In Manipur, as is true of several other regions across the globe, wetlands are fast disappearing for different reasons – either influenced by human activities or subject to physical changes with time.
By Salam Rajesh
The call for ecosystem restoration during the period 2021 to 2030 as a process of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration finds urgency in addressing the increasing instances of wetlands impacted by anthropogenic influences, leading to massive loss of water bodies and corresponding decline in biological diversity. The impact also affects food security for indigenous populations dependent on wetland resources for their living.
Responding to the UN’s call for ecosystem restoration across various landscapes and seascapes as part of a larger global effort, the international organization Wetlands International has set a priority target of recovering wetlands and other water bodies to meet the global target of biodiversity loss recovery by the year 2030.
Wetlands International (WI) says that wetlands are lost three times faster than natural forests, and up to 87 percent of the global wetland resource has been lost since the year 1700. In this assessment, the WI states that wetland-dependent species are in serious decline globally and since 1970, declines have affected 81 percent of inland wetland species populations and 36 percent of coastal and marine species.
With this discouraging scenario in focus, WI further states that the ‘unprecedented loss of wetlands limits the possibility of achieving the goal of halting and reversing biodiversity loss, and the overall ambition set in the Global Biodiversity Framework’.
In Manipur, as is true of several other regions across the globe, wetlands are fast disappearing for different reasons – either influenced by human activities or subject to physical changes with time. In many cases, reclamation of wetlands for agriculture, farms and industrial purposes is seen to be the primary reason for speeding up the loss of these water bodies.
A recent field assessment of wetlands in the central Manipur valley areas revealed the extent to which much of these water bodies have been lost permanently or partially. For instance, there is nothing left of the Lampha Pat in Imphal West district, except for a few remnants of the wetland in the form of fish culture ponds.
The most quoted example of wetlands disappearing before everyone’s eyes at present is that of Lamphelpat and Porompat, two very significant water bodies in suburban Imphal which in days gone by played multiple roles of flood moderation, water resources for local people, harvesting of local fish and edible plants, and in moderating micro climatic regime. These wetlands have been largely reclaimed for agriculture, farms, and for setting up institutional complexes.
The post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework has prioritized several targets aimed at achieving biodiversity loss recovery. The 2030 action targets call for ‘conservation and effective management of at least 30 percent of global land and sea areas, especially of particular importance for biodiversity and its contributions to people, and that at least 20 percent of degraded freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems are under restoration, ensuring connectivity among them and focusing on priority ecosystems’.
In tune with the 2030 action targets, environment-conscious individuals and groups in Manipur have called for the restoration and rejuvenation of wetlands that are of particular importance for the State in the terms of the diversity of biological lives that these wetlands support. This is in addition to the urgency of reviving degraded and declining wetlands of significance to local communities to sustain their livelihoods.
The largest wetland in Manipur – the Loktak Lake – supports thousands of families whose lives are intrinsically connected to the lake in every way possible. Fishery is the main occupation of several hundred families who depend solely on the lake for their living. Their lives, however, are now threatened by resource crunch as the lake continues to degrade with each passing year. Pollution plays havoc while declining fish population as a reason for changing hydrological regime is the worrying factor for the marginalized fishers. Biological diversity that once thrived in abundance has declined sharply.
WI says that, ‘It was recently estimated that only 37 percent of rivers longer than 1,000 kilometres remain free-flowing over their entire length and 23 per cent flow uninterrupted to the ocean’. This statement reflects on the status of Manipur River, which is one of the two major rivers flowing in the State, that have been largely intervened by human activity and whose flow has been disturbed by a man-made contraption called ‘Ithai Barrage’.
Reflection on this barrage over the Manipur River is very relevant in the context of the UN’s call for ecosystem restoration. For one thing, this human intervention has affected drastic changes in the hydrological regime of both the river and the Loktak Lake. The impoundment of the water by the barrage has evidently brought changes in the character of the flora and fauna population in these water bodies.
The foremost biodiversity loss incurred as a reason for Ithai Barrage is the total loss of migratory fish species that used to come upstream along the Manipur River from the Chindwin-Irrawaddy river system in Myanmar. The change in hydrological regime had also impacted the populations of migratory water birds and local species of edible plants and insects, while endangering the habitat of the cervid subspecies – the Manipur Brow-antlered deer which finds a place in the Red Data list of the World Conservation Union.
The 2030 action targets also outline the need for ‘conservation and recovery of the world’s 2,500 migratory and resident water bird populations along all major flyways requiring favourable management and restoration of a connected network of an estimated 7,000 critically important wetland sites worldwide’.
This statement reflects again on the relative importance of Loktak Lake as a Ramsar site of international importance, being situated along two very important flyways of migratory water birds. The 2030 action targets indeed call for Loktak to be reviewed on its current status as a fast degrading wetland and thereby to restore its ecosystem in near natural condition as was in the pre-hydro project era.
It is imperative of Wetlands International (South Asia), as partner organization of the Loktak Development Authority which is responsible for the administration and management of Loktak Lake, to review immediately the current status of the lake in the context of WI’s thrust on ecosystem restoration of critically important wetlands that support migratory water bird populations.
Birdlife International states that, ‘Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs, Key Biodiversity Areas identified for birds) are sites that are critical for the conservation of birds, and form the majority of Key Biodiversity Areas identified to date’. Loktak Lake as an IBA, therefore, needs to be seen as critical to conservation of sites that harbor long-distance flying migratory water birds during their transcontinental journeys.
The Government of Manipur, too, needs to review its stand on taking up projects that could have considerable impacts on the Loktak Lake ecosystem and consequently negating the global efforts at restoring habitats vital to supporting wildlife.
(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at s[email protected])Wetlands, biodiversity