It’s time for Wetlands restoration

M Asnikumar Singh *

 Beautiful landscape of Loktak Lake as seen on 8th June 2022
Beautiful landscape of Loktak Lake as seen on 8th June 2022 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

The World Wetlands Day is celebrated every year on 2nd February. The Convention on wetlands was adopted on 2 February, 1971 in Ramsar, Iran. The Ramsar Secretariat’s main objective is to raise public awareness on the importance and value of wetlands. This year’s theme is “It’s Time For Wetlands Restoration”.

Wetlands in a global context : Wetlands cover 6 percent of the world’s land surface and contain about 12 percent of global carbon pool thereby playing a vital role in the global carbon cycle. Under the current climate change trends, there is a high change of spread of exotic species, which could increase pressure on watersheds and ecosystem. Moreover, Climate Change affects the hydrology of wetland ecosystems through changes in precipitation and temperatures.

It is of utmost significance that the issue of climate change ought to be taken into account when implementing wetlands restoration projects and policy makers ought to promote wetlands restoration as part of climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies .

Loktak lake and its significance, challenges and the battle for its restoration :

The present condition of the Loktak Lake and its associated wetlands like the Pumlen Pat, Khoidum Pat, Loushi Pat, Kharung Pat, Ekop Pat (pat means lake) etc, which act as natural water drainage system of the State is something that ought to worry each and every resident of the State.

The increasing demands and pressure on wetlands without understanding their nature and consequences have led to their rapid degradation. Keeping this day and its significance in mind, one justifiably feels the need to throw some light on the importance of the iconic Loktak Lake, the largest freshwater lake in North East India.

Due to its socio-economic importance it is often considered as the one of the lifelines of the State. Its biological richness and uniqueness of habitat has resulted in its designation as a “Wetland of international importance” under the Ramsar convention, a distinction it shares with just other five lakes of India. The lake and the area in its vicinity is one of the most important wetlands in the country.

It plays a pivotal role in the socio economic life of the region. It contributes a staggering 60 percent of the State’s whole catch fish volume. Its centuries old cultural ethos (considered as one of the cradles of Manipur’s unique culture and civilisation), rich history sets it apart from other wetlands of the country. Moreover, it plays a vital role in the State’s tourism sector and is even a watersports hotspot of the North Eastern region.

Sadly, due to the increasing pressure on the lake attributed to a rapid rise in population, the shifting cycle of the agricultural land in the hilly catchments of the lake has reduced from 20 to less than 5 years. This has further led to land degradation and increased soil erosion leading to sedimentation of water bodies consequently reducing its water holding and water carrying capacity.

The commission of the Loktak Hydel Power Project in 1983 and the construction of the dam at Ithai along the Manipur river adversely affected the ecological balance of Loktak lake. Since the commissioning of the Ithai Barage some 40 years ago there have been massive floods in and around the lake.

The Ithai dam was constructed to maintain minimum water level required to generate electricity for the Loktak hydro power project owned by the National Hydroelectric Power Cooperation. The Loktak lake is the natural reservoir of the State’s river system.

However, since the construction of the dam, the migratory fishes which the lake and its catchment areas used to receive from Manipur, Irrawady and Chinwin rivers, their migration has reduced drastically thereby affecting the economic situation of the fishermen dependent on the lake and its catchment areas for livelihood.

Moreover, the dam has blocked the Manipur river which acted as its natural drainage outlet. This blockage has affected the refreshment cycle and volume of the lake to such an extent that many species of flora and fauna in the lake are on the verge of extinction.

The natural pathway of the Ungamel channel, which drains out excess water from Keibul Lamjao Floating National Park has been altered by the Loktak hydel project. Such scientific analysis reveals the true picture i.e it is not only the responsibility of the people living in the vicinity of the lake but also the citizens of the State to come together and work towards improving the lake’s bleak and uncertain future.

Moreover our State’s pride, the Sangai shares an inseparable bond with the Loktak Lake. The reduction in the depth of Loktak lake, a naturally enriched water body is also the culmination of our environmentally ignorant behaviour.

The issue of climate change is something which we have heard since the last two-three decades but its effect in our region has become visible since the last decade; we have started experiencing harsher summers, winters, irregular rainfall cycle etc since the turn of the century. The task of wetlands restoration has become complicated in light of threefold increase in global water demand in the last 6 decades

Policy, practice and action : Hon’ble Prime Minister earmarked the importance of Ramsar sites in India; highlighting the significance of the Nation’s wetlands (even mentioning the Loktak lake) and their comprehensive ecological, cultural value.

Following Hon’ble PM’s vision, the State Government under the leadership of Shri N Biren Singh is leaving no stone unturned in the mission to preserve our iconic treasure the Loktak lake and its associate wetlands.

In this regard, the State Government under the leadership of Hon’ble CM Shri N Biren Singh, has ensured that the Loktak Lake stays at the apex of its environmental agenda. Some of the immediate objectives are focused on:

a) eliminating illegal encroachment once and for all

b) devising short term as well long term scientific approach for the lake with through consultation and advice from renowned experts in the field (the report from the scientific/wetlands expert term is already underway).

c) Improving flow from the lake’s outlets during the rainy seasons; to aid in the flushing out of excess biomass, pollutants from the lake. This process is crucial for maintaining the lake’s natural cycle.

Ban of plastics, non biodegradable substances from the lake area and its vicinity

Some of the long term objectives include:

a) Livelihood support for communities dependent on the lake for subsistence.

b) Technical and financial support from the Asian Development Bank for the lake’s overall restoration. This proposed project will include livelihood improvement of communities based in Loktak lake and its associated wetlands and also preservation of the unique cultural ethos associated with the state’s wetlands.

A game changing project which is driven by the goal to turn the Loktak lake an iconic wetland site as well as an Ecotourism hotspot of the Southeast Asian region without disturbing the lake’s natural ecology.

Cooperation and participation : However as with any policy, the support and participation of the people becomes crucial for its successful implementation and manifestation into substantial results. Cooperation, coordination is the need of the hour, if we are to save our own God given treasure from fading into oblivion. After all, what good are we if we do not work towards a better future for our children.

* M Asnikumar Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is an Environmentalist. Presently, he is the Chairman of the Loktak Development Authority, Manipur
This article was webcasted on February 03 2023.

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