Wetlands: Are they wastelands?

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Current Perception of the Wetlands

Wetlands, due to no visible utility to human are largely being ignored by us. Even today in the era, where global warming, climate change and sinking of water table is such a big issue, the initiative to conserve them has not yet been considered. Well, the problem is not only their ignorance, nor we can blame it on the people neither the government, the problem actually lies in the unawareness about the wetlands. The main reason is lack of people in aquatic sciences, and less studies on wetlands especially in India. Generally, the wetlands are percept as ‘wastelands’, that’s why whenever there is a pond or lake in nearby locality, people starts dumping their household wastes, sewage etc. Today, to make understand the people about the importance of a wetland is a Herculean task! But its in almost every religious texts to conserve lake, ponds, rivers etc. whether you see Quran, the holy book of Muslims, or Vedas of Hindus or Guru Granth Sahib of Sikhs, everywhere you will see there have been clear indication to protect the wetlands from anyhow polluting, even most of the Gurudwaras have a pond in the premises. Similarly, in every religion, there is a special place for the lakes and ponds. I attended few meetings about climate change, there people were just wondering what should be done to conserve water and water table in cities specially Delhi, but no-one talked about the needs wetlands, in fact these are playing such a great role in maintaining the environment. These are some general issues which I said only to make you understand the importance of this article, my aim of writing this article is to make more and more people aware about the need to conserve the wetlands, which are now largely ignored by both government and the people.

What is a Wetland?

Most of the people still thinks that only marshes and swamps are considered as wetlands, but there is no perfect definition of wetland till now. According to Ramsar Convention for wetland conservation, in 1971, wetlands are defined as “ 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 salty, including areas of marine water, the depth of which does not exceed six meters.” Are They Really “Wasteland”?

Wetlands i.e. lake, ponds, poodles or marshes are the ultimate sites of groundwater recharge and now their importance has increased many a fold. It’s because everywhere especially urban areas, there is massive concretization due to development of buildings, roads, malls etc. In such case the rain water doesn’t get sufficient surface area to percolate inside the earth. And most of the rainwater is deposited to rivers through drains or run offs. But if a lake is present nearby it would act as natural rainwater harvesting site storing the rainwater for future use by the local people and also preserving the water table. For e.g. In Tamil Nadu, more than 5000 rain fed lakes irrigate around 5.12 hectares of land! But due to lack of lakes or ponds the rainwater accumulates in your locality and turns into a factory of mosquitoes. Now, how can I say mosquito would not breed in lakes or ponds when I am also saying the accumulated water would? But the reality is not so, in next paragraphs you will get the answer. Now is this all for a wetland sustaining life? The answer is definitely no. the importance of a wetland is indefinite. Now, you will surprise to know that a wetland also plays a major role in reducing global warming. Besides acting as a carbon sink and dissolving CO2 the phytoplankton communities present in the water bodies are much efficient as plants in converting CO2 into oxygen. A lake also attracts many birds, both native and migratory. In this case it can serve as a tourism and scientific purpose also, providing employment and recreation. Fishing etc added it can serve as a great economic place. Besides these, a wetland also plays a great role in flood control and waste water treatment also. In recent months bio diesel from algal culture has attracted many environmentalists. This also can be fantastic aspect of a wetland to reduce CO2 from thermal plants where it absorbs CO2 and the vehicles where it reduces emission as compared to fossil fuels. Some people argue that wetlands are breeding sites for mosquitoes, produce methane which is green house gas more harmful than CO2, it spreads diseases etc. But a scientist would never believe that. A healthy lake never allows mosquito to breed. The reason is due to the presence of a vast biodiversity within a water body. There are many invertebrates present there which don’t allow mosquito larva to grow like naiads of dragonfly, copepods, some fishes etc which kills and sometimes feed on them. There are even fishes like Gambusia (commonly known as ‘Mosquito Fish’) which readily feeds on mosquito larva and is freely available from municipalities. In fact mosquito breeding has increased due to degradation in the quality of our water bodies in recent years by virtue of which their natural predators are vanishing, and hence the mosquitoes are enjoying their full carrying capacity.

It’s all from the climate change and economic aspects, understanding the working of a aquatic ecosystem is very difficult but yet interesting. Ecologists had already tagged it as the most complex ecosystem. There are so many food chains working simultaneously it can be hardly understood by a common people. Actually it’s a complex food web where hardly terrestrial laws are well applied. The pyramid of biomass is inverted in aquatic ecosystem, whether the producers are controlling the consumers or the consumers control the producers is a very old debate which also gave rise to ‘Top-Down’ and ‘Bottom Up” theories. The mysteries of how the aquatic organisms are interacting within such a complex system has now emerged as a separate research field and the rate at which journals are flooded with such studies are proof of it. The small bacteria, ciliates and phytoplankton( freely floating plants- algae e.g. Chlorella) constitutes the first trophic level just like the plants in terrestrial ecosystem. These ciliates and bacteria constitutes the microbial food chain which is actually sustaining the aquatic ecosystem by facilitating the energy deposited as organic matter in the lakes available to the other animals in the system. The zooplankton (freely floating animals- cladocerans, rotifers e.g. Daphnia, Brachionus respectively) community consumes the ciliates, bacteria and the phytoplankton for their energy needs. Bigger animals like larger invertebrates, fishes etc consume phytoplankton and the zooplankton or both depending upon species. Well, this might appear simpler to you, but the complexities are huge in aquatic system, which also makes it sensitive. Another interesting fact you will notice will be no two water bodies can be similar, nor their working, every water body will have its own properties, and that’s the reason why aquatic ecologists always become mad whenever heard about a new water body. The ultra sensitivity, and the complexity of a aquatic ecosystem is the main reason why scientists are worrying to conserve them. This is also the reason why disturbing them even with a small activity could have serious effect. And this effect will be carried to entire food web, and at last humans will be the most affected. In your school days or in any article you must have studied the case of Nile Perch in Africa, Water Hyacinth in India, etc. in fact these are very few examples. There are many examples, if I start giving this whole magazine will be shorter for it.

An aquatic food web

But today, in developing countries like India, lakes are now facing a great threat. The rate at which they are vanishing, I fear one day we would see them in books only. Besides having so many utilities, but only because of lack of awareness, and judiciary laws, it has become a challenge in front of the ecologists to conserve them. With loss of a wetland we will not only lose a lake but the advantages associated as mentioned before and in a tropical country like India with it a vast aquatic biodiversity also. In 1971, The Ramsar Conference which I mentioned earlier, was held in order open the eyes towards the importance of wetlands. India has also signed the Ramsar conventions. According to it, wetlands has been directed to conserve as habitat of waterfowls. But unfortunately, with time both Ramsar and the country's pledge has also been forgotten. The need of the hour is to promote and preserve more and more wetlands in your locality for a better future and make more people aware of the importance a wetland holds.

contributed by: Debadityo Sinha .