Immediate action and field intervention is needed to prevent further deterioration of Nepal’s wetlands. Let’s unite to conserve the wetlands before it is too late
World Wetland Day (WWD) was celebrated on February 2 this year. This marks the day of signing the first environmental treaty, Ramsar Convention (1971), in the Iranian city of Ramsar. The Convention defines wetland as “areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt including areas of marine water, the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metre”. Physically, they are inundated by water and have saturated soils. These landforms support climate change mitigation by carbon sequestration, nutrient recycling and water purification, enhance food security by supporting agriculture and support biodiversity. Nepal is a party to Ramsar Convention.
The Convention provides framework for national action and international co-operation for conservation and wise use of wetlands. Wetlands of international importance, especially the waterfowl habitat, are designated as Ramsar sites. However, wetlands can be listed in the Ramsar list if any one of the nine criteria set by the Convention is met. Five percent of Nepal’s area is covered by wetlands. To date, there are 171 contracting parties to the Convention, with 2,375 wetlands of international importance in the Ramsar list covering total surface area of 2.53 million square kilometers. About 250 wetlands in Nepal are identified with ecological and environmental significance whereas 10 wetlands with total area of 60,561hectares are designated as Ramsar sites. Although Nepal is signatory to the Convention and stands with global community for the cause of wetland conservation, there are a lot to accomplish in the field.
Nepal’s wetlands and Ramsar sites have ecological, economic and religious significance but the challenge is who is to take care of those wetlands and who should be responsible for management. Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) is the focal authority of Ramsar Convention in Nepal. However, it does not take any responsibility regarding its management, if the site lies out of the protected area system. Division Forest Office, entrusted to manage the wetlands and Ramsar site in public lands (outside of protected areas), struggles to take care of and manage forest, resulting in low concern for wetland conservation. Lack of earmarked budget and conservation personnel dedicated to wetland/Ramsar site conservation is a common problem in every district. There is no standard mechanism and procedure for wetland governance in the country making it difficult to manage it sustainably. As a result, wetland degradation continues threatening its rich biodiversity. Geographical complexities and varied climatic characteristics within the short latitude have provided strong foundation for endemism, resulting in rich accumulation of biological diversity in Nepal. These wetlands provide niche for variety of wildlife and birdlife which are distributed over several physiographic region, from lowland Tarai to high mountains.
Wetland provides several ecosystem services that directly and indirectly benefit local, national and global population. While wetland conservation can support livelihoods at the local level, its contribution toward Aichi Biodiversity Target, Paris Agreement on Climate Change, UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and other related commitments are equally important. Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve (KTWLR), first Ramsar site of Nepal, is popular for birding whereas Jagadishpur Reservoir Ramsar Site provides refuge to more than 20,000 winter migratory water birds every year with prospects for birding. Wildlife tourism in Chitwan flourishes with increased park visitors every year to see Rhino and Tiger, among other charismatic species, which can be attributed to the presence of wetlands. Gosainkunda, high altitude Ramsar site in Langtang National Park, has religious significance where thousands of Hindu devotees pay a visit during Janai Purnima. Wetlands outside protected areas also function as biological corridor, joining two or more important habitats thus preventing them from becoming ecological island. Similarly, tourism in Pokhara cannot be imagined without the presence of Fewa and other lakes. Taudha and Nagdaha in Kathmandu Valley provide rare opportunity for urban visitors and local residents to breathe fresh air, but encroachment is at its peak. Study shows that economic value of KTWLR ranges from USD 0.35 to 16 million per year while current Fewa lake area of 402 hectares will be decreased by 80 percent in the next 110 to 347 years.
Despite the multiple benefits of wetlands, these areas have been encroached from human activities such as over exploitation of resources, polluting water sources, draining for agriculture purpose, waste disposal and construction activities, among others. Environmental assessment, if done any, has been only a green washing during new development projects. Appropriate zoning must be done and no-go-zone must be identified in wetlands to ensure conservation and to maintain natural ecological process. Wetland rich country like Nepal can benefit a lot if appropriate action plan is prepared for sustainable management of resources. Integration of tourism with wetland management can boost the local and regional economy too, making sure that tourism does not overrule conservation. Thus, wetland conservation can address both the ecology and economy of nation. Global loss of wetland is in increasing trend and Nepal is no exception to this irreparable loss. Immediate action and field intervention is needed to prevent further deterioration. Therefore, let’s unite together to conserve wetlands before it is too late. Leave the wetlands wet. Do not dry them up.
The author is currently pursuing PhD research on Local People, Ecotourism and Protected Area at James Cook University, Australia