Print Edition - 2015-02-01  |  Free the Words

Wetlands for our future

  • Political commitment and cooperation from locals can help conserve wetlands
- MAHESHWAR DHAKAL
Wetlands for our future

Jan 31, 2015-Tomorrow marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on  February 2, 1971. A hundred and sixty-eight countries have since joined this convention and are continuously working on the wise use and long-term sustainability of over 2,186 globally important wetlands. The Ramsar Secretariat began marking wetlands day since 1997 and the Government of Nepal, as one of parties of the Convention, has been celebrating the day through various awareness-raising activities every year together with non-governmental and civil societal organisations. The theme for this year is ‘Wetlands for our future’.

Multiple benefits

According to the Ramsar Convention, wetlands “are areas of marsh, fen, peat land 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.”

In addition, wetlands are areas that are saturated or flooded with water either permanently or seasonally. Inland wetlands include marshes, ponds, lakes, fens, rivers, floodplains, and swamps while coastal wetlands include saltwater marshes, estuaries, mangroves, lagoons, and even coral reefs. Similarly, fishponds, rice paddy fields, saltpans, and human-made ponds are also considered wetlands. Wetlands have a unique role in maintaining the food chain, recycling nutrients, and filtering drainage. Thus, the wetland itself is a complex set of ecosystems.

Wetlands produce both tangible and intangible goods and services in addition to having recreational and aesthetic value. It is estimated that a human being require 20-50 litres of water a day for basic drinking, cooking, and cleaning, which come from the wetlands. In addition to that, wetlands help replenish groundwater aquifers, which are important sources of fresh water for humanity.

Wetlands also have environmental, provisional, and regulatory functions. They are cradles of biological diversity and fundamental sources of water for countless plants and animals. Human civilisation since ancient times either began either on the banks of a river or coastal areas of ocean, both of which are wetlands. Thereby, wetlands are indispensable for the countless ‘ecosystem services’ they provide to humanity, ranging from freshwater supply, food and building materials, and biodiversity to flood control, groundwater recharge, and climate change mitigation.

Wetlands are also habitats for fish and many other aquatic animals. These animals are sources of foods and nutrients for local communities. In many instances, fishing is a traditional occupation of tribal communities who live near the banks of the river, like Tharus and Musahars.

Wetlands are also seasonal habitats for migratory birds. Such areas work as corridors connecting marine, aquatic, and terrestrial ecosystems.

People can also benefit from the tourism benefits offered by wetlands, such as boating, swimming, rafting, canoeing, and fishing. They help generate income and employment opportunities for local communities. Fewa Lake in Pokhara, which is a prime attraction for both foreign and domestic tourists, is one example.

Nepali concerns

Water is a dynamic source of nature. It always flows upstream to downstream and merges with the ocean. The environmental services produced by wetlands, such as access and benefit-sharing of hydropower production, irrigation, drinking water, transportation, and natural disaster issues are important concerns for border nations, including Nepal and India. Therefore, the Government of Nepal needs to educate and train young students on the international relations of natural resources and develop their negotiation skills so as to benefit the country. Additionally, due to the location of wetlands, some mega carnivores and herbivores frequently cross borders, which demands cross-border cooperation to protect endangered species.

In Nepal, wetlands cover glacier lakes, rivers, paddy fields, spring water, natural lakes, and artificial ponds. Scientists believe that there are more than 5,300 seasonal and permanent wetlands of various sizes across the country. Among the various wetlands of Nepal, the Government of Nepal has succeeded in including nine wetlands on the list of globally important Ramsar sites and the Pokhara Valley will be declared one in the near future too.

Yet, in recent times, wetlands are being threatened by our daily activities, which contaminate fresh water and fragment and shrink wetlands. Infestation of wetlands by invasive species and eutrophication are other negative consequences of human activities. Agriculture on sloping lands, haphazard construction of rural roads in the hilly region without initial environment examination and impact assessment, and the extraction of sand, boulders, and stones without considering ecological and social safeguards have had negative consequences on wetlands. Other problems include sedimentation and siltation. In recent days, illegal hunting of wildlife near wetlands and environmental crimes are also on the rise.

Consequently, Nepalis are suffering from flash floods and natural disasters every year. The ponds and lakes are threatened due to sedimentation and river belts are rising due to flash floods and desertification. Besides, invasive species have also expanded.

Role of farmers

Wetlands are common property and everyone has the responsibility to protect them. The state and non-state actors in Nepal working on natural resource management sector should teach, train, and educate farmers on the importance of wetlands. Farmers are positioned to save wetlands more effectively. Therefore, we have to convince farmers that their lives and livelihoods are correlated with wetlands. Only strong political commitment at the policy level and reciprocal cooperation from locals can provide the synergy required for wetlands conservation, management, and utilisation. This is important as wetlands are not only important for the present generation but also for future generations.

Local governments in particular can motivate locals to conserve wetlands through proper land use policy, delineation and mapping of wetlands, and allocation of adequate programmes and budgets. Economic evaluation of environmental services is equally important for sustainable financing of wetlands conservation. Wetlands area delineation and mapping can reduce encroachment and discourage greed on the part of landholders.

Dhakal is Under-Secretary at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation

Published: 01-02-2015 09:26

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