Very recently, the Yamuna floodplains were subjected to irreversible ecological damage by heavy construction activity undertaken to organize a massive congregation under the aegis of World Cultural Festival. It caused irreversible harm to 405 hectares of ecologically sensitive floodplains in direct violation of the National Green Tribunal&’s orders regarding the revitalization and conservation of the Yamuna. Illegal mining activities pose another problem. Building material such as sand and stones, illegally mined both in the catchment area and on the bed of the lakes and rivers have also damaged waterbodies. For example, the Basamand lake in Jodhpur, once the city&’s only source of drinking water, has had to contend with illegal mining for the past 20 years. Vembanad lake faces the same problem. The bed of Damodar river is another example of illegal mining for sand. 

Unplanned tourism without systematic planning and regulation is another major threat to the urban waterbodies. The Dal lake in Srinagar, Tso Morari and Pongsho lake in Ladakh are examples of unplanned and unregulated tourism. This has affected both the biodiversity of the areas as well as the local environment.

Another factor is cultural misuse or unregulated use of these waterbodies by local communities for their cultural or religious festivals such as immersion of idols. This poses a serious pollution hazard. According to UNESCO projections, global climate change can have an adverse impact on the wetland ecosystem. Indeed, change in climate, rising temperatures and declining rainfall can be a potential danger to the already disappearing lakes in the Gangetic plains.

It is unfortunate that people realised the ecological consequences of such rampant commercial exploitation of wetlands by governments and private builders only after the damage wrought to the societal aspect of these waterbodies. It is only recently, particularly after the floods in Mumbai in 2005, in Chennai in 2015 and the recent drought in Maharashtra and Telangana, resulting in enormous economic and social loss, that the utility of protecting and sustaining wetland habitats like the mangroves, lakes and other urban ecosystems are being seriously discussed by planners and policy-makers. Conservationists blame state governments for not being proactive with no effective plans for utilization of central funds.

It is important to assess the existing institutional strategies adopted for wetland management in India. Wetlands are not delineated under any specific administrative jurisdiction. The primary responsibility for the management of these ecosystems is in the hands of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Though India is a signatory to both the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Convention of Biological Diversity, there is no clear-cut regulatory framework for conservation of wetlands. Based on the directives of the National Environment Policy, 2006, and the recommendations made by National Forest Commission, the Central Government notified the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010. The Expert Group on Wetlands (EGOW) has also been constituted to examine the action plans of newly-identified wetlands (MoEF, 2012). The rules place restrictions on the activities such as reclamation, setting up of industries in the vicinity, solid waste dumping, manufacture or storage of hazardous substances, discharge of untreated effluents, and any permanent construction within the wetlands. It also regulates activities (which will not be permitted without the consent of the State government) such as hydraulic alterations, unsustainable grazing, harvesting of resources, releasing treated effluents, aquaculture, agriculture and dredging.

However, these rules regulate only selected wetlands based on the significance of the functions performed by them for the overall well-being of the people. These include: (1) wetlands selected under the Ramsar Convention; (2) wetlands in ecologically sensitive and important areas; (3) wetlands recognized as UNESCO World Heritage site; (4) high altitude wetlands (at or above an elevation of 2500 m with an area equal to or greater than five hectares); (5) wetland complexes below an elevation of 2500 m with an area equal to or greater than 500 ha; and (6) any other wetland identified by the Authority (Wetlands Rules, 2010).

Unfortunately there is a dearth of regulations for the management and conservation of some of the crucial smaller wetlands in urban and rural areas which perform important socio-ecological functions and are under severe threat by land-filling and reclamation. Furthermore, river channels (included as wetlands under the Ramsar Convention) and irrigation tanks are excluded from protection status under the Wetland Rules. Thus the existing national legislation on wetland regulation is inadequate to protect a majority of the wetlands in India.

The government&’s policy-makers and planners, the general public and the media have in recent years shown a perceptible shift in their approach towards protecting the urban wetlands. People in general are aware of the fact that these wetlands in urban and semi-urban areas historically functioned as urban common property facilities, providing collective resources for the entire community in times of scarcity and need. Yet while framing policies the regulatory and recreational ecosystem services of wetlands have systematically taken precedence over productive uses of the ecosystems, in the minds of the urban public, the media, and the city administration. In turn, urban ecosystems have been transformed from common pool resources used by communities, to protected lakes, parks, and mangrove forests that belong to the state, valued for public ecosystem services such as groundwater recharge, recreation, and flood protection. In this process, the urban poor, living at the subsistence level whose livelihood, health, and nutrition depended on access to provisioning ecosystem services of these wetlands have been the worst affected .

The rapid urbanization in India will undoubtedly pose a challenge for the existence of the wetland ecosystems in the urban landscape. Responding to these challenges will require constant attention by policy makers and planners of the central and state governments. They will have to formulate and implement appropriate policies for protecting and conserving wetland goods and services.

For developing urban resilience and sustainability, which I believe is the focus of smart cities envisaged by the Government of India, the task of protection and restoration of these valuable wetland ecosystems as urban resources should be ensured. This will provide a relatively inexpensive, adaptive, and resilient approach for ensuring the well-being of urbanites.