India’s growing number of ‘Ramsar sites’ and why global treaty to save wetlands matters

New Delhi: Wetlands, apart from playing host to a variety of fauna, play a significant role in improving the quality of water, reducing coastal storm damage, and maintaining stream flows, as well as sequestering carbon.

The Union government last week designated five more wetlands as ‘Ramsar sites’ — taking the country’s tally to 54.

A global treaty, the Ramsar Convention was signed in 1971 with the mission to promote conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. Under this, certain wetlands are designated ‘Ramsar sites’, or wetlands of ‘international importance’.

India is a signatory — or a ‘contracting party’ — to this convention.

Of the newest wetlands to be added to India’s list of Ramsar sites, three — Karikili Bird Sanctuary, Pallikaranai Marsh Reserve Forest, and Pichavaram Mangrove — are located in Tamil Nadu. Another, Sakhya Sagar, is in Madhya Pradesh and the fifth, Pala Wetland, is in Mizoram.

In June, India had urged the Ramsar Convention to fast-track the designation of 26 wetlands in the country as Ramsar sites, in addition to the existing 49, in order to achieve its goal of 75 such sites in the 75th year of independence (2022). ).

India has 7,57,040 wetlands of various types, covering an area of ​​1,52,60,572 hectares (or over 4 per cent of the country’s area) as per the government’s wetland portal. India’s Ramsar sites span an area of ​​10,98,518 hectares.

Over the years, India’s Ramsar sites have grown in number with the country now boasting the largest tally in all of South Asia. However, despite these growing numbers, a 2020 study by Wetlands International South Asia, a Delhi-based NGO, found that these wetlands are becoming increasingly vulnerable to pollution, urbanisation, climate change and other threats.

The Ramsar Convention defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters.”

India’s definition of a wetland excludes river channels, paddy fields, and human-made water bodies/ tanks “specifically constructed for drinking water purposes and structures specifically constructed for aquaculture, salt production, recreation and irrigation purposes”.

Swamps, marshes, lakes and ponds, and river floodplains are some examples of wetlands.

Wetlands improve water quality by acting as a filter. As water enters a wetland, it slows in speed, allowing particles and sediment to settle down. According to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, “The many plant surfaces (in wetlands) act as filters, absorbing solids and adding oxygen to the water. Growing plants remove nutrients and play a cleansing role that protect the downstream environments.”

They can also protect against flooding by acting as a sponge that traps and slowly releases surface water or by trapping sediment run-off, thus absorbing the shocks of extreme weather events that are likely to increase with the onset of climate change. They are also adept at absorbing greenhouse gases efficiently.

Coastal mangroves, for example, not only help mitigate the effects of cyclones, but reportedly absorb four times more carbon than neighboring rain forests.

Also read: Peace on Pakistan border boosts J&K’s Gharana Wetland, 15 new migratory bird species show up

A global decline

Globally, wetlands are estimated to occupy 1.5-1.6 billion hectares of land. According to the Global Wetland Outlook reports of 2018 and 2021, “wetland area continues to decline, with conversion and loss continuing in all parts of the world”.

According to the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) space-based observation of Indian wetlands, released earlier this year, “1,342 wetlands which were existing earlier and covering an area of ​​0.025 Mha (million hectares) have disappeared in 2017-18. These are mostly waterlogged regions (natural and man-made), tanks in abandoned mining and aquaculture ponds.”

The worst affected wetlands since 2006 are mud flat wetlands (reduced by 4.8 per cent), salt marshes (by 3.7 per cent) and waterlogged wetlands (by 2.4 per cent), ISRO’s report adds.

Host to a diverse number of freshwater species and significant sites for migratory birds, a decline in wetlands could also lead to loss in biodiversity.

The Ramsar Convention

The Ramsar Convention came into existence in 1971, and India became a signatory in February 1982. The contracting parties of the convention pledge to “designate at least one wetland site for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance” and are also expected to “ formulate and implement their planning so as to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the list.”

Not all wetlands are eligible for a Ramsar tag, though. To qualify, they must meet some of the nine criteria described by the Convention. to prove to be of international importance in terms of their ecology, botany, zoology, limnology (aquatic interactions), or hydrology.

For instance, a wetland should be considered internationally important if it “supports vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities”, “if it regularly supports 20,000 or more waterbirds, and “if it is an important source of food for fishes. , spawning ground, nursery…”, among others.

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

Also read: Wetlands are a versatile climate and biodiversity ‘hack’. But we’ve lost 80% of it

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