys filter blood in the body, wetlands filter pollutants such as excess nutrients and sediment, industrial and agricultural contaminants out of waterways. Water entering the river cleansed by wetlands in turn protects downstream environments.

Without water there is no life. Nevertheless water has the power to destroy as well as to create. The frequency of disasters worldwide has more than doubled in just 35 years, driven by climate and weather related hazards like flooding, tropical cyclones and droughts.

UN Water, the United Nations inter-agency mechanism on fresh water related issues, estimates that 90% of all natural hazards are water-related.  Some 1.35 million people died as a result of disasters between 1996 and 2015. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts even more extreme events going forward.

Inland wetlands play a crucial role in averting disasters by acting as natural buffers. They absorb and store excess rainfall and diminish flooding. They are able to delay the onset of droughts and reduce water shortages during the dry season by releasing stored water.

Wetlands helped evade the ruin of more than $625 million from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The paddy fields of Odisha that were protected by mangroves recovered their food production much more rapidly than croplands without such a buffer after the cyclone of 1999.

Despite all these ecosystem services provided by them, wetlands are in alarming retreat worldwide. At least 64% of them have disappeared since 1900. Near urban centres, they are under increasing developmental pressure for residential and commercial facilities.

It is a pity that the large number of wetlands which ensured a high level of ground water table and pleasant climate in Bengaluru are now reduced to cesspools due to direct discharge of industrial effluents and unregulated dumping of solid wastes.

Wetlands worth billions of rupees, by supporting fisheries, water purification and groundwater renewal, have been converted to less beneficial uses. Governments and investors are entering into devil’s bargains of mega projects that will enrich a few in the short-term, but impoverish many in the long-term. Poorly planned development that “kills the goose which lays the golden egg” continues.

Water cycle

When we destroy wetlands, we disrupt nature's water cycle and its ability to provide water for households and farms. So, unintentionally, we add to the suffering of the poor. Wetlands are cradles of biodiversity, providing habitat for countless species of plants and animals.

They are “biological supermarkets” which store great volumes of food. The extinction of freshwater species far outpaces the extinction of terrestrial mammals and birds. Poor people who depend on natural wealth for their survival suffer the most when wetlands are lost.

Massive amounts spent on unscientific techniques of flood control essentially increased
the severity of land degradation and flooding and the expenditure to manage it. A comprehensive Wetland Act is a must for the sustainable management of wetlands.

Local governments play a key role in filling the gaps in wetland protection, because they have primary responsibility for local land use management. Local action is particularly critical in states that do not have comprehensive wetland protection programmes.

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