First Survey of Wetlands in the Nilgiris (2006)

Written by Balachander T

Keystone conducted a baseline survey of 38 hill wetlands. We have mapped, inventorised flora, fauna and people dependence on wetlands.

Wetlands have been classified in different categories as common property resources – in rural and urban areas and in private and protected areas. In each of these categories a threat assessment has been made and identified specific, local issues pertaining to the wetlands. Out of the 38 wetlands – 5 representative wetlands have been selected for a local management plan in consultation with stakeholders.

4 Posters have been prepared: Wetlands of Nilgiris & People, Wetland Birds, Wetlands Biodiversity and Nilgiris Wetlands Flora.

Implementation of a solid waste management project to install 9 toilets which did not exist for the families who polluted a wetland source with human wastes was completed.

A campaign to generate awareness of wetlands through a march, addressing stake holders on the values of wetlands and printing popular t-shirts with wetland themes.

Advocacy with the local government succeeded in giving us permission to rehabilitate and revive the Happy Valley wetland.

A nursery of 771 wetland plants has been raised and more than 50 wetland trees of different species have been planted.

A movie of 4 minutes with survey findings has been made.

A stake holder’s workshop was organized in Ooty bringing Government, NGOs, Indigenous People (Todas and Kotas) and Scientists from the National level to come out with a practical Nilgiris Wetland Recommendation.

Threatened Wetlands
Wetlands are also a widely neglected ecosystem. Often regarded as wastelands, wetlands continue to be among the world’s most threatened regions. Most of them have been converted for agriculture, ongoing drainage, conversion, pollution, over-exploitation, fishing, real estate development and even building parks. The concern for conserving them have been steadily rising over the years and received a big push with the signing of the Ramsar Convention in 1971.

Globally and in India, wetlands are facing relentless pressure. They have been steadily and rapidly disappearing across the country over the past decades. The most severe impact has been from man and his activities that are commonly termed as anthropogenic pressure. Besides, increased threat of invasive plant species has also accelerated loss of wetland habitat.

Destroying or degrading wetlands can lead to serious consequences, such as increased flooding, extinction of species, and decline in water quality.

The rich biodiversity that we often see in wetlands, though abundant, is most vulnerable to any change in wetland ecology. Much of this biodiversity stands to be lost forever if wetland resources are not used judiciously. Whether in the hills or plains, wetlands need to be preserved. The immense loss and undermining of wetland status needs to be reviewed, active rethinking must happen and restorative action undertaken to preserve our wetlands.

In the Nilgiris, wetlands have been perceived as wastelands associated with disease, difficulty and danger. Emphasizing the negative impacts and ignoring their importance, these habitats were considered obstacles in the path of progress and hence drained, filled, despoiled and degraded for economic gains. The wetland loss has been responsible for bringing to the verge of extinction many species of animals and plants. Inadequate understanding of the crucial role and utility of wetlands is a matter of serious concern.

Historically, most wetland losses were due to agriculture. Today, the most common threat to Nilgiris wetlands is development because of fertile soil and location, many wetland areas are desirable for farming, business and housing developments and form localized high population zones within the Hill District.

In fact, a preliminary analysis suggests that the region has suffered an immense amount of loss in the number of wetlands due to agricultural interventions in the plain, fertile, valley areas. Lately, wetland losses are also due to other developmental activities like housing, community halls, toilets, schools as well as other business activities like eucalyptus oil distillation plants.

Major Threats
Invasive species
Wattle, Ulux spp., Cytissus spp., Lantana camara is widespread at all sites. Invasive were found growing on the edges of the swamps forming potentially harmful threats to the health of wetland systems.

Eucalyptus species were found in upland regions along most of the protected wetlands. Visually, there seemed to be a lot of water around the trees. The trees were always found planted at the higher lands and near the source points.

Pesticide inflow
Most vegetable growers are located in valleys close to wetlands. In most cases, there appears to be unrestricted access for water and no controls on the inputs of agriculture. As per our interviews and data collection, chemical runoff is very high.

Usage of wetland resources is taken to points of breakdown, with tea plantations being raised till the edge of the wetland and in areas like Gudalur, tea was being raised on top of wetlands. In spite of knowing from experience, that tea will not do well in these regions; farmers act in ignorance and contribute towards deterioration of these precious resources. The issue raised by farmers is “why leave the land fallow? This answer is difficult to answer but the team clearly understood that most of the surveyed wetlands have a high probability of contaminated water through chemical inflows.

Effects of Pollution
Pesticide pollution of wetlands reduces the “crop” of aquatic insects essential for the growth and development of aquatic birds. The use of pesticides on farmland has further reduced the amount of safe habitat available for birds that already have to make do with small woodlots, hedgerows, shelter belts, and farm ponds for nesting or feeding. Habitats bordering agricultural fields can become a liability if birds are attracted into the fields and then inadvertently poisoned by toxic insecticides. Herbicide use, in plantations, may cause ground-dwelling birds to lose the leafy shelters that protect them against predators and bad weather. The potential for the herbicide spray to drift through the air and contaminate distant wetlands through water runoff is also a concern. In Nilgiris, we already see a trend where rampant usage of pesticides has led to decreased biodiversity in these places. Though, scientific evidence is lacking, yet estimations and interviews with local people who complain about the loss of biodiversity have led us to believe that pesticides do play a major role in accentuating loss in biodiversity.

Many of the wetlands we surveyed were subjected to high levels of grazing but whether this was a pressure or a part of the ecosystem one needs to look into. Review of existing knowledge base suggests that grazing plays a positive and detrimental role in the wetland ecosystem. Local people have in fact been traditionally nurturing wetlands for the express reason of providing fodder for their cattle. Yet, as we observed in a number of places, pressure from cattle has increased manifold times and a large number of wetlands are shrinking in their biodiversity levels. Grazing stunts growth of vulnerable plants and wildlife is forced to compete with cattle for the limited amount of fodder available. Utilization of wetlands as grazing lands, if properly managed, proves to be a source of valuable nutrients for cattle. More villages and local people must come forward and learn from the best practices of grazing from communities that have successfully managed grazing for a long time.

The Way Forward

In more ways than one, it opened our eyes to the change happening in water systems in the Nilgiris

Dream: The Vision of the future
Water in the Nilgiris is more than an economic good. It contributes to a rich ecology & wildlife, has significant cultural and social linkages. Today Nilgiris water are dwindling and are being polluted at an alarming rate. Safe drinking water should be made available to all – especially downstream villages – who are now dependent on upstream sources. Water harvesting to be developed in more innovative lines. Enterprise approach to water products & value addition – high altitude stream fishing, mineral water units, labs for testing water, small hydros / hydrams for tapping energy. A whole gamut of activities need to be started with water – so as to bring it back on the main stage. Today – the reaction of less water is knee-jerk – people are dependent on the Government to provide water, shortages are common in summer, pollution is rampant. The challenge would be to ensure year round quality water and initiate sustainable land use and water uses which do not adversely change the quality of water. If this has to be achieved through peoples’ groups, movements and practice – a whole new effort and coordination needs to be done. The Nilgiri Waters should be revived for the sustenance of living beings for a better quality of life.
Conservation of Springs

It can be concluded from this one year study that in the Nilgiris Water Resources context – the role of springs is very crucial. Springs and Sholas do not necessarily have a symbiotic relationship. In other words, the occurrence of a spring does not mean it flows out of a Shola, or otherwise – the shola always does not support a spring. Sholas are good protectors of the entire biota, with swamps, grasslands – the springs remain protected. Even in tea areas – the project has identified several springs which are being tapped by a large population. There is an urgent need to understand Spring Habitat & Ecology and introduce practices to rejuvenate them.

Community Based Water Management Systems
There is a break down of sharing systems within and between communities to a large extent. Water finding, water sharing is an individual activity. As the total domestic water sources are dwindling – there is an urgent need for developing community based water management systems. In earlier times, this has existed and worked very effectively, but now with most of the system being piped and the dependence high on TWAD – the community participation has reduced significantly.

Drinking water quality is a serious issue. Coliform contamination due to human wastes is a common problem. This has resulted in water borne diseases. 80 drinking water samples were collected and tested for different parameters. 51 cases have reported coliform pollution. Most of the pesticide sprayed (for example – in the Ooty valley – for a single garlic crop – 19 sprays are applied) goes into water bodies and flows downstream – where they serve as drinking water sources for villages. (Refer appendix for potability data)

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