Wetlands generally encompass regions of land that are periodically or consistently inundated by water, or are saturated with water, making them integral to our environment and human well-being. The total wetland area in the country estimated is 15.98 million hectares (Mha), which is around 4.86% of the total geographic area of the country. Compared to 2006-07, the area of wetlands has increased by over 6.4 lakh hectares or 4.18%.
Wetlands generally encompass regions of land that are periodically or consistently inundated by water, or are saturated with water, making them integral to our environment and human well-being. They are recognized as some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth. They offer a multitude of benefits, including habitats for diverse flora and fauna, food production, carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, and groundwater replenishment. In addition to these ecological functions, humans are dependent on wetlands for transport, tourism, and even cultural and spiritual well-being. Further, Wetlands come in various types, each with its distinct characteristics and ecological functions, like swamps, mangroves, estuaries, ponds & lakes.
In India, the geographical and climatic diversity of the country contributes to the presence of diverse wetland habitats across the subcontinent, covering a substantial area of nearly 58.2 million hectares. Some of the popular wetlands in India are the Sundarbans (Mangroves) in West Bengal, Vembanad (lake) in Kerala, Dal Lake in Jammu and Kashmir, and Rann of Kutch in Gujarat (seasonal salt marsh).
While the usual discourse is surrounding Ramsar Sites, in this story, we look at how the area occupied by wetlands in the country has changed over time across states and different bio-geographic zones. We also look at some of the important measures taken by the government to preserve them. Data for the story has been taken from Dataful and MoSPI’s EnviStats. Those wetlands with an area of more than 2.25 hectares have been covered in the data as captured by Space-based observation of Indian wetlands.
Wetlands are defined in Envistats as areas of land that are either temporarily or permanently covered by water. These are neither truly aquatic nor terrestrial. It is possible that wetlands can be both at the same time depending on seasonal variability. These could be natural or man−made and found both in the inland and coastal areas.
The total wetland area in the country estimated is 15.98 million hectares (Mha), which is around 4.86% of the total geographic area of the country. A total of 2,31,195 wetlands, each having an area of more than 2.25 hectares have been mapped. Compared to 2006-07, the area of wetlands has increased by over 6.4 lakh hectares or 4.18%.
Man-made wetlands have increased over the years
The category-wise distribution of wetlands in India in 2006-07 and 2017-18 is mapped in the following chart. Wetlands are made by people for different reasons such as to prevent waterlogging, sewage treatment, ecological restoration, and irrigation. Some examples of man-made wetlands include the Ropar Wetland in Punjab and the Vaduvur Bird Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. Manmade wetlands are bound to increase due to the development of soil and water conservation structures such as aquaculture ponds, reservoirs /barrages, tanks & ponds, etc. Meanwhile, most of the coastal wetlands are natural. While there has been an increase in man-made wetlands in inland & coastal areas by 12% and 27%, respectively, the natural coastal wetlands have shrunk by 2%.
70% of the wetlands are in 8 states
As of 2017-18, nearly 22% of the wetlands (by area) in the country were in Gujarat. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh accounted for around 7% each while Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Assam contributed 5% each. That is, nearly 70% of the wetlands by area were concentrated in these 8 states.
Over the decade, there has been considerable change in wetlands across almost all the states. The area has increased by 4.4% at the national level. Across states, Mizoram has recorded an increase of more than 41% and Tripura recorded an increase of nearly 30%. Among the large states, Maharashtra recorded the highest- 17.3% increase followed by Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, and Haryana by around 13%. On the other hand, the area in the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has not changed much. Bihar and Punjab are the only two states which reported shrinkage- down by 3.8% and 2.8%, respectively.
Wetlands Area has reduced in Islands
Biogeographic zones are large regions with similar ecological and geographical features, categorizing Earth’s diverse ecosystems based on shared characteristics. The area of wetland has increased by more than 9% in the Western Ghats, 8% in the Northeast and 7% in the Deccan Peninsula. In the Himalayan and Semi-arid Regions, the increase is about 4% whereas it nearly touched 5% in the desert region. On the other side, the area has shrunk in the Islands by 6.6%.
75 wetlands are designated as Ramsar Sites
Considering the significance of wetlands, recognizing, and preserving their value is essential for sustainable development and the well-being of both ecosystems and societies. India is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention. Since becoming a party to the convention in 1982, India has designated 75 wetlands as ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ as of 2022. These cover over 1.3 million hectares. Of the 75, a total of 14 are in Tamil Nadu and 10 are in Uttar Pradesh.
The main advantages of the designation of Ramsar sites are that it encourages international cooperation, brings access to expert advice and the latest information, presents an opportunity for a country to make its voice heard at the international and the government level, provides an opportunity for wise use of wetlands and opportunity for getting international guidelines on various wetland conservation themes. The Ministry of Environment has also notified the Wetlands (Conservation & Management) Rules, 2017 which are applicable to all Ramsar sites.
Government of India’s programs for conserving wetlands
The Ministry of Environment has undertaken the ‘Wetlands Rejuvenation’ programme within the framework of 169 transformative ideas of the Government of India – “Start work on Restoration & Rejuvenation of at least 100 major wetlands across the country”.
National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCA) is a centrally sponsored scheme for the conservation and management of identified wetlands (including lakes). The scheme covers various activities such as interception, diversion and treatment of wastewater, shoreline protection, lakefront development, in-situ cleaning, stormwater management, catchment area treatment, lake beautification, survey & demarcation, bio-fencing, fisheries development, weed control, biodiversity conservation, education and awareness creation, community participation, etc.
Mission Sahbhagita was launched recently which involves participatory conservation and wise use of wetlands to enable a society ownership approach with communities leading at the forefront. The Ministry has also launched the ‘Save Wetlands Campaign’ in 2023.
More comprehensive data is needed
The decadal change in the extent of wetlands may be attributed to anthropogenic activities and natural cycle processes. Some reasons for expansions include conversion of one class of wetland to another, river changing its course, shift in precipitation patterns, and development activities. There is no comprehensive data to conclude that the increase is due to the government’s efforts alone.
The increase in area over the decade is an indicator that the spreading out of the existing wetlands is greater than the shrinkage. Likewise, where shrinkages have occurred, it can be because of more shrinkage than spreading out. For instance, the area of an ecologically important wetland has declined over the years while the area of aquaculture ponds set up by humans has increased. The overall increase in area under wetlands does not necessarily translate to the success of conservation efforts. The ecological services offered by it are lost and not replaced. To get a better understanding of the trends, we will thus need comprehensive data on the type of wetland that has changed- whether natural or man-made, at the state level and zonal level.
Featured Image: Wetland Area