Climate change estimates for India point to rising temperatures, sea levels, intensified rainfall and more catastrophic events. The conservation and wise use of a wide diversity of inland and coastal wetlands is a powerful response to climate change.
According to recent estimates, wetlands of at least 2.25 ha make up 4.86% of the country’s geographical area (15.98 million hectares).
Wetlands help stabilize CO2, CH4, N2O and greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations by minimizing climate and land use related GHG emissions and increasing the potential for active collection CO2 from the atmosphere and carbon sequestration.
Coastal blue carbon imbibed by mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses via photosynthesis and stored in moist anaerobic soils has recently received considerable attention in the context of climate change. Peatlands, considered one of the greatest carbon stores in the world, are rare in India and need immediate attention.
Many wetlands can also be a net source of GHGs, and emissions are exacerbated by anthropogenic disturbances, particularly pollution and altered water regimes. A crucial predictor of the vulnerability of coastal wetlands is their ability to track sea level rise. Salt marshes and mangroves are known to accumulate soil vertically.
However, the recently released Atlas of Wetland Change by the Space Application Center indicates a decline in natural coastal wetlands (from 3.69 million hectares to 3.62 million hectares over the past decade) .
Areas surrounded by urbanized wetlands are expected to result in coastal pressure in the face of sea level rise, ultimately leading to wetland loss.
Wetland degradation decreases the ability of landscapes to absorb and moderate floods, droughts and storm surges.
The floods in the Kashmir Valley in September 2014 and in Chennai in December 2015 illustrate how the degradation of wetlands can threaten lives. Integrating wetland conservation and wise use into disaster risk reduction policies and programs offers ‘cost-effective’ and ‘no-regrets’ options.
India’s emissions pledges at the Glasgow summit include net-zero emissions by 2070, a billion-tonne reduction in carbon emissions and a reduction in the carbon intensity of the economy to less than 45%. Inclusion of wetland blue carbon can help achieve this goal, which is currently overlooked in the absence of systematic wetland carbon inventories.
The Ministry of Environment supports the implementation of management action plans for more than 250 wetlands under programs such as the National Plan for the Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems, Mangroves and Coral Reefs and Development integrated wildlife habitats. In line with its commitment under the Ramsar Convention, India has designated 49 Ramsar sites and is likely to expand the list to 75 wetlands.
But even so, government efforts are not enough to rapidly degrade wetlands in virtually all parts of the country. Only a few states have systematically included wetlands in national climate action plans.
Climate change and related drivers and pressures are very likely to increase the vulnerability of wetlands. Avoidance of impacts on wetlands and associated carbon stocks and processes is probably the most effective management strategy to prevent increased GHG emissions from wetlands.
A first step in this direction would be to include wetland carbon storage and GHG emissions in national assessments of carbon stocks and fluxes. A detailed inventory of peatlands is also essential.
Second, climate risks must be taken into account in the management of wetlands. This can be done through strengthened wetland monitoring systems geared towards identifying climate risk indicators and their trends.
Wetlands are also at risk of maladaptation – the likelihood of negative impacts on these ecosystems in response to adaptation measures in other sectors. For example, the construction of hydraulic structures to increase the storage of fresh water in the upstream reaches can further increase the risks of salinization in the downstream coastal wetlands.
It is also essential to ensure that conservation action is not guided by the role of wetlands in carbon cycles alone, but rather takes into account the full range of ecosystem services and biodiversity values of these ecosystems. .
Kaul is President and Kumar Director of Wetlands International South Asia
June 15, 2022