We are living in the 21st century, the century of climate change, and now we are vulnerable to the possibility of sixth mass extinction. An estimated one million species are predicted to disappear. Biodiversity is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, and the rate of extinction is accelerating. The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. Changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species are major challenges.
Healthy ecosystems regulate the climate and provide the raw materials and resources for our economies and lives. The annual global value of natural services each year is estimated to be $125 trillion. According to the World Economic Forum, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are among the biggest risks to economic development.
The most endangered ecosystems are wetlands. The world has lost 87% of wetlands in the past 300 years and 35% since 1970. Today, they are disappearing faster than any other ecosystem; three times faster than even the forests. As they are destroyed, so is the life within them. More than 25% of wetland plants and animals, which represent about 40% of the world’s species, are at risk of extinction.
The Ramsar Convention (Article 1.1) defined wetlands as: “areas of marsh, fen, peatland, 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, the convention (Article 2.1) states that wetlands: “may incorporate riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six meters at low tide lying within the wetlands.”
Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable with rain forests and coral reefs. Over a billion people make a living from the wetlands. The global monetary value of natural wetland ecosystem services is now estimated at $47.4 trillion per year; 43.5% of the value of all the natural biomes.
In the wetland ecosystem, water is the primary factor controlling both the plant and animal life. Wetlands are found on every continent, except Antarctica from the tundra to the tropics. Wetlands fall into four general categories: marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens. Marshes are wetlands dominated by soft-stemmed vegetation, while swamps have mostly woody plants. Bogs are freshwater wetlands, often formed in old glacial lakes, characterized by spongy peat deposits, evergreen trees and shrubs, and a floor covered by a thick carpet of sphagnum moss. Fens are freshwater peat-forming wetlands covered mostly by grasses, sedges, reeds, and wildflowers.
Wetlands favour a particular type of trees, shrubby species, herbs, grasses and algae. Typical characteristic species of the wetland ecosystem include, hydrophytes such as Cyperus, Azolla, Nymphaea, Typha, Potamogoton, Wolffia, Phragmites, Eichhornia etc., and tree species include species of Ficus, Tamarindus indica, Mimusops, Syzygium, Terminalia, Acacia, Mangifera, etc. There occurs a diverse variety of species of insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals in wetlands. Some birds, for example, Plover, Goose, Crane, Flamingo like feed and breed in wetlands.
Due to typical functions like wildlife habitat and food chain support, groundwater recharge, water purification, nutrient retention and flood control, wetlands are considered as “biological supermarkets”, “nurseries of life” and “the kidneys of the landscape”.
Wetlands are also among the planet’s most effective carbon sinks and play a central role in climate regulation. Peatlands store 30% of land-based carbon. That is why Nordic countries (Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden) have embarked on large-scale peatland restoration, with positive knock-on effects for wildlife.
India is very rich in wetland habitats; wetlands in India (excluding rivers) account for 18.4% of the country’s geographical area, of which, 70% is under paddy cultivation. Till now, there were 21 “Ramsar sites in India”. Recently, the Ramsar Convention declared ten more sites in India as sites of international importance for the conservation of global biological diversity. This brings the total of Ramsar sites to 37 and the surface area covered by these sites to 1,067,939 ha.
Ramsar Convention has given an International Status to ‘Sarsai Nawar wetland. Under the National Wetlands Conservation Programme (NWCP), 115 wetlands have been identified till now by the Ministry of Environment (India), and Sarsai Nawar (area 161.27 ha.) is part of this. Sarsai Nawar is a vast and beautiful wetland (it is an open form of fen) situated in Takha block of District Etawah.
In India, wetlands are disappearing at a rate of 2% to 3% every year, and Sarsai Nawar wetland is also facing threats of existence; major threats are anthropogenic activities, agriculture activities, deforestation, pesticides pollution, rural sewage pollution, introduced species threats due to Eichhornia, etc. Trapa and Eichhornia have an adverse impact on aquatic ecosystems.
In 2012, this wetland was nearly a collapsed ecosystem. Conservation of this wetland was a must for the survival of Sarus Cranes and many other migratory birds as this wetland is an important part of their life and is a must for their survival. Migrating birds use this wetland to rest and feed during their cross-continental journeys and as nesting sites when they are at home. As a result, wetland loss has a serious impact on these species.
The leadership of the then District Magistrate Etawah (Uttar Pradesh, India) Mr Vidya Bhushan, saved this nearly dead ecosystem and gave it a new life in 2012. I was also a member of his ‘save Sarsai Nawar team’ along with Sarus expert Dr Rajeev Chauhan and Junior Engineer of Block Takha Mr Raaj Tripathi. Pictures after two years of revival (2014) were really impressive.
The world’s largest mangrove restoration in Senegal, led to increased biodiversity, higher rice yields, and increased fish, oyster, and shrimp stocks. Along with improved food security, surplus catches continue to bring valuable income for villagers.
Despite all the jobs and other vital benefits that wetlands provide, 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900. The remaining wetlands are also degraded to the extent that the people who directly rely on wetlands for their living are driven into poverty.
In addition, by 2025, it is estimated that 35% of people will directly face declining water supplies. This is the result of our wrong interpretation that wetlands are wastelands. Wetland loss turns a natural carbon sink into a source of emissions that adds to global warming. Hence, we must save these ecosystems which could ‘Change Climate Change’.