Indian Wetlands in Kolkata Face Threat to Their Existence

Wetlands outside Kolkata process the city’s sewage and play a crucial role in agriculture, but environmental experts warn that they are facing serious threats.

Wetlands located just outside the bustling city of Kolkata in India have been a source of abundant food and employment opportunities for generations. These wetlands filter the city’s sewage through fish ponds, but unfortunately, the rapid urbanization is now endangering this valuable ecosystem.

Conservationists are deeply concerned about the pollution and aggressive land acquisitions that are putting the livelihoods of the city’s 14 million residents at risk.

“We are witnessing the destruction of our environment,” said Tapan Kumar Mondal, a fish farmer who has dedicated his life to the innovative canal and pond system spread over approximately 125 square kilometers. “The increasing population and the resulting pressure on our natural resources are ruining this delicate ecosystem,” added the 71-year-old Mondal.

Kolkata’s wetlands have been recognized as a wetland of global importance under the United Nations Ramsar convention. They not only provide natural climate control, cooling down the sweltering temperatures of the city, but they also serve as crucial flood defenses for low-lying areas of Kolkata.

However, Dhruba Das Gupta from the environmental group SCOPE warns that the wetlands are shrinking due to shortsighted development practices encroaching on their boundaries. Das Gupta is currently seeking funding for a study to assess the current state of the wetlands.

‘Ecologically-subsidized city’

Every day, an astonishing 910 million liters of nutrient-rich sewage flow into the wetlands, sustaining a network of around 250 hyacinth-covered ponds.

Fish farms take advantage of booming plankton to sustain fast-growing carp and tilapia
Fish farms take advantage of the thriving plankton population to support the rapid growth of carp and tilapia.

“Due to the abundant sunlight and nutrient-rich sewage, a massive plankton boom occurs,” explained K. Balamurugan, the chief environment officer for West Bengal state. The microorganisms in the shallow fish ponds rapidly feed the growing carp and tilapia population. Once the fish have consumed their share, the water runoff irrigates surrounding rice paddies, and the remaining organic waste fertilizes vegetable fields.

Balamurugan referred to the wetlands as the “kidneys of Kolkata,” highlighting their invaluable role in naturally treating the city’s sewage. This community-developed system has been acknowledged by the United Nations Ramsar listing as a remarkable example of wastewater wise use and conservation. However, the listing also emphasizes the intense encroachment stress caused by urban expansion.

A study conducted by the University of Calcutta in 2017 revealed that the wetlands process approximately 60 percent of Kolkata’s sewage annually, saving the city over $64 million. The productive farmland within the wetlands contributes around 150 tons of vegetables and 10,500 tons of fish each year. Additionally, these wetlands serve as crucial flood defenses for Kolkata, protecting the city from the rising sea levels brought about by climate change.

The wetlands generate about 150 tonnes of vegetables a day for Kolkata
The wetlands generate about 150 tonnes of vegetables a day for Kolkata.

“Kolkata has never faced any flooding issues,” stated Balamurugan. “These wetlands act as a natural sponge, effectively absorbing excess rainwater.” Das Gupta further emphasized the wetlands’ importance as a biodiversity hotspot and their crucial role in stabilizing the climate. She referred to them as the lifeline of Kolkata, not only due to their ecological contributions but also because of the cooling effect they provide.

‘Land is being snatched’

However, the Ramsar listing draws attention to the contamination of natural systems by industrial effluent, which poses a threat to food production.

Sujit Mondal, a fish farmer, expressed his concerns about reduced production due to the murky water caused by pollution. He highlighted that compared to the previous year, production has significantly decreased.

Approximately 95 percent of the wetlands are privately owned, and as land prices soar, environmental officials have been urging people not to fill in the fish ponds for construction purposes.

Environmental researcher Dhruba Das Gupta talks with fish farmer Sujit Mondal, who says pollution has hurt production
Environmental researcher Dhruba Das Gupta talks with fish farmer Sujit Mondal, who says pollution has hurt production.

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