Loktak Lake freshwater ecosystem provides a multitude of services for all life forms. Locals depend upon it for their everyday needs, including for drinking, bathing, agricultural fields, and for aquaculture to support their livelihoods. A wide variety of fish and waterbirds – including migratory species, and vegetation thrive upon the wetland – each forming a part of the chain that keeps the ecosystem healthy.
By Salam Rajesh
Freshwater ecosystems are extremely vital in supporting and in the continuation of life. Humans and all other living beings depend on freshwater to sustain life. The degeneration and degradation of freshwater ecosystems threaten life that thrives upon these ecosystems – whether they be the rivers, lakes, wetlands, ponds and brooks.
Touching upon this concern, Deltares’ recent report, “Economic rationale of NBS in freshwater ecosystems” (February 2021), states that, ‘Unsustainable exploitation and modification of river functions and of ecosystem services by humans can lead to enormous impacts on river systems, often resulting in negative effects on biodiversity and nature and reducing the capacity to deliver the full spectrum of ecosystem services’.
Freshwater degradation is more often than not attributed to human interferences in a negative sense. Deltares’ report has this to say, ‘Pollution and human interventions in hydrology and land use have compromised the ecological state of rivers across the globe’. It is not only about rivers, whereas, but this also applies equally to all forms of wetlands and other water bodies like brooks, streams, rivulets, and community ponds.
Redefining the argument that, ‘Healthy rivers deliver valuable ecosystem services that are a prerequisite for human well-being and economic development’, the report reiterates that, ‘Healthy rivers and their floodplains provide a wide range of vital ecosystem services that benefit humans, including water retention and regulation, biodiversity, drinking water provision, flood protection, carbon sequestration, erosion protection, spatial quality, recreational amenities (e.g. swimming, boating, fishing, birding, hiking), nitrate and phosphorus cycling’.
This rationale is equally true for the wetlands and other water bodies, wherein the deliberations on wetlands as significant carbon sinks find center-stage in global discussion on climate issues today. Freshwater ecosystems are, therefore, not only about providing water for consumption but are relevant to various ecosystem services as outlined in the preceding para.
In Manipur, for instance, the Loktak Lake freshwater ecosystem provides a multitude of services for all life forms dependent on this wetland. Locals depend upon it for their everyday needs, including for drinking, bathing, for their agricultural fields, and for aquaculture to support their livelihoods. A wide variety of fish and waterbirds – including transboundary migratory species, and vegetation thrive upon the wetland – each forming a part of the chain that keeps the ecosystem healthy.
Similarly, as the report stresses upon, it is vital for the state planners to rejuvenate important rivers like the Nambul River which feed directly into the freshwater Loktak Lake. The status of this river is relevant to the immediate and the long-term health of the lake. The Nambul which flows through Imphal city is highly polluted and carries the urban waste along its flow to deposit directly into the lake. This becomes the worrying point on the health status of the lake.
The problem with Nambul and its tributary Naga Turel is that these rivers have been largely disturbed by human intervention. Concretization of the river banks has more or less ended the relation shared between the river and the human population thriving along their course. The vitality that defines a thriving, living river is lost as the artificial barrier(s) discourages locals from accessing the river water as in the olden days when the rivers flowed freely.
The intervention also affects the economics of local people who eke a living out of the resources from the rivers, so much as the non-usability of the river water forces urban population to procure water supply for their everyday requirement from commercial vendors. A wasted, polluted Nambul River also affects the ecosystem of Loktak Lake while endangering the health and lives of the fishers who thrive upon the lake.
Describing Nature-based solutions (NbS) as ‘the actions to conserve and restore ecosystems to make use of ecosystem services for societal purposes, such as climate adaptation or mitigation of floods and droughts, the Deltares report stresses that ‘NbS can play an important role in making a shift towards a more natural, multi-functional river management approach’. This, of course, applies to the wetlands, too.
The report is quite optimistic in its reference to healthy rivers wherein these can ‘deliver valuable ecosystem services that are a prerequisite for human well-being and economic development’. It defines that economic investment decisions in river systems should be analyzed under the wider framework of human wellbeing.
The discourse in the report suggests finding environment and ecology-friendly methods to revitalize the health of rivers and other water bodies. This calls for strategic action plans that deviate from the conventional engineering methodology of intervention, which already had done enough damage to vital ecosystems around the world. Engineering closed-eye perspective on riverside ‘development’ had practically killed the Naga Turel and partially paralyzed the Nambul River.
The Deltares report hints at the fault of planners in designing and implementation of projects that are more negative in nature than being beneficial. It says that ‘despite the high economic value of the wide array of ecosystems services, rivers across the globe have been modified for irrigation, hydropower, flood protection, and navigation at the expense of other services, including a severe decline in populations and diversity of freshwater species.
This is precisely what has happened with the Manipur River. A man-made mechanical barrier – the Ithai Barrage – was constructed across the river near Ithai Khunou village in Bishnupur District and was commissioned in 1983. The structure blocked the passage of migratory fish species coming upstream from the Chindwin-Irrawaddy river system in Myanmar.
The end result was that the traditional fish population in Loktak and other adjoining wetlands declined sharply, impacting the rural economy of local populations who largely depended on this fish resource for their livelihoods and earnings. It also impacted the State’s treasury as it had to replenish the declining fish population with an imported variety of fish species.
The structure (Ithai Barrage) caused drastic changes in the hydrology of Loktak and the other floodplain wetlands and rivers in the Manipur valley. Recurrent flooding and long period inundation of agricultural and settlement lands became a common occurrence due to this single man-made structure. In other words, the economies of thousands of human population in the State were affected by a single structure which has been described as a human (engineering) blunder.
Looking at the way forward, the report has this comment to chip in: ‘NbS in river management contribute to restoring ecosystems of modified river systems and provide multiple co-benefits. Where grey infrastructure solutions may be cost-effective from a single-objective perspective in the short term, they are often inflexible and unsustainable under climate change and less attractive than NBS once a longer time horizon, wider spatial scope and multiple functions are considered’.
The report wraps up the deliberation with the suggestion that, ‘Investments in NbS for river restoration are an attractive avenue for sustainable economic recovery as NbS: creating jobs in the short term, supporting economic development in the medium term, and supporting a shift towards nature-friendly, low-carbon, diversified local economies in the long term’.
(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])