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The Ramsar Convention recognition given to Pallikaranai marsh in Chennai has turned the focus on the economic value of Tamil Nadu’s 42,978 mapped wetlands, and the trends in degradation and encroachment of these water bodies that have an ecosystem value conservatively estimated to run into thousands of crores per year.
Pallikaranai marsh today remains a vestige of its original self, shrunk by encroachment, waste dumping and lack of political will to some 5.4 square km, from its original sprawl of about 54 sq km. Continuing encroachment of its inlet channels has blocked the flow of water to its marshes from scores of tanks upstream.
The Tamil Nadu Forest Department is the focal agency for preservation of what remains of Pallikaranai, and the Ramsar status now requires the Tamil Nadu government to implement an Integrated Management Plan after the Union government approves the IMP. The marsh preservation programme will also potentially funded through the Green Climate Fund, the National Adaptation Fund and corporate social responsibility funds.
Danger of slipping
“Getting the Ramsar designation is half the job done. There will be continuous monitoring by the Ramsar Secretariat and its offices, and the wetland could be placed in the negative list if there is not enough progress and the designation would then go to the backburner,” says Jayshree Vencatesan, Managing Trustee of Care Earth Trust, one of the organisations that has campaigned for and provided scientific inputs for the protection and restoration of Pallikaranai marshland.
The Tamil Nadu Forest Department is the focal agency for preservation of what remains of Pallikaranai, and the Ramsar status now requires the Tamil Nadu government to implement an Integrated Management Plan after the Union government approves the IMP
One of the major factors affecting the integrity of Pallikaranai marsh is failure to enforce environmental protections, which has led to rampant encroachment under the very nose of the Tamil Nadu government and its urban planning bodies including the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). The Greater Chennai Corporation has used it as a dumping ground for the city’s waste, shifting partly to Perungudi over the years.
Why does this happen? In spite of repeated flooding of the eastern areas surrounding the marsh, is the CMDA as invested in Pallikaranai as a flood mitigator as the Forest Department is in the protected site? Why does it not crack down on encroaching buildings?
Dr. Vencatesan points out that the official agencies that have a role in protecting, preserving and restoring the marsh do not show the same involvement as the Forest Department.
A wetland facing drought
While the marsh continues to be lauded as a wetland, it has been increasingly drying up during many parts of the year. “Can it still be called a wetland,” asks Dr. S. Janakarajan, researcher and retired professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), recalling its ancient status of receiving flows from 135 tanks and lakes upstream.
The marsh was dealt a crippling blow when numerous structures including flyovers were allowed to be constructed around it, forming ridges that prevent water flow to the grass-filled ecosystem. “People have created islands,” he says. In the past, the marsh, located half to one metre below sea level, used to absorb the water from upstream. Moreover, the municipal waste that was sought to be remediated from the dumping site should be analysed for toxins and microplastics before being released into the environment, he says.
Although poor communication from the Union and State governments has rendered wetlands and marshes mere wastelands in the public imagination, they have a massive role in the real economy.
Big economic value
Pallikaranai has a lost economic potential running into Rs. 217 crore a year, from its ecosystem services to the community, according to Prof. L. Venkatachalam of MIDS. Other publications by the researcher estimate that 80 wetlands in Tamil Nadu could contribute a staggering Rs.17,000 crore a year, if they are restored to their full potential. Even a limited set of half a dozen ecosystem services of poor quality show that these wetlands are contributing about Rs. 4,300 crore to their communities a year even now.
The fortunes of Pallikaranai have been threatened in the past by projects such as a golf course (during the Jayalalitha regime which later dropped it), a Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plant which was judicially overruled.
WTE plants in India have failed, as seen in Delhi and Pune. Without proper systems to control emissions from these plants, they are not the right solution, says Dr. Indumathi M. Nambi of IIT Madras’s Environmental Engineering Group. In Pallikaranai, because the dumping site for waste is not lined, waste components have been let into the environment. If systems for pollution control at WTE are in place, as in Europe, this technology is not a bad idea, she says.
The fortunes of Pallikaranai have been threatened in the past by projects such as a golf course (during the Jayalalitha regime which later dropped it), a Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plant which was judicially overruled
Pallikaranai’s journey has been a long one, from a vast wetland with tall marsh grasses in the 1970s, to an era of rampant encroachment by buildings and dumping of garbage triggering public protests, to one of protection that has culminated in the Ramsar tag, says V. Srinivasan, civil rights activist who spearheaded campaigns under the Save Pallikaranai Marsh Forum.
Dr. Vencatesan, Prof. Janakarajan, Dr. Nambi and Mr. Srinivasan were panelists at an online discussion on the future of the marsh, after its Ramsar designation, organised by Citizen Matters.
Climate change moderation
The research shows that Pallikaranai has a crucial role as impacts of climate change – sea level rise, heat island effects, urban flooding, drought and loss of ecology become pronounced. All these can be moderated by making it a viable marsh. Photojournalist and documentary film maker Shaju John is working on a film on the fate of the marsh, titled “Eye on the Marsh” (see trailer on YouTube).
If 80 wetlands at full ecosystem functionality can potentially contribute over Rs.17,000 crore a year, what would be the contribution of 42,000-plus water bodies straddling an estimated 9 lakh hectares in Tamil Nadu? Not a complicated equation. But does the Tamil Nadu government have the will to remove encroachments, preserve natural ecological characteristics and restore them, rather than blindly dredge wetlands?
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