World Wetlands Day 2008 -- Nepal


Healthy Wetlands, Healthy People [ 2008-2-2 ]
Keshab Raj Joshi

published in The Rising Nepal, Kathmandu

The Nepali term for wetlands is "Simsar", which means land with a perennial source of water. Generally, wetlands mean swampy rice fields, waterlogged areas and ponds. The National Wetlands Policy, 2003 of Nepal defines wetlands as "Naturally or artificially created areas such as swamps, marshes, riverine floodplains, lakes, ponds, water storage areas and agricultural land containing water from underground water resource or atmospheric precipitation that may be permanent or temporary, static or flowing and freshwater or saline."

Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. These wetlands have social, economic, religious, cultural and historical significance. Wetlands provide goods such as water, fish, crops (rice), wild food and medicines. Various ecosystem services like water storage and recharge, water filtration, nutrient cycling, flood attenuation and microclimate buffering are performed by wetlands.

Biological diversity

Wetlands provide the habitat for several flora and fauna. Wetlands serve as a shelter for amphibians, fishes, aquatic mammals and many endangered and threatened species. These wetlands also provide aesthetic and recreational values as well as research resources. Many ethnic groups rely on wetland resources for their livelihoods. They are fertile lands for agriculture and are rich from the point of biological diversity.

The convention on Wetlands of International Importance was signed in 1971 in Ramsar (Iran) and provides a framework for international cooperation for the conservation of wetlands habitats. The convention's mission is to conserve and use wisely all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, so as to contribute towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world. The convention on wetlands came into force in Nepal on April 17, 1988.

Nepal is endowed with several types of wetlands and occupy about 5 per cent of the land area of the country. These wetlands are critical habitats for the one-horned rhinoceros, Bengal tiger, Asiatic elephant, water buffalo, swamp deer, otter, gharial and marsh mugger crocodiles, turtle and Gangetic dolphin as well as many types of fishes and birds. These wetlands also provide a habitat for the water birds that migrate from Siberia every year.

After the inclusion of four high altitude wetlands recently in 2007, Nepal now owns eight wetlands sites included on the Ramsar's list of Wetlands of International Importance. The four new high altitude wetlands included as Ramsar sites are Gokyo and associated lakes of Sagarmatha National Park, Phoksundo Lake of Dolpa, Rara Lake of Mugu, Gosaikunda and associated lakes of Rasuwa. The other four wetlands, which are already included in the Ramsar list are the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve (1987), Beeshazari and associated lakes in Chitwan, Ghodaghodi Lake area of Kailali and Jagadishpur reservoir of Kapilvastu district (2003). The designation of wetlands as Ramsar sites gets widespread popularity, and they become an attraction for scientific study and tourism.

Most of the wetlands of Nepal, especially those in the Terai, are facing several threats due to the growing population and other harmful anthropogenic activities. Major threats facing the wetlands are siltation, eutrophication, overexploitation of wetland resources, over fishing, hunting and poaching, overgrazing, illegal harvesting of wetland resources, encroachment, water pollution, developmental activities in the adjoining areas, drainage, introduction of invasive species and floods.

Excessive and improper use of pesticides on nearby farmlands is bringing harmful chemicals to the wetlands. People resort to illegal fishing by using poison, dynamites, electrified wires, often wiping out fishes and other species. These activities also affect the functioning of the wetlands, making them unhealthy.

Only the healthy functioning of the wetlands can help sustain the living things that rely upon them, including the people. For people to be healthy, good quality food is necessary, which is supplied by wetlands. A billion people in the world rely on fish and shellfish for their intake of protein, and fish is a part of the regular diet of most people. Rice, which provides significant portion of the world's dietary energy supply, is a cultivated wetland plant. Wetlands also provide us with clean water. Similarly many wetland species have been used in traditional medicines. Mental well being is necessary for good health, and wetlands play that role in that they are important sources of recreation.

The pollution of wetlands due to various human activities has made the water and food they supply unfit for consumption, causing danger to human health. Thus, there is a strong relationship between the healthy functioning of wetlands and human health. Realising this relationship, the theme of this year's World Wetlands Day, which is celebrated every year on February 2, is ?Healthy Wetlands, Healthy People."

In order to conserve and manage wetland resources wisely and in a sustainable way with local people's participation, the National Wetlands Policy calls for an environmental impact assessment prior to approving any development programme around the wetlands. The policy prohibits the dumping of chemical pollutants, domestic garbage, industrial waste, toxic substances, and use of electric current and explosives in the wetland sites, and regulates the extraction of underground water and prevents water pollution. However, actions for maintaining healthy wetlands are below expectation.

Human activities

The mere designation of wetlands as Ramsar sites is not sufficient. The major concern is whether the wetlands are in a healthy state or not. If we want to benefit from them in the long run, we must first ensure that the healthy wetlands are free from harmful human activities. Development activities in the vicinity of the wetlands must only be allowed after assessing the harmful environmental impacts they incur. Local people's participation in the management of the wetlands must be guaranteed.

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