- Kabar Taal wetland in Bihar has been declared the first Ramsar Site in the state.
- The area of the lake had reduced to 2032 hectares in 2012 from 6786 hectares in 1984, according to one study.
- The state government has identified a core zone to protect the wetland and minimise land conflicts in the area.
Ram Shankar Sahni, a 45-year-old fisherman at Kabar Taal, a lake in Begusarai district of Bihar, is quite happy with the situation of the wetland this year. Usually, it has very little water which makes it difficult for fishing. But this year, Sahni says, that with a good monsoon, the levels of water in the lake have been a relief for many fishermen like him that depend on the lake for their livelihood. “The water level has been good this year because of the heavy showers. We have good catch almost after two decades as the water has also entered in those areas that normally remained dry. We have been catching around 6-7 kilograms of fish everyday as compared to just over a kilo last year because of less water,” he says as he offloads the new boat that he has purchased for his son.
Ram Shankar Sahni belongs to the traditional community of fishermen known as Sahnis that are dependent on Kabar Taal (also known as Kanwar Taal or Kanwar Jheel) for their livelihood. While this year has had some relief, the Kabar Taal is under threat from water management activities, encroachment and more.
A boost to the future of the wetland came in mid-October when Kabar Taal was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. This is the first Ramsar site in Bihar.
Along with Kabar Taal, the Asan Conservation Reserve in Uttarakhand was also designated as a Wetland of International Importance.With the inclusion of the above two, the total Ramsar sites in India stand at 39.
Kabar Taal is Asia’s largest freshwater oxbow lake. According to the Ramsar Convention, it covers 2,620 hectares of the Indo-Gangetic plains in Bihar. “The Site is one of 18 wetlands within an extensive floodplain complex; it floods during the monsoon season to a depth of 1.5 metres. This absorption of floodwaters is a vital service in Bihar State where 70% of the land is vulnerable to inundation. During the dry season, areas of marshland dry out and are used for agriculture,” notes the Convention in its designation.
The news of Kabar Taal wetland being declared a Ramsar site has been welcomed by the environmentalists who expect a change in its present condition. “It has been a long battle waged by the environment enthusiasts from across the country. The mindless encroachments and other illegal activities have taken a toll on the health of the Kabar Taal and have destroyed its ecosystem. It is now the responsibility of the state government to protect the site and conserve it. The local community can also chip in to stop bird poaching and illegal constructions that have been shrinking the area of the lake,” pointed out Ashok Ghosh, a scientist and chairman of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board.
“The water level in the lake has reduced because of heavy siltation and eutrophication (when excess algae and plant growth and their decomposition deprive water of available oxygen, causing death of other organisms) has set in. The fishermen are having plenty of water this year because the inlets and outlets of the lake connecting it to Burhi Gandak river are choked due to silt. This time though it has proved to be a blessing in disguise because of good monsoon. But it has been cleared to allow the flow of water into the lake,” he said.
Encroachments have put Kabar Taal at risk
Swathes of the Kabar Taal wetland have been encroached upon and transformed into agricultural land or residential plots.
Ghosh who has done an extensive study of the lake found that the area of the lake had reduced to 2032 hectares in 2012 from 6,786 hectares in 1984. His research had also found that the net area sown was 60 percent while the land put to non-agricultural use was 5.13 percent; the permanently water-logged area was a mere 2.80 percent.
Some members of the fishing community however are not aware about the Ramsar Convention and its importance, “We are too illiterate to understand about these things. We would only consider it as good news if our livelihood improves else nothing matters. We have been watching political leaders making high promises during their polls campaigns of improving our condition but it has proved to be lip-service. The situation, in fact, has turned from bad to worse so far,” fumed Lalu Sahni, 70, who has been a fishermen for the past five decades.
The encroachments coupled with the poaching of migratory birds have been the major issues the wetland has been grappling with over the years. Senior government officials privy to the matter, however, blame a conflict between Sahnis and local landlords for land encroachments and also targeting of migratory birds. “A major chunk of the notified land under Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 belongs to the local landlords who were not kept in the loop during the notification process. As a result, they lost their land and turned rebels. The local farmers and landlords still consider the land as their own and have been capturing it. They also target migratory birds out of anger and frustration,” said a senior government official requesting anonymity.
According to A.K. Dwivedi, Member Secretary of Bihar State Wetland Authority, “The total area of the wetland is over 6300 hectares out of which around 2620 hectares have been identified as core zone where the water is available most part of the year. The area under the conflict with the locals has been excluded from the core zone. We are in talks with locals and would allow farming with stern rules including a bar on the use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals that might affect the ecosystem.”
Potential of eco-tourism
Ghosh said that Kabar Taal, has potential to be developed into an eco-tourism hotspot. “The government should try to develop the wetland for eco-tourism as it would not only offer livelihood to the locals but would also generate revenue for the state government. The road transport has to be improved to enable tourists to reach there without any hiccups,” he said.
Realising the linkage between ecosystems like wetlands and the economy, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – India Initiative (TII) was launched in 2011 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, (the then Ministry of Environment and Forests) to highlight economic consequence of loss of biological diversity and decline in ecosystem services and developed a report on wetlands thematic area in 2017.
“The initiative envisioned mainstreaming of ecosystem services and biodiversity values in developmental programming using an evidence building approach for three ecosystem types namely inland wetlands, forests, coastal and marine ecosystems,” pointed out Kumar Deepak, environment project officer at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), India who was involved in the report. “The study has been looking into ways of developing local markets of handicraft products, developing resorts and other facilities that would benefit the local communities and also prevent them from destroying the environment ecosystem as it would then become the source of their livelihood. The locals need to understand that wetlands not only offer them fresh oxygen but also provide host of supporting services like maintain the water table and also minimising floods.”
Banner image: Kabar Taal (also known as Kanwar Taal or Kanwar Jheel) wetland in Bihar has been declared the first Ramsar Site in the state. Photo by Samir Verma.