Why Did Floods Rattle Mangaluru? Neglect Of Wetlands Was A Decisive Factor

Why Did Floods Rattle Mangaluru? Neglect Of Wetlands Was A Decisive FactorThe rain water had enveloped buildings and homes.
  • Little has been done to protect wetlands in the country. This, despite India being a signatory to the Ramsar Convention of 1971.

Until the first week of June this year, Mangaluru city had never witnessed large-scale and life-threatening floods except for once in 1972. Meteorological experts attributed it to a ‘cloud burst’, but what happened in this coastal city recently was a result of ignorance and nonchalance on the part of the city’s planners, who have been unmindful of the topography and natural dynamics of the region. Ignorance, because the planners did not care to protect the wetlands, as a result of which the whole area has been inundated, causing significant social and individual damage.

Wetlands International, a global organisation dedicated to the preservation and sustenance of wetlands, describes wetlands as “funnels on the surface of the earth connecting the underground water sources”. They suck rainwater into the ground and replenish the acqua-vascular system of the earth. In the summers, they maintain the surface water level. They also work as a natural flood-control mechanism, and every city that has wetlands should consider itself lucky. These wonderful bodies are now being choked with debris dumped by real estate sharks, who are gobbling up land at a mind-boggling pace in Mangaluru.

In coastal areas, wetlands take the forms of estuaries, marshes, bogs, ponds, and paddy fields, which are abundant in Mangaluru, Udupi, Kundapur, Bhatkal, Honnavar, and Karwar. This region has been rated ‘A’ class in terms of water-body endowment by the International Charter of Wetlands. However, the real estate lobby here does not care about the welfare of the city, and in cahoots with politicians, is out to make hay while the sun shines. But sadly, one day the sun will have to set, and it is the people who will then end up groping in the resulting darkness.

Mangaluru’s water bodies have been neglected so far, and are quickly disappearing. Most of them have given way to urban dwellings, agricultural operations, and natural siltation. The siltation levels are alarming, and are attributed to the large-scale deforestation that is taking place around the wetlands.

In Dakshina Kannada district alone, over 540 ponds and tanks are on the brink of destruction by ‘wilful closures’ and mindless urbanisation. India has no law in force yet to bring wetlands under the purview of land use norms.

The coastal districts of Karnataka have more than 18 world-class wetlands right from the north of Chandragiri River to Karwar, while Mangaluru has two of the most sensitive wetlands which are ranked twenty-ninth among the world's endangered wetlands. They are: Gangolli estuary in Kundapur taluk (undivided Dakshina Kannada), which is being degraded by saline water shrimp-farming, and the Anekere tank in Karkala. However, the people of Karkala have now come to know that their ‘treasure’ of water is being dried up systematically, prompting a coming together of residents. Under this umbrella, they worked together to revive the Anekere complex.

Even as India basks in the glory of being a signatory to the International Treaty on Conservation of Wetlands (called the Ramsar Convention), in Iran in 1971, these wetlands face the possibility of extinction. Sadly, the government has no mechanism to protect them from prying eyes.

This treaty, which came into force in 1975, was meant to guard against the irrational destruction of wetlands, particularly in developing countries. The Dakshina Kannada district administration, which is supposed to honour the commitment made by the country, to the international community of nations, so far has turned a blind eye to all that is required to be done. The role of wetlands – especially peat bogs which make up almost half of the world’s wetlands – in regulating climate and reducing the greenhouse effect through their capacity to retain carbon dioxide has been scientifically established.

Directors of Wetland International, Asia, have described the coastal wetlands in Karnataka as, “apart from acting as a waterfowl habitat, help prevent droughts and floods and recharge groundwater during summer. They help arrest floods and are considered to be terrestrial funnels which absorb excessive water from the surface and discharge it when needed. Ecologically, the wetlands are a water savings bank”.

Various studies made by late Dr S A Hussain, an ornithologist and former vice- president of Wetlands International Asia region, had observed that, “Wetlands not only store water but also improve water quality.” This was established by studies in the Chowilla floodplains in Australia as observed by Bill Phillips in a volume published by the Ramsar Convention Bureau, titled Towards the Wise Use of Wetlands. He points out that wetlands even purify sewage. Other functions of wetlands include erosion control, sediment retention, biomass export, wind-break, nutrient retention, and water transport from excess to deficient areas through water veins.

The benefits of these evergreen water resources to mankind are multi-fold. They are known to be natural protectors of forests, wildlife, and agricultural resources. Wetlands also contribute to fisheries, shoreline stabilisation, water supply, and help conserve biological diversity.

Likewise, wetlands in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal (Sunderbans), Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh are also being degraded and destroyed. Of the 88 wetlands of international importance in the country, 45 per cent are under “moderate to high” threat. Estuaries on the west coast are also categorised as “highly endangered”, according to studies carried out by Dr Hussain.

Dr N A Madhyastha, ornithologist and a noted zoologist, says, “Wetlands in Karnataka have played host to several species of migratory birds such as golden plovers, curlews, avocets, cranes, pintails, bar-headed geese, terns, ducks and yellow wagtails for centuries. But with the degeneration of wetlands, these birds are now finding new routes as the profile of waterfowl habitats has been changing constantly.”

Quoting from The Global Biodiversity - Status of Earth's Living Resources, compiled by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Dr Madhyastha says India has over 90 wetland sites spread over 54,700 sq km and Asia has over 940 sites spread over 734,000 sq km. The benefits of wetlands have been taken for granted, and as a result, maintenance of natural wetlands has been accorded low priority.

In many cases, the draining of wetlands has been seen as an advantage with benefits far outweighing the costs. But, in fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. However, the global tourism industry has identified wetlands as potential tourism spots, which may provide some respite to their relentless destruction.

The violation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notified areas is also becoming common in the city, says Upendra Hosbet of the Mangalore Nagara Parisaraskta Okkoota. He feels that estuaries and the banks of the Gurupur River are being encroached by builders. Violations have been noted at Chitrapur, all along the left side of National Highway (NH) 17 between Kulur and Kottara, at Baikampady and Jeppinamogaru. Various parts of the river are being filled with earth and waste, with an intention to grab land. Hosbet said that the okkoota had estimated the encroachment to be over 600 acres of wetlands and water bodies since 2003.

A classic case of blocking the wetlands at Kottara in Mangaluru city.
A classic case of blocking the wetlands at Kottara in Mangaluru city.
Kottara is where the worst case of flooding occurred during the recent rains.
Kottara is where the worst case of flooding occurred during the recent rains.

A small group of people under the banner of Residents Hitarakshana Vedike of Bakimapady and Krishnapur in Surathkal limits has also been fighting the real estate lobby of Mangaluru.

The Bailare area to the north of Mangaluru city on NH 17, consisting of Baikampady, Chitrapur, Kulai, Hosbettu, and Iddya villages on the sea side has been undergoing changes since the establishment of the port during the early 1970s. These villages have large areas under paddy cultivation and marshy wetlands that receive storm water into a catchment area of around 1,200 acres from the northern side of Bailare. Apart from this, the storm water of around 1,500 acres from the eastern side of Baikampady industrial area joins it near Baikampady and the entire water flows into the sea through the outlet constructed by New Mangalore Port, which is maintained by the Mangalore City Corporation.

The area under wetland consists of around 600 acres, 4km in length (south-north) and 1km in width (west-east). This low-lying area is constantly flooded during the rainy season and the stagnant water slowly moves and joins the sea without causing much damage to the crops.

One of the largest wetlands in Mangaluru is situated between Kulur and Kottara, where NH 17 is being widened. Directions have already been given to the National Highways Authority of India to acquire only so much land as is required to widen the road and not an inch more, in an effort to protect the marsh.

Though wetlands used to be considered unproductive and unhealthy by many countries, there has been a growing realisation of their value in the past two decades. Governments and scientists have devoted enormous attention to wetlands and gained a better understanding of their biological importance, especially in Karnataka.

The India Gazette, published in June as an extraordinary volume, has made the following observations:

  • Wetlands are now categorised as ‘internationally important’ under the Ramsar Convention.
  • Wetlands notified by the central government, states, and union territories shall observe restrictions in matters of certain activities.
  • Wetlands shall be conserved and managed in accordance with the principle of ‘wise use’ as determined by the Wetlands Authority.

Activities prohibited in wetland zones:

  • Conversion of wetlands for non-wetland uses including encroachment of any kind
  • Setting up of any industry and expansion of existing industries
  • Manufacture, handling, storage, or disposal of construction and demolition waste
  • Storage of hazardous substances
  • Disposal of electronic waste
  • Discharge of untreated wastes and effluents from industries, cities, towns, villages, and other human settlements
  • Any construction of a permanent nature except for boat jetties, that too as per law.

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