Wetlands getting choked by hyacinth, pollutants

February 4th, 2009 - 11:50 am ICT by IANS  

Shimla, Feb 4 (IANS) Wetlands in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, home to many beautiful and rare birds and other animals, are shrinking gradually threatened by unchecked hyacinth growth, siltation and pollutants dumped in the waters by towns that have sprung up nearby. During the 1940s, there were 32 natural wetlands in Punjab, spread over 22,993 hectares. However, after Independence most of these wetlands disappeared as they were converted into farmlands.

Punjab’s Harike wetlands, which came into being with the construction of a barrage in 1952 on the Sutlej river, supports rare and endangered fauna species, including the testudine turtle and the smooth Indian otter.

“Today Harike wetlands are a receptacle for domestic, agricultural and industrial wastes generated within its catchment. The Sutlej and the Beas rivers that feed the Harike wetlands receive million litres of wastewater daily from catchment towns alone,” said M.S. Johal, a former professor of the Department of Zoology, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

The water hyacinth menace is also posing a threat to the Harike wetlands. “The vast green carpet of the hyacinth is impairing the quality of water,” he said.

Punjab State Council for Science and Technology Principal Scientific Officer (Environment) Satnam Singh Ladhar said: “Like other wetlands, Harike wetlands have already shrunk to 25 sq km from 41 sq km. Its storage capacity has also decreased.”

Another major waterbody fast disappearing is the Ropar wetlands in Punjab, which was formed with the construction of a barrage over the Sutlej in 1952. It is an important habitat for some threatened species like the scaly anteater, the python, the smooth Indian otter, the hog deer, the sambhar and the pangolin.

Satnam Singh Ladhar, Principal Scientific Officer (Environment), Punjab State Council for Science and Technology, says industrialisation around the wetlands is posing a major threat to the water body.

“The water quality of the Sutlej gets degraded due to effluents discharged from industries and the municipal waste,” he said.

“The wetlands are surrounded by nude and soft hills of the Shivaliks. During the monsoon, a large amount of silt chokes the mouth of the wetlands. Rough estimates say the silt load during the rainy season is approximately 100 tonnes per hectare per year,” he said.

Like Harike, Renuka lake, near Nahan in Himachal Pradesh, is also a Ramsar site.

India is one of the signatories to the Ramsar treaty along with 158 members. The importance of wetlands was first globally recognised as an exclusive habitat for freshwater aquatic birds at a convention held at Iran’s Ramsar town in 1971.

The Renuka wetlands is dying due to siltation, pollution and growth of weeds. Over the years the total area covered by water has reduced by over 25 per cent.

B.K. Das, a former professor of the Geology Department of Panjab University, Chandigarh, says: “Rapid urbanisation and development activities around the Renuka lake have put tremendous pressure on it. The siltation rate is at an alarming 3.3 millimetre per year.”

According to him, the water of the lake is getting toxic due to various reasons, including religious festivities on the banks of the lake and pesticides that run off from fields. Limestone mining in upstream also contributes to the toxicity of the water.

Similarly, Rewalsar wetlands in Himachal’s Mandi district is threatened. It was included in the list of wetlands of national importance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2007.

Studies conducted by the Himachal State Council for Science, Technology and Environment say, over the years the depth of the wetlands has reduced from 10 metres to 6.5 metres.

Himachal Pradesh Forest Minister J.P. Nadda said: “We will protect the Rewalsar and Renuka lakes keeping in mind their religious importance.”

Wetlands occupy about six percent of the total landmass in the world. In India they cover roughly 1.5 percent of the area, and in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh it is a dismal 0.5 percent and one percent respectively.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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