This article from The Statesman out of India is a bit difficult to read because of weak use of English. It may have been generated by a translation program. I have done what I could by largely treating every sentence as a separate paragraph, but do your best.
Our recent article on the cattail awoke me to the unexploited productivity of wetlands in general and ours in particular. This article demonstrates the commercial potential of wetland husbandry and once again also demonstrates the need for a proper regulatory framework.
It is fairly obvious that the Achilles heal of wetland husbandry is the same as for direct irrigation in which there is both individual responsibility and communal responsibility. This problem is minimized in traditional field cropping where a recalcitrant participant can be ignored. Not so when we are managing perhaps thousands of interlinking fields and channels that is sensitive to bad practice.
Our immediate need is to produce huge tonnages of starch bearing cattails for ethanol production. While we are at it, it is only good business to perfect as many additional food sources as possible as has been done in India.
These same wetlands are natural habitats for a range of fish and game that can also be exploited.
The only reason that this has never been pursued thoroughly in the past is surely the biological danger to the operator, today partially overcome by enclosed cabins and other strategies.
The onus of saving water now rests squarely on the shoulders of future generations. As trite as this may sound, Arunayan Sharma explains why
Every year, 16 June is observed as Pachimbango Jalabhumi Diwas or West Bengal State Wetlands Day. The event provides the framework for action at the state and district wise cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands. It also promotes conservation and the wise use of wetlands throughout the state for alternative resources of sustainable development.
The wetlands have always played a key role in the history of human civilization. But the link between these natural resources and the communities dependent on them has become increasingly strained.
The uses of wetlands are many. They often provide alternative sources of income for locales and for activities such as fishing and the cultivation of economic and medicinal plants and boating generate money — which can be satisfy the sustainable development of opportunity and livelihood.
Many additional services and benefits that are often less tangible are also provided, like an improvement in the quality of water, rainwater harvesting, storm and flood water management and navigable waterways.
Which makes wetlands very important, as much because these have an historical and cultural significance and a reserve for biodiversity, which accounts for the expression “wealthlands”.
And they have a have tremendous capacity to retain rainwater and prevent flooding so as to reduce the need for expensive engineered structures for flood control and irrigation.
Temporary wetlands can be classified in cyclical terms in respect of hydrology. However, most ponds and beel fisheries are extensively managed for fish farming. And such wetlands are significant in terms of biodiversity because of their flora and fauna.
Waterbodies have diverse utilities and thus support a good number of human populations that depend on these waterbodies. In addition, large spreads of both terrestrial and wetland fauna use these wetlands as breeding and roosting grounds. The profile of a wetland area changes in course of time due to anthropogenic pressure and unplanned urbanisation.
Wetlands, including shallow waterbodies, cover a meagre six per cent of the earth’s surface and supports nearly 20 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity.
The hydrological regime, physico-chemical parameters of diverse water bodies and human interference are among the major forces that control biodiversity in the wetlands.
India has about 4.1 million hectares of wetlands, excluding paddy fields, of which 1.5 million hectares are natural and 2.6 million hectares are man-made.
In West Bengal, there are about 60 natural and 12 man-made wetlands, not to forget the numerous small water bodies including ponds, lakes, ditches, puddles.
The categories combine to cover about nine per cent of the total wetland area in India.
According to a study, these spreads can be classified as wetlands of the Gangetic alluvial plains, coastal wetlands, wetlands of the semi-arid regions or the Rarh region and wetlands of North Bengal.
These stretches are mainly confined to the alluvial plains of the lower Gangetic delta.
Waterbodies in this region can be divided into four categories depending upon parameters such as oligotrophic, mesotrophic, eutrophic and brackish. The Gangetic alluvial plains include trans-boundary wetlands like Bhatiar beel in Malda district. Coastal wetlands are mostly saline in nature. The Rarh region can be divided into a plain and a plateau and most of the waterbodies in this region are of a man-made perennial reservoir type. All these are all rain-fed and remain saturated through the monsoon and winter months.
Waterbodies distributed in these regions consist mainly of ancient as well as perennial reservoirs standing on old alluvial or laterite alkaline soil with occasional coarse sand or gravel.
North Bengal can broadly be divided into the Terai and Dooars. Waterbodies in the Terai and the Dooars are distinctly different in their hydrology and physiography.
The Dooars region includes hilly streams, rivers and a few perennial and seasonal lakes and reservoirs mainly distributed in Darjeeling.
The Terai region consists of marshes, backwater wetlands and several other man-made ponds, ditches, lakes and dighis distributed in Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, North and South Dinajpur.
Bengal’s wetlands, covering only about 8.5 per cent of the India area, provide shelter to 60 per cent diversity of aquatic and related flora. The phrenology of aquatic and wetland plants is controlled by physio-chemical parameters of the waterbodies.
The diversity of aquatic and wetland plants is controlled by the height of the water table as well as quality.
The diversity of wetland plants of Bengal is the richest in the country in that more than 44 species are important as food. Eight species of emergent hydrophytes are widely exploited for rural economy.
In addition, about 21 species are medicinally important and 12 species are significant for their biological filtering capacity.
More than 45 species have become rare, five species are already endangered and six species are under threat.
In general, the wetlands of the alluvial plains of the lower Ganga deltas are richest in macrophytic plant diversity in aquatic habitat due to variations in physicochemical parameters of water and bottom sediments.
Highly saline coastal wetlands are vegetated with mangroves and salinity-loving plants. Wetlands of the sub-Himalayan and semi arid regions are also distinguished for their physiography, hydrology and floristic composition.
Perennial water reservoirs in the semi arid regions are rich sources of floristic diversity. The wetlands of West Bengal represent 75 per cent of the fern population of the Indian subcontinent.
Many of the bird species depend on wetlands for their nesting, roosting and halting grounds and they directly or indirectly depend on aquatic plants and animals for their food.
Amphibians depend on aquatic and wetland plant communities for their shelter. A significant part of rural communities manage their sustenance from harvesting wetland products.
Fish farming is easily the most gainful commercial practice in these wetlands.
In addition to that, there are vast expanse of low-lying swamps, marshes and basins which are densely vegetated with commercial reeds, sedges and other emergent macrophytes so often exploited by the rural people for subsistence livelihood.
Traditional commercial practice (other than fish farming) in the wetlands is an indigenous culture. Earlier people used to harvest wetland products for their domestic consumption.
Rural people were responsible for commercialisation of major wetland products obtained from plant resources like Typha elephantina and Typha domingensis (hogla), Aeschynomene aspera (shola), Cyperus pangorei and Cyperus corymbosus (madurkathi), Trapa natans bispinosa (paniphal), Euryale ferox (makhana).
Apart from these, the poor villagers as supplementary vegetables and medicinal plants are also harvesting several wetland plants. Several aquatic plants are also marketed for aesthetic purposes. Several new green herbs of aquatic origin have now captured the city markets along with conventional aquatic herbs.
Makhana (Euryale ferox) is a seasonal or perennial giant water lily having flat leaf surface. The leaves, petioles, sepals and fruits of makhana are covered with semi-delicate bent prickles. Makhana is an aquatic cash crop.
Makhana supports a full-fledged cottage industry, which provides sustenance to a great many rural communities. Makhana seeds are edible and fried seeds or puffs are extremely nutritious and consist of easily digestible starch.
Cultivation and management of cattails, locally called hogla-pati (Typha elephantina and Typha domingensis) is more than a century old practice particularly found in the wetlands.
Many rural people are engaged in cultivation, management and marketing of products obtained from hogla.
A coarse quality of mat and rain-shed are the major products prepared from dried hogla leaves.
Shola is obtained from the soft stem pith of Aeschynomene aspera and its cultivation for commercial purposes.
Presently beautiful paintings and silk-screen printing is done on fine mats which have become very popular.
Water chestnut locally called paniphal (Trapa natans bispinosa) is one of the traditional water crop found in India. It is commercially cultivated for its edible fruits.
Ipomoea aquatica or Kalmi is most popular or traditionally consume leafy twigs, petioles and rhizomes of several aquatic herbs. Kalmi is cultivated along the wetlands areas.
In addition, other aquatic herbs like Kachu (Colocasia esculenta), Hingche (Enhydra fluctuans), Sushni (Marsilea minuta), Alligators weed, locally called Jalsakhi or ban-hingche (Alternanthera philoxeroides) and shaluk, water lilies (Nymphaea nouchali and Nymphaea pubescens) are significant for their market potential.
Several other aquatic herbs like thankuni (Centella asiatica and Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides), kulekhara (Hygrophila schulli) and bramhi (Bacopa monnieri) are also consumed as supplementary vegetables for their medicinal values.
In addition to this, a wetland fern (Diplazium esculentum) locally called dhenki shak is also sold in the market as supplementary vegetable.
All of these wetland plants grow abundantly in fresh water or mesotrophic marshes, pools, puddles and irrigation canals and provide sustenance to several thousand families.
At least 40 species of aquatic herbs are significant for their medicinal values. Among these few species are only marketed purely as herbal medicine.
Eclipta alba (keshut) is marketed for its ability to improve the colour of the hair and the luster of eye. Brahmi leaves are commercially used in preparation of brain tonic.
It is estimated that due to growing popularity of herbal medicine market demand of aquatic medicinal herbs is sharply increasing. This has created the possibility of their cultivation in wetlands in the near future.
Cultivation of aquarium plants namely Vallisneria natans, Aponogeton undulatus, Cabomba caroliniana, Hygrophila polysperma and Hydrilla verticillata are extensively harvested from wilderness for supply in the aquarium market.
Unsatisfactory socio-economic status leads to overuse of natural resources of wetlands.
Intensive search for alternative food resource from the wetlands for sustenance has forced an alarming level of modification of physico-chemical parameters in the natural wetland habitat. This disturbance of natural wetland habitat, eutrophication, frequent change in the settlement pattern, mono-culture practice (like fisheries) for maximum profit is damaging wetlands.
Unplanned urbanisation, lack of proper management and extension of unmanaged fishing practice in wetlands have resulted in degrading wetlands resources. Encroachments in wetlands, eutrophication, and lack of national and state level wetland management policies and rapid filling of ponds have collectively resulted in disappearance of aquatic flora and fauna.
Population explosion leads to encroachment of wetlands for other land uses. Weed infestation in wetlands has resulted in shrinkage due to excessive evapo-transpiration.
Sedimentation in wetlands and unmanaged pisciculture has resulted in decline of species diversity in wetlands. Fertilisers and pesticides from agricultural run off have resulted in decline of wetland species diversity.
Situated in the Indo-Gangetic floodplains, Malda district is dotted with many large and small wetlands. Some of the major wetlands in Malda are Bara Sagardighi, Bhatiar Bheel, Tangon Bheel, Chhatra Bheel, Madhaipur Bheel, Chandipur Bheel, Gour Bheel, Nayabandh Bheel and Jatradanga Bheel.
Sadly, these have never been utilised to their fullest extent in terms of flood control and other purposes.
Many wetlands have also been wiped out to make space for human settlements cultivable lands. Effective conservation measures and management plans and policies are immediately required to save these wealthlands from further degradation.
New approaches to irrigation and agricultural schemes should be undertaken in the adjoining sites. As the district attracts a large number of migratory birds every season, steps should be taken to develop these sites as spots for eco-tourism. The Bhatiar Bheel near Malda town is one of the most diverse wetlands in the area lies endangered due to extensive encroachment and unplanned growth of the city.
Unfortunately, in India there is no national wetland policy and whatever protection is available through prevailing regulatory measures do not cover the small and medium wetlands in the countryside.
Wetlands are natural assets, although the developers and administrators fail to see it.
Wetlands and their significance, diversity of plants, animal’s resources, livelihood support values and their region wise ecological roles should be included in the curriculum of school, college and University level. Wetlands are common property of society at large and destruction or misuse of such natural resources amounts to violation of environmental laws.
(The author is director, Centre for Ecological Engineering, Malda.)