Climate change estimates for India indicate rising temperatures, sea-level, intensified rainfall and more catastrophic events. Conservation and wise use of wide diversity of inland and coastal wetlands is a powerful climate change response.

As per recent estimates, wetlands of at least 2.25 ha in size make up 4.86 per cent of country’s geographical area (15.98 million-hectares).

Wetlands assist in stabilisation CO2, CH4, N2O and Green House Gas (GHG) concentrations by minimising climate and land-use-mediated GHG releases and by boosting the potential to actively collect CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester carbon.

The coastal blue carbon soaked by mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses via photosynthesis and stored in wet anaerobic soils has received considerable attention recently in the context of climate change. Peatlands, considered to be one of the world’s largest carbon reserves, are sparse in India and require immediate attention.

Several wetlands can also be a net source of GHGs, and emissions are exacerbated by anthropogenic disturbances, particularly pollution and alteration in water regimes. A crucial predictor of coastal wetlands’ vulnerability is their ability to keep up with rising sea levels. Salt marshes and mangrove swamps are known to accumulate soils vertically.

However, the wetlands change atlas recently published by the Space Application Center indicates declining natural coastal wetlands (reducing from 3.69 million hectare to 3.62 million hectare in last decade).

Areas surrounded by urbanised wetlands are expected to lead to a coastal squeeze in the face of sea-level rise ultimately leading to wetland loss.

Extreme events

Degradation of wetlands diminishes landscapes capability to absorb and moderate floods, droughts, and storm surges.

Floods in the Kashmir Valley in September 2014 and Chennai in December 2015 illustrate how wetland degradation can threaten lives. Integrating wetland conservation and wise use into disaster risk reduction policies and programmes provides “cost-effective” and “no-regrets” options.

India’s emission pledges at the Glasgow summit include net-zero emissions by 2070, reducing carbon emissions by one billion tonnes and reducing the carbon intensity of the economy to less than 45 per cent. Including wetlands blue carbon can assist towards this goal, which is presently overlooked in absence of systematic wetland carbon inventories.

The Environment Ministry supports implementation of management action plans for over 250 wetlands under schemes such as National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems, Mangroves and Coral Reefs, and Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats. Towards her commitment under the Ramsar Convention, India has designated 49 Ramsar sites, and is likely to expand the list to 75 wetlands.

But, even so, the government’s efforts fall short of the rapid degradation of wetlands in virtually all parts of the country. Only a few States have systematically included wetlands within State Climate Action Plans.

Climate change and linked drivers and pressures are highly likely to increase vulnerability of wetlands. Avoidance of impacts to wetlands and associated carbon stocks and processes are likely to be the most effective management strategy for preventing increases in GHG emissions from wetlands.

A first step in this direction would be to include carbon storage and GHG emissions from wetlands within the national carbon stock and flux assessments. A detailed peatland inventory is also much needed.

Secondly, climate risks need to be factored in wetlands management. This can be done by strengthened wetland monitoring systems geared towards identification of climate risk indicators and trends thereof.

Wetlands are also exposed to the risk of maladaptation — the likelihood of adverse impacts on these ecosystems in response to adaptation actions in other sectors. For example, the construction of hydraulic structures to increase freshwater storage in upstream stretches, may further accentuate the risks of salinisation in downstream coastal wetlands.

It is also essential to ensure that conservation action is not led by the role of wetlands in carbon cycles alone, instead 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