Wetlands on the Brink of Extinction

Environmental crisis has reached stupendous heights as we almost step out of the first decade of the new millennium. . Environmental problems abound in their variety and intensity, provoking human beings today to think anew about their existence on earth. The effects of environmental degradation are widespread and conspicuous in their marks they leave over our very survival. Talks about global warming circulate amongst us all; newspapers carry important headlines about climate change or the ever-increasing growth of population woes. Researchers and scientists continue to endeavour to create or find out ways to curb the further depletion of the ozone layer. It has become the need of the time to stay alert and cautious about our lifestyles and habits, for don’t we humans contribute to this very deterioration of the environment we habitat? In the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, are we not the selfish ends of existence who encroach upon our natural resources in a monstrous way, holding the lives of other creatures at stake?


One such major area of concern in environmental crisis is the steady destruction of wetlands throughout the world. Despite having the most diverse and productive ecosystems of the world, wetlands have been often been called ‘wastelands’, which justifies the eager replacement of these areas into non-wetland areas, i.e. destroying them in favour of human settlements, agriculture and industry. This notion towards wetlands clearly shows the reason behind the destruction of more than half of the world’s wetlands since 1900.


Wetlands are an important ecological feature of any landscape which function as the basic habitat of a variety of faunal species like waterfowls, birds, mammals, fish and insects. They are also the meeting ground of migratory birds and hence prove to be interesting sites of speculation for naturalists as well as bird lovers and photographers. The Deepor Beel in Assam, India that covers over 10,000 acres of area, is one of the most significant wetland areas of the world. Besides being the breeding ground of around 17 globally threatened bird species, the most fascinating aspect of this wetland area is that it is a major ‘staging ground’ of migratory flyways. Not only this, the Deepor Beel is also the refuge for endangered species like the Asiatic elephant, the barking deer, the Chinese porcupine and the Sambar. Similarly, the Wular Lake of Kashmir, once the largest lake in Asia, harbours migratory birds within the Central Asian Flyway.


Wetland areas are also a source of livelihood to the people who live in the villages in their periphery and catchment areas. Fishing and transportation are the two foremost contributions of these areas to human settlements around them. They also provide fodder for domestic cattle and aquatic seeds such as giant water lily.


Besides this, wetlands are essential in another very significant way- they act as natural dams and reduce the speed of surface water during floods.


Wetlands are known to prevent soil erosion too. Probably the most advantageous aspect of these water bodies when seen from the prospect of today’s world crisis in terms of environmental degradation is the fact that they can remove and store greenhouse gases from the earth’s atmosphere and hence slow down the onset of global warming.


But deterioration of these areas has been a constant phenomenon, although strict measures have now been taken, keeping in track with conservation programmes worldwide. Proliferation of human settlements around their periphery encourages human encroachment and the killing of wild mammals and birds. Construction of roads, railways and industries ruin the natural balance of the ecosystem by enhancing pollution problems.


The Deepor Beel area is being facing the problem of wastewater accumulation in its catchment area that flows from adjoining towns and cities. This causes water pollution and proves detrimental to the life nurtured by the wetland.


Kinawataka in Kampala area of Africa has considerable parts of it under wetland areas; led by five streams its vast catchment area stretches from the shores of Lake Victoria to Kireka and Kyambogo shores. Owing to the expansion of illegal settlements, dumping of solid waste and activities like charcoal making, this wetland area faces the threat of extinction. The Ruoergai marshes on the edge of the Tibetan plateau that support millions, face similar problems.


The situation is even worse for city wetlands because of the regular discharge of untreated effluents by factories near them. Oil spillages from the mushrooming washing bays have a serious negative impact upon the wetlands.


Mainly utilizing these areas for more ‘productive’ activities like agriculture or building human settlements, as said earlier, causes loss of wetlands. Wetland degradation is impairment of the natural functions of the ecosystem. Both contribute to each other and the overall degradation of wetlands hamper the stability of our biosphere.


The United States has had a history of wetland degradation since its colonial times in the 1600s.


Overall wetland losses in Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands exceed 50% of their original area.


The Tugela Basin of South Africa has encountered losses of over 90% of its wetland resources, while the Mfolozi catchment has lost around 58% of its original wetland area.


Keeping in mind the serious repercussions on the environment, wetland conservation is a foremost concern amongst environmentalists, scientists and naturalists today. Keeping in mind the serious repercussions on the environment, wetland conservation is a foremost concern amongst environmentalists, scientists and naturalists.


The Ramsar Convention is a potential initiative on the way to sustain the ecological foundation on earth. A comprehensive strategy adopted by it Convention has been successful in addressing the global loss and the issue of degradation of wetlands.


On the grassroot level too, measures can be taken to steadily reduce the negative impact of wetland loss. Intensive fishing should be curbed and local inhabitants must make it a point not to hunt animals found in these areas. Land cutting should be avoided and care must be taken not to encourage illegal human settlements of any sort in its periphery. The Government should also show sufficient interest and enthusiasm, and come forward to conserve these areas by promoting eco-restoration of the surrounding forest areas. Building of roads and railways should be preferably avoided, and sewage and effluents from industries must be treated before discharging them into the catchment area.


Promotion of eco-tourism and the spread of awareness through education regarding the global status of environmental problems, at both the local and national levels, shall prove beneficial towards faster conservation.


For the common man survives on the lap of nature, and for him the protection of mother earth attains supreme importance. About the Deepor Beel a member of the Deepor Beel Fishermen’s Cooperative society, Bhupen Das, says- “Our forefathers protected this wetland and we are committed to do the same as we depend on the wetland for our livelihood. We will protect this wetland at all costs and against all odds.”


Prerana Choudhury

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