Conservation & Management of High Altitude Wetlands of Eastern Himalaya

Dr K S Kanwal

The ‘high altitude wetlands (HAW)’ is a generic term to describe “areas of swamp, marsh, meadow, fen, peat-land or water bodies located at an altitude higher than 3000m above mean sea level (amsl), whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or saline”. HAWs are an important category of natural wetlands found mainly in the higher elevations in the Himalayan region. HAWs are unique and pristine ecosystem of the world. Space Applications Centre, ISRO has mapped 4699 HAWs with an area of around 126125 ha in five Himalayan States viz. Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

Arunachal Pradesh is ranked second in India after Jammu & Kashmir with 1672 HAWs covering a total area of 11,864 ha, accounting for about 7.6% of total wetland area of the state. Maximum number of wetlands are of small size (below 10 ha). There are no wetland of very large size (above 500 ha) in the state. Only 3 wetlands having an area of 100-500 ha have been observed. HAWs of the state are the source of many major rivers like Tawangchu, Nyamjangchu, Kameng, Subansiri, Siang, Dibang, and Lohit, these all are important tributaries of Brahmaputra river. In Sikkim, there are 534 HAWs covering an area around 3324 ha. They occupy around 44.5% of total wetland area of the state. Sikkim is ranked first in terms of number of lakes per 100 km2 followed by Arunachal Pradesh.  None of the HAWs of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim are considered under the Ramsar site.

HAWs of North-East Himalayan region provide number of important ecosystem goods and services to sustain livelihoods of the upstream and downstream population of the region. They are known as “water tower” on the earth. Besides, supporting unique and rich biodiversity, HAWs play crucial role to maintain hydrological and ecological balance in Eastern Himalayan region and have religious significance among local communities. They are also known as carbon ‘sinks’ and play vital role in carbon sequestration. HAWs of North-East Himalaya support rich diversity of gymnosperms, rhododendrons and rare medicinal plants species and provide suitable habitat for rare and threatened high altitude fauna like red panda (Ailurus fulgens), takin (Budorcas taxicolor), Chinese goral (Nemorhaedus griseus), red goral (Naemorhedus baileyi), wild dog (Cuon alpinus), snow leopard (Panthera uncia), musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster).

At present, HAWs are suffering from degradation, habitat fragmentation, desertification, soil erosion and anthropogenic disturbances, which are further aggravated by climate change impact. Increasing grazing pressure in the catchment areas, over exploitation of forest resources, unregulated dumping of waste, unregulated tourism leading to soil and water pollution, construction works and other developmental activities are some of the major threats being observed in the HAWs of North-East Himalaya. However, very little information is available for most of these wetlands due to the remoteness, harsh climatic condition and inaccessibility of the terrain of the region. Therefore, comprehensive information is urgently required for developing and implementing plans for conservation and sustainable management of these unique ecosystems.

Due to its unique position and rich biodiversity composition, high altitude wetlands are important indicators to understand the impact of climate change. They are characterized by extreme cold, dry and alpine climate conditions, particularly due to low air temperature and higher ultraviolet radiation. Scientific information on climate change impacts on HAWs is unavailable for North-East Himalayan region. Therefore, researchers have suggested an urgent need to carry out in-depth studies for assessment of climate change impacts on HAWs ecosystem. These studies will help to frame a comprehensive climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies for conservation of HAWs of North-East Himalaya. The North-Eastern states do not have any specific scheme for conservation and management of high-altitude wetlands but efforts are being made by Govt to bring more HAWs under Ramsar Convention. National programme for conservation and management of wetlands offered 100% assistance for survey and investigation and conservation and management of wetlands.

A multidisciplinary scientific approach need to be adopted for conservation and management of HAWs of North-East Himalaya. HAWs conservation and management programs can be implemented with the help of academicians, research institutions, Govt departments, NGOs and local communities. Comprehensive research and development activities on physical, biological and social aspects of HAWs, documentation of traditional ecological knowledge, organization of community awareness and education programmes may also play pivotal role in conservation and sustainable management of HAWs of North-East Himalaya.

[The contributor of the article is Scientist of GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development, North East Regional Centre, Itanagar.]

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