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Wetlands, an important Ecosystem

February 2, 2005 will be celebrated as the World Wetlands Day all over to raise public awareness about this ecosystem and promote its conservation. This day marks the anniversary of signing of the Convention of Wetlands in Ramsar (also called the Ramsar Convention) in Iran in 1981. Not many of us know what wetlands are and why they are so important. So here is a low-down on what wetlands are.

What are wetlands?

As is obvious by the name, wetlands are water bodies. Of course, a wetland is not just any water body, but that which is transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems. In simple terms, it is land that is covered with shallow water - either still or flowing, in which the water table is close to the surface. Swamps, marshes, oases in deserts, mud flats, and paddy fields are all examples of wetlands. Stretches of marine water where the depth does not exceed 6 meters at low tide also categorises as wetland. It is an entire ecosystem with its associated plant and animal life.

What makes wetlands so important, environmentally?

Wetlands are world's most productive environments with stunning biological diversity. Wetlands stretch from mountains to seas and include a wide variety of habitats from rivers and lakes, lagoons and mangroves to coral reefs. These habitats support a variety of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish. Many of them are habitats for migratory birds like the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary which is the winter home for Siberian cranes. Some are shrimp farms or fisheries, while others are purely for recreation purposes, valuable in ecotourism.

So wetlands are a natural phenomenon?

Not really. Not all wetlands are natural. Some are man-made. Fish and shrimp farms, ponds, irrigated land like paddy fields, salt pans and reservoirs are artificial wetlands.

How are wetlands useful to mankind?

Wetlands like mangroves provide a bulwark between the sea and land and help in stabilizing the shoreline. They help in preventing soil erosion and also in reclaiming land. They are breeding ground for marine organisms like shrimps and variety of fish. Some wetlands help in checking floods and siltation of water ways, others help in checking erosion of forests. Wetlands, which are freshwater bodies, are sources of water supply.

What are mangroves?

Mangroves are peculiar habitats, found on the boundary of land and sea where the soil salinity is very high. These salt-tolerant forests have their own unique flora and fauna. In many countries of South-east Asia and the Pacific, mangroves are used in commercial production of timber.

For thousands of years mangrove forests have provided a natural buffer against cyclones and storms that have frequently hit the shores of southern India, according to experts. It has now been documented that coastal trees and shrubs saved the lives of hundreds of people in the tsunami disaster. In a fishing village in Tamil Nadu, nearly 100 families were saved because of the presence of dense mangrove forests there.

Sunderbans in West Bengal is the largest mangrove forest in the world.

What are the important wetlands sites in India?

India has 19 Ramsar sites, i.e. 19 wetlands sites which are of international importance. Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary's Gahirmata beach, famous for its gigantic Olive Ridley turtles, in Orissa, is a Ramsar site. So is the Chilka Lake in Orissa which is famous for its prawn and shrimp farming. Vembanad backwaters of Kerala, Andaman and Nicobar islands and Keoladeo National Park are other examples of important wetland sites.

How much of the earth's surface is covered by wetlands?

Around 4 - 6 % of earth's surface is covered by wetlands. It is interesting to note that wetlands cover a tiny portion of the earth's surface, but by the nature of their unique ecosystem, it becomes all the more important to protect and conserve them.

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