Wetlands are the ecosystems characterised by the presence of water which controls the environment and the associated plant and animal life. These areas can include coastal wetlands, shallow lakes and ponds, marshes, swamps, estuaries, etc and are recognized by interfaces between terrestrial and aquatic environments. Each year, the world comes together to commemorate Wetlands Day, a tradition that traces its roots back to the establishment of Ramsar Convention in 1971. This International Treaty laid the groundwork for recognising the vital role wetlands play in our global ecosystem. As we embark the celebration of this event, the theme, “Wetlands & Human Welfare” comes to the forefront, emphasizing the enduring link between these natural wonders and our collective well-being. Remarkably as of Feb 2022, India boasts the highest number of Ramsar Conventional sites in South Asia, with 75 sites covering an area of more than 13 lakh hectares. India’s commitment to wetland conservation is evident, encompassing 4.6% of total area as wetlands, spanning 15.26 million hectares. (Press Information Bureau 2022)
Role of the Wetlands:
In the grand tapestry of our ecosystem, wetlands are the unsung heroes playing pivotal role in maintaining balance of our ecosystem. By functioning as natural purifiers, they enhance water quality by filtering pollutants, ensuring cleanliness of our vital water sources. By acting as a habitat for wildlife (especially for endangered and threatened species), they contribute significantly to wildlife conservation and biodiversity. By offering tranquil spaces for recreational activities, they create peaceful settings for bird watching, nature walks, treks etc. By having exceptional water retention capacity, they serve as a crucial reservoir for agricultural and human needs. By acting as natural sponges, wetlands help controlling floods by absorbing excess water during heavy rainfall, mitigating the impact on downstream areas. By fostering diverse plant and animal life, they are vibrant ecosystems promoting ecosystem productivity; and finally, by offering valuable opportunities for environmental education, they serve as outdoor classrooms fostering deeper understanding of our interconnected ecosystems.
World Wetlands Day
Ramsar Conventional Sites in J&K:
Wular Lake: Located at the Bandipora district with an area of over 189 sq. km, Wular lake is the largest freshwater lake in India with extensive marshes of emergent and floating vegetation (esp. water chestnut) which is important source of revenue and fodder. The lake supports an important fishing industry and is a valuable source of water for irrigation and domestic use. The area is important for wintering, staging and breeding birds.
Hokersar Wetland: Located at the Zainakote area of Srinagar City with an area of over 13.75 sq. km, Hokersar Wetland is a natural perennial wetland contiguous to the Jhelum basin, it is the only site with remaining reedbeds of Kashmir and a pathway of 68 waterfowl species like large egret, great crested grebe, little cormorant, common shelduck, tufted duck and endangered white-eyed pochard (coming from Siberia, China, central Asia, and northern Europe). It is an important source of food, spawning grounds, and nursery for fishes, besides offering feeding and breeding ground to a variety of water birds.
Surinsar Lake: Located at the Jammu city with an area of over 3.5 sq. km, Surinsar lake is a freshwater composite lake. The lake supports many endangered animals like Flapshell turtle, Indian Softshell turtle. This composite lake is high in micronutrients for which it is an attractive habitat, breeding and nursery ground for migratory waterfowl like the Eurasian coot, black-necked grebe, tufted duck, and various other species. The site holds cultural significance with temples dating back to Mahabharata Period.
Hygam Wetland Conservation Reserve- Located at the Baramulla district with an area of over 8 sq. km, Hygam Wetland plays a significant role as a flood absorption basin, biodiversity conservation site, eco-tourism site, and livelihood security for the local communities. This wetland serves as an abode to many residents and migratory bird species. It is also recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Hygam Wetland provides a plethora of ecosystem services, these include fish and fiber, water supply, water purification, climate regulation, flood regulation, and recreational opportunities.
Shallbugh Wetland Conservation Reserve- Located at the Srinagar district with an area of over 8 sq. km, Shallbugh Wetland Conservation Reserve serves as an abode to more than four lakh resident and migratory birds of at least 21 species. It plays a major role in the natural control, amelioration or prevention of flooding. It is also important for seasonal water retention for wetlands or other areas of conservation importance downstream. The wetland is important for the recharge of aquifers. It provides plethora of ecosystem services, these include fish and fiber, water supply, water purification, climate regulation, flood regulation, recreational opportunities. The wetland serves as an important breeding ground for many species of waterbirds
Threats to the Wetlands:
The threats to wetlands are multifaced, posing significant challenges, to these crucial ecosystems. Urbanisation exerts mounting developmental pressure on wetlands jeopardizing their integrity for the sake of residential, industrial and commercial expansions. Agriculture has led to the conversion of vast wetland areas into paddy fields, with extensive construction of reservoirs, canals, and dams altering the hydrology of associated wetlands. Pollution, particularly from industrial sources, presents a substantial risk, as wetlands, natural water filters, struggle to combat pollutants like mercury. Climate change intensifies these challenges with increased air temperatures, precipitation shifts, and rising sea levels. Dredging and draining further disrupt wetland ecosystems, altering water tables and causing drying. Additionally, over withdrawal of groundwater has led to the salinization adding to the complex array of threats that demand comprehensive conservation efforts.
As we celebrate World Wetlands Day, its theme “Wetlands and Human Health” underscores the profound connection between the two factors (Health and Ecosystems). India’s impressive 75 Ramsar Convention Sites, covering a large area reflects commendable commitment to wetland conservation. However, the challenges of urbanisation, agriculture, pollution and climate change highlight the urgent need for comprehensive conservation measures. J&K’s Ramsar conservation sites stand as a vital contributor to biodiversity. It is crucial to address these issues and safeguard these delicate ecosystems for a sustainable and harmonious future.