Protect The Earth’s Kidneys – Wetlands: Bijaya Raj Paudyal

Just as our organs are vital to our health, with each one playing a significant part, similarly, wetlands, one of the components of the landscape, are important for a healthy landscape. The wetlands are likened to the earth’s kidneys. Kidneys filter our blood to remove waste and fluid. Wetlands provide the same functions, absorbing wastes such as nitrogen and phosphorous. When these substances flow into the waterways in excess, harmful algae blooms, and leads to hypoxia - a state in which oxygen supply is insufficient, and kills fish.

Importance

When we lose or degrade the wetlands, there will be disruption in the ecological and hydrological processes, resulting in lower flora and fauna biodiversity. Wetlands are fertile agriculture lands, if degraded it creates problems for the landscape’s health. They include changing weather patterns, altered flood regimes, lower ground water recharge, increased landslides and lost income generation opportunities for the locals and wetland-dependent ethnic groups. Hence, the government and communities are recognising the importance of wetlands, taking steps to protect, restore, and even create wetlands.

Being a Party to the Convention on Biodiversity in 1992 at Rio, Nepal launched a Nepal Biodiversity Strategy in 2002 and an implementation plan in 2006-2010. Recently the government approved the second strategy with an action plan, which also identifies six major sectors for conserving biodiversity: protected areas, forests, rangelands, agro-biodiversity, wetlands and mountain biodiversity. Of them, sustainable conservation and use of wetlands, or simsar, have been given high priority because of their high economic, socio-cultural and ecological significance.

As per the National Wetland Policy, 2003, wetlands denote perennial water bodies that originate from underground sources of water or rains which cover not only swampy areas with flowing or stagnant fresh or salt water that are natural or man-made, permanent or temporary, but also marshy lands, riverine floodplains, lakes, ponds, water storage areas and agricultural lands.

The world’s wetlands cover about six per cent of the total global land area. The Directorate of Fisheries Development, Nepal, 2012 estimates that there are 819,277,100 hectares of wetlands, which include rivers, lakes, reservoirs, ponds and marginal swamps, and irrigated paddy fields. They cover 48.2%, 0.6%, 0.2%, 0.9%, 1.5%, and 48.6 % of the area respectively. Nepal’s wetlands cover about five percent of Nepal’s land area.

Nepal has national as well as international obligations to manage wetlands diversity. Nepal has shown its commitment to wetlands conservation, especially the conservation of waterfowl habitats of international importance, by signing the Ramsar Treaty in 1971, which was held in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The main obligations are to conservation, management and wise use of migratory waterfowl and promotion of wetland conservation. In addition, it includes the formulation and implementation of measures to make wise use of wetlands.

The Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve was established in 1976 and designated as the first Ramsar site in December 1987. Nepal showed its conservation commitment by signing the Ramsar Convention on April 17, 1988. Nepal has already formulated a National Wetland Policy (2003 and 2012) and declared nine wetlands covering 34,455 hectares as Ramsar sites. Those sites include the Koshi Tappu, Beeshazar and associated lakes, Ghodaghodi Lake complex, Jagadishpur reservoir (man-made), Gokyo and associated lakes, Gosaikunda and associated lakes, Phoksundo Lake, Rara Lake and Mai Pokhari. The altitudes of the established Ramsar sites range from 75 to 4950 metres.

The National Wetlands Policy 2003 made a provision for establishing six different sites for the effective conservation and management of wetlands including community-managed wetlands, private wetlands, leasehold wetlands, jointly managed wetlands, religious wetlands and state-managed wetlands. Biodiversity conservation also has its place in the Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2007, which recognises the fundamental right of every person to live in a clean environment, and directs the government to make special arrangements for the conservation of biodiversity and its sustainable use and equitable distribution of the benefits derived from it. The constitution also obliges the state to pursue a policy aimed at identifying and protecting traditional knowledge, skills and practices.

The Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation piloted a Conservation and Sustainable Use of Wetlands project in the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve and Ghodaghodi Lake complex in 2008-2013 with the objective of maintaining and enhancing wetland biodiversity and environmental goods and services for improved local livelihoods. Rupa Lake Rehabilitation Fisheries Cooperative Limited, LI-BIRD and Lekhnath Municipality, the Department of Forests and National Parks &Wildlife Conservation and Kali Gandaki-A Hydropower Project have also focussed their efforts on conserving the wetlands, including the conservation of flora and fauna. Community-based conservation of the endangered dolphin (Platanista gangetica), initiated by a local NGO in the Karnali, Mohana, Patharia, Kanada and Kanda rivers since 2001 in Kailali district, has become a model.

Apart from the six thematic areas included in the 2002 strategy, livelihood, governance, gender and social inclusion, indigenous and local communities, and climate change impacts and adaptations have been dealt separately in the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), 2014. Further, mountain biodiversity is treated separately in NBSAP 2014. The framework for Local Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (LBSAP), presented in the NBSAP, is a new innovative approach envisioned in the plan.

Despite the efforts of the government and non-government organisations, Nepal’s wetland ecosystem is getting degraded as reported in NBSAP, 2014. It is reported that many internationally important wetlands, including the Beeshazar Lake in Chitwan and Phewa Lake in Pokhara, have been severely invaded by water hyacinth. Moreover, Nepal’s wetlands are under pressure from sedimentation, encroachment and agricultural expansion, water pollution, overuse of wetland resources, eutrophication and poverty.

Legal constraint

There is a major legal constraint in managing the wetlands of Nepal. A comprehensive Wetland Act is a must for the sustainable management of wetlands in Nepal. It has already been more than a decade since the Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits - arising from their utilisation - Bill has been awaiting approval. Furthermore, the national, thematic (Protected area ecosystems and species (in-situ and ex-situ), agricultural biodiversity, sustainable use of biological resources, genetic resources and bio-security) and local level biodiversity coordination committees have not operated smoothly for lack of legislation. The proposed Biodiversity Trust Fund (BTF) has yet to materialise.

This year’s World Wetlands Day (February 2) was marked with the slogan ‘Wetlands for Our Future – Join us!’ Hence, let us commit ourselves to perform our responsibilities in whatever positions we hold as lawmakers, facilitators, implementers, monitors by making sound legal and institutional arrangements for the conservation and sustainable use of not only the Ramsar sites but also the other wetlands of Nepal.

(Paudyal is a forester)

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