I n August 2022, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) added ten wetlands to the List of Wetlands of International Importance (also called Ramsar Sites) within the framework of the Ramsar Convention. The number of Ramsar Sites in India is now an incredible 64, equal to that of China and the highest in Asia. With additional sites under consideration, the network is likely to increase to 75 sites in the 75th year of our Independence. India ratified the Ramsar Convention in 1982. Keoladeo National Park (in Rajasthan) and Chilika (in Odisha) were the first two sites to be placed on the Ramsar List by the Government of India. Till 1990, only four more sites were added to the list, and another 19 over the following two decades. Since 2012, Ramsar Site designation has received a significant policy push from the MoEFCC, and 38 wetlands have been added to the list since.
The network of Indian Ramsar Sites currently covers 1.25 million ha, which is approximately 8 per cent of the known wetland extent of the country. The Ramsar sites in India are highly diverse. The sites range from Himalayan high-altitude wetlands (Tso-Moriri, Tso kar complex and Chandertal), to lakes and marshes (Wular, Hokera, Renuka, Keoladeo, Kabartal, Nawabganj, Loktak, Deepor, Rudrasagar, Sandi, Saman, Keshopur-Miani, Sultanpur, Nalsarovar, Sasthamkotta, Pala, NandurMadhmeswar, Kanwartal and Pallikarnai), river stretches (Upper Ganga River stretch, Beas Conservation Reserve, Kanjili and Satkosia), crater lake (Lonar), salinas (Sambhar), mangrove swamps (Sunderbans, Bhitarkanika, Pichavaram and Point Calimere) and lagoons, estuaries, and near-shore marine areas (Chilika, Ashtamudi, Vembanad-Kol and the Gulf of Mannar). Water storage areas (Pong, Harike, Bhoj, Surinsar-Mansar, Bhindawas, Sur Sarovar, Asan, Wadhvana, Thol, Ranganthittu, Udhayamarthandapuram, Vedanthangal, Nanda, Sirpur and Vellode) and assemblages of sewage-fed fish farms (East Kolkata Wetlands) have also been included in the list by the Government of India.
While the smallest Ramsar Site is just 19.75 ha in area (Vembannur), the largest, the Sunderbans, spans 0.42 million ha. Ramsar Sites are one of the three pillars of the Ramsar Convention (the other two being working towards the wise use of wetlands and cooperating internationally on transboundary wetlands, shared wetlands and shared species). Ramsar Sites form ‘an international network of wetlands which are important for conserving global biological diversity and sustaining human life through the maintenance of their ecosystem components, processes and services. The international significance of these sites is indicated by their fulfilling at least one of the nine criteria set by the Convention. With 2,455 sites spanning 255.8 million ha, the Ramsar sites represent the world’s largest protected area network. The contribution that Ramsar sites make to biological diversity can hardly be overemphasised. A recent compilation of faunal diversity of 42 Indian Ramsar Sites by the Zoological Survey of India enlists 6200 species.
For several of the faunal groups, these wetlands represent a significant share of the known diversity (for example, over one-third of recorded mammalian species, one-fifth of reptiles, and about two-thirds of known bird species). Chilika is known to support a population of over 1 per cent of the known biogeographical population of over 40 waterbird species. The lagoon also maintains a healthy population and, is one of the only two lagoons in the world inhabited by the Irrawaddy Dolphin. KeibulLamjao, a floating national park south of Loktak, is the only known natural habitat of globally endangered swamp deer. The globally vulnerable Black-necked crane breeds in the region around Tso-Moriri. The Sunderbans are famed as the world’s largest single chunk of contiguous mangroves and an abode of the globally endangered Bengal Tiger. Spectacular flocks of flamingos can be seen at Sambhar and Point Calimere, whereas hordes of Bar-Headed Goose regularly visit Pong. The diversity of waterbirds visiting Keoladeo and Harike during migration often crosses over 100 species.
In 2008, Dr Asad Rahmani and Dr Zafar-ul Islam identified 160 wetlands which met at least one of the nine designation criteria of the Convention. The Ramsar Sites make vital contributions to lives and livelihoods. Deepor, Pallikarnai, Bhiatrkanika and Point Calimere provide critical flood and storm buffers, whereas Bhoj and Sasthamcotta are principal water sources. The backwaters of Kerala, of which Vembanad is famed, are the state’s prized tourist destination. Over 260 shallow fish ponds in the EKW receive over 900 MLD pre-settled sewage from the Kolkata Metropolitan region through a network of locally excavated secondary and tertiary canals, used to produce annually 20,000 MT of fish, 50,000 MT of vegetables and irrigate 4700 ha of paddy lands.
The rich fisheries and tourism in Chilika form the livelihoods of 0.2 million fishers. Designating wetlands to the Ramsar Site network affirms a national government’s commitment to wise use. While the Ramsar site designation is a much-celebrated event, what happens after the designation holds the key to whether the very purpose of the designation is fulfilled. Delivery of Ramsar commitments is predicated on designing and implementing effective management actions that can secure the global values of the sites. Since 1986, the MoEFCC has been implementing a national scheme (presently known as the National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems) to assist state governments in preparing and implementing integrated management plans for Ramsar sites and other priority wetlands. Ramsar sites receive legal protection under Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017. Each Ramsar site needs to have a management plan which outlines the pathway to wise use.
A diagnostic approach for developing such management plans has been prescribed by the Ministry. In June 2022, the Ministry also formulated the ‘Sahbhagita Guidelines’ outlining an “all of society” approach and governance framework for wetlands conservation in the country. Several Ramsar sites are reeling under immense development pressure. Active waste dumping continues in Deepor Beel, East Kolkata Wetlands, and Pallikarnai marshes. Changes in water regimes due to the construction of Ithai Barrage have threatened the habitat of globally endangered Sangai deer. Illegal salt mining in and around Sambhar has led to a drastic reduction in inundation regimes. Pollution is rampant in several sites, with extremes in Harike, Kanjili, Vembanad-Kol Ashtamudi and others. Of the existing list of Ramsar Sites, a majority are designated Protected Areas. The management of these sites is largely governed by the needs of species and habitats and does not leave much space for accommodating wise use. However, there is much scope for augmenting the current management by taking into basin-scale land and water use change and risks induced by climate change.
Ramsar sites need to be accorded a special status in the national wetlands programme so as to ensure that their management meets international standards, financing is embedded within the state budgets as well leveraged by building convergence with ongoing conservation and development sector programmes, and systematic monitoring enables capturing status and trends in ecological conditions. In November this year, countries will convene in Montreal Canada, to set the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The draft, unfortunately has clubbed wetlands within the terrestrial for land and sea, a trend which has continued since the previous Aichi Targets.
This does not augur well for wetlands as these vital parts of landscapes are left at the margins of policy making and programming. The Global Biodiversity Framework is a vital window for the global community to set a nature positive path – with significant impacts on plans, programmes and investments at all levels. Putting wetlands within this framework would be an important policy signal from decision-makers that they recognise the criticality of wetlands in halting and reversing biodiversity loss and are prepared to act on it. We must therefore do everything in our power to make sure the importance of wetlands is recognised in Montreal later this year and beyond.