Editorials, Environment, GS-3, Uncategorized

Missing the wetlands for the water

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Environment Ministry has come up with new draft wetland conservation rules. With this, the government is all set to change the rules on wetlands.

What are wetlands?

Wetlands are ecosystems located at the interface of land and water and wherein water plays a dominant role in controlling plant and animal life and associated ecosystem processes.

Identification of wetlands:

The Ramsar Convention rules are the loftiest form of wetland identification that the world follows. Ramsar has specific criteria for choosing a wetland as a Ramsar site, which distinguishes it as possessing ‘international importance’.

  • An important distinguishing marker is that Ramsar wetlands should support significant populations of birds, fish, or other non-avian animals.
  • India is one of the 169 signatories to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. The convention provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
  • There are 2,241 Ramsar sites across the world, including 26 spread across India from Wular Lake in Jammu and Kashmir to Ashtamudi Wetland in Kerala, and from Deepor Beel in Assam to Nal Sarovar in Gujarat.

What’s there in the new draft?

  • The new draft replaces the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules of 2010.
  • It seeks to give power to the States to decide what they must do with their wetlands. This includes deciding which wetlands should be protected and what activities should be allowed or regulated, while making affable calls for ‘sustainability’ and ‘ecosystem services’.
  • The draft restricts activities like reclamation of wetlands, and conversion for non-wetland uses, any diversion or impediment to natural water inflows and outflows of the wetland and any activity having or likely to have an adverse impact on ecological character of the wetland.
  • According to the draft Rules, the power to identify and notify wetlands would be vested in the Chief Minister, who as chief executive of the state government as well as of the state wetland authority, will propose and notify wetlands after accepting or rejecting recommendations.

Contentious clauses in the new draft:

  • The draft does away with the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority, which had suo moto cognisance of wetlands and their protection.
  • The draft rules contain no ecological criteria for recognising wetlands, such as biodiversity, reefs, mangroves, and wetland complexes.
  • The draft has deleted sections on the protection of wetlands, and interpretation of harmful activities which require regulation, which found reference in the 2010 rules.
  • It has also removed the list of prohibited activities which was in the previous one and has completely shifted the entire burden of wetlands protections from the Centre to the respective states.

What’s left out?

  • What comprises a wetland is an important question that the Draft Rules leave unanswered. However, the 2010 rules outline criteria for wetland identification including genetic diversity, outstanding natural beauty, wildlife habitats, corals, coral reefs, mangroves, heritage areas, and so on.
  • A detailed list of prohibited activities in the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010, like setting up of new industries and expansion of existing industries, solid waste dumping, manufacturing or handling or storage or disposal of hazardous substances, discharge of untreated waste and effluents from industries, cities, towns and other human settlements, any construction of permanent nature is left out.
  • The rules have no mention of how communities or people can ensure conservation of wetlands. They have no provisions for carrying out environment impact assessment (EIA) for projects on wetlands either.
  • According to 2010 Rules, wetlands were to be notified within a year of the Rules coming into force, and there were deadlines for each process along the way. However, the new draft does away with the time-bound process for notification.
  • There are also no provisions for wetland complexes in the new rules.

Other concerns associated:

  • While the new draft calls for sustainability, this is a difficult concept to enforce, particularly with regard to water.
  • Regulation of activities in the draft rules do not make any obvious connection with existing groundwater legislations because these two aspects are still seen as separate.
  • The 2016 Draft Wetland Rules also call for wise use of wetlands. ‘Wise use’ is a concept used by the Ramsar Convention, and is open to interpretation. It could mean optimum use of resources for human purpose. It could mean not using a wetland so that we eventually strengthen future water security. It could also mean just leaving the wetland and its catchment area as is for flood control, carbon sequestration, and water recharge functions.

Conclusion:

Wetlands are seriously threatened by reclamation and degradation as a result of drainage and landfills, pollution (domestic and industrial effluents, disposal of solid waste) resulting in loss of biodiversity and disruption of the wetland systems. Hence, it is imperative that the Draft Wetlands Rules, 2016 be looked at with a hard, if not cynical, eye.

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