Pallikaranai marshland has become the first wetland in Chennai to get the Ramsar tag in July 2022. The award of the Ramsar tag is part of UNESCO’s Ramsar Convention, which is an intergovernmental treaty aimed to conserve wetlands. India has been a party to the treaty since 1982.
While this is welcome news, Pallikaranai has also seen a lot of damage over the years, despite being a “protected zone” as per the Tamil Nadu Forest Act. From 2,650 hectares, the wetland has shrunk to around 700 hectares, thanks to encroachments by government and private entities, garbage dumping, leakage of untreated sewage and urbanisation. Even though 700 hectares of the marshland remain, only 370 hectares has been awarded the coveted Ramsar tag.
A panel of experts weighed in on how the Ramsar tag will help in reviving the Pallikaranai marshlands, the challenges in the process and what kind of scientific methods would help along with the various ways the public can get involved.
The panel comprised Dr Indumathi Nambi, Professor at the Environment and Water Resources Division, Department of Civil Engineering at IIT Madras; Dr S Janakarajan, the President of South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs); V Srinivasan, a member of Save Pallikaranai Marsh Forum and Dr Jayshree Vencatesan, Managing Trustee of Care Earth Trust.
The pre-Ramsar era of Pallikaranai marshlands
“In 1976, I saw people building houses using the grass from the Pallikaranai marshland. This was when we knew how local communities are using the resources of the marsh. Until then, we thought it was an open land with water, plants and birds,” said Srinivasan.
“The degradation started around the year 2000, with the release of untreated sewage and polluted groundwater. We began mobilising people to save the marsh. There were residents, biodiversity organisations like Care Earth Trust, activists and journalists involved in the forum,” said Srinivasan, speaking about the initial formation of the Save Pallikaranai Marsh Forum.
“To spread awareness about saving Pallikaranai, there were demonstrations done. Every Gandhi Jayanti, the forum performed Satyagraha around the marsh. Furthermore, they brought children from schools near Pallikaranai during World Wetlands Days to reflect on the wetland via drawing competitions”, said Srinivasan.
Additionally, the documentaries by naturalists about the marshland were screened for the communities. “These were some of the mobilisation efforts to gather people for the cause,” said Srinivasan.
In 2005-06, the IT industries started mushrooming in the area, especially in OMR. “Government proposed to build a golf course in the marshland. However, rains lashed out and stalled the plans. Then in 2009-10, Chennai Corporation started dumping a huge volume of waste every day. They said that a waste-to-energy plant will be set up to tackle the waste, despite objections in public hearings,” said Srinivasan.
To prevent the waste-to-energy plant to come up in the marsh, the Forum filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which ruled against the plant.
“However, there were efforts to take over whatever remained of the Pallikaranai marshland for garbage dumping and other purposes,” said Srinivasan.
How Pallikaranai marsh got the Ramsar tag
“It has been a long process, from having Pallikaranai being designated a wetland, and then to securing the tag as a Ramsar site,” says Jayshree. Care Earth Trust has been working on Pallikaranai marshland for more than two decades. She noted that public and government support has catalysed the process of Pallikaranai getting the Ramsar recognition.
“The Pallikaranai marshland has a very enigmatic feature. Even though there has been a degradation of the marsh, the species being recorded from the wetland continue to increase,” said Jayshree.
Jayshree has been working on the application process for the marsh to get a Ramsar Tag, as per the directions of the State Wetlands Authority. The certification process has nine criteria, focussing on birds, fishes, non-avian fauna, plant diversity and other hydrological services. Pallikaranai checks the boxes of all nine criteria to become a Ramsar site.
With the application process for the Ramsar tag, Care Earth Trust developed a detailed integrated management plan (IMP) for the marshland, although yet to be approved by the Indian government. “It is mandatory for a Ramsar site to execute the conservation and restoration programme through the integrated management plan,” said Jayshree.
Role of Pallikaranai marshlands in Chennai’s environment and climate
Stemming rising sea-levels: “Chennai is blessed with three wetlands- Pulicat Lake, Ennore Creek and the Pallikaranai Marshlands. They protect the people rising of sea-levels,” said S Janakarajan, about the significance of wetlands in Chennai.
Water storage: Water is stored in the marsh, as well. In the olden days, when there was no Buckingham Canal, ECR or OMR, Pallikaranai marshlands attracted water from the upstream rivers and stored it. “It was because the marshland was below the sea level,” said Janakarajan.
“It received waters from Tambaram, Pachamalai and other areas. More than 40 lakes drain in the marsh,” said Indumathi.
Prevention of flood: It is also an armour against flooding. “Pallikaranai marshlands make water systems in the city more resilient, especially in the wake of extreme climate change, which can induce flooding,” said Indumathi.
However, today the marsh may not be able to perform its role perfectly. “One may call Pallikaranai marshlands to be a wetland. But I call it dry land. It is not wet throughout the year except in monsoon,” said Janakarajan, adding that the dryness is due to ridges.
“For example, the road from Taramani to Tambaram is a ridge, not enabling the water to flow from one side of the road to another side. Elevation of ground levels also creates ridges, leading to flooding”, he said.
Environmental implications of garbage dumping and encroachments
Encroachments are a major issue troubling the wetland. “The lakes that used to drain in the marsh are connected. But encroachment has hampered the lake connectivity, which negatively impacts the water storage function of the marsh,” said Indumathi.
Garbage dumping has leached chemicals into the water and soil of the ecosystem. IIT Madras has been studying the water and sediment qualities of the Pallikaranai marshland and has found that it has been contaminated, and the findings suggest that the source could be the dumpsite in the marsh.
They found metals, organic compounds and salinity in the water, groundwater and sediments in and around the dumpsite. “It is an open dumpsite, and eventually the waste will go into the environment. Now, Corporation has taken a note of that, and they have set up systems to recover waste from the dump yard,” said Indumathi.
Indumathi also spoke about waste management systems. “In India, waste-to-energy plants have been a failure, because we lack proper systems for emissions from the plant, even though we treat segregated waste. However, if there are proper systems, waste-to-energy systems are not a bad idea.”
“If you go to the Perungudi dumpsite, no biodegradable materials are there. Only plastics, cloth, rubber and other non-biodegradables remain, which all have a high calorific value. Now, they are taking the non-biodegradables to Trichy for burning in a cement plant, leading to more carbon footprint. Local treatment of waste is the best and most holistic solution for waste management”, added Indumathi.
To tackle the legacy waste, biomining is being done in the marshland. “I am worried about this process. They claim that they are picking the biodegradables, what about the microplastics? The minute powders of plastic may have mixed with the biodegradables,” said Janakarajan.
Future actions to revive the marshland
“Getting the Ramsar tag is only half the job. If we are not putting the right efforts, we can be put in a negative list called a Montreux Record,” said Jayshree.
“These days, restoration is seen as cosmetic interventions, which is not really ‘restoration’,” said Janakarajan. “The first step is to restore water supply to the wetland, which will attract biodiversity.”
However, Jayshree says that in urban and peri-urban areas, 100% restoration of ecosystems is not possible. “We can set 10-20% restoration benchmarks and achieve the targets. A GIS-based intervention model has been worked out in 5 hectares for restoration in Pallikaranai marsh.”
With the IMP mandated by Ramsar Convention, conscious efforts would be taken to protect, restore and conserve the marshland. “There will be around 100-150 parameters under each of these efforts,” said Jayshree. “For instance, if we are taking restoration, we are addressing pollution. We have to look at the source of the pollution, the character of the pollution, and how to handle each type of pollution. Some can be tackled via phytoremeditation.”
“When we talk about wetland restoration, many think it is just dredging, desilting, and creating mounds and hillocks where it should not be there,” said Jayshree.
Jayshree also spoke about the different funding options to translate IMP into reality: Green Climate funds, National Adaptation funds, and Corporate Social Responsibility funds. There is scope for the Pallikaranai Marshland to become a case study of nature conservation in a metropolitan city if these interventions are successful.
Involving other stakeholders like the locals in and around the marsh is also crucial, said Jayshree, adding that meetings with the public must be conducted regularly.
Wise use of marshlands is also mandated by the Ramsar Convention. “We need to look at ways where people in and around the marsh be able to live sustainably, with garbage dumping and polluted groundwater. Hopefully, the Ramsar tag will put an end to garbage dumping,” said Srinivasan.
“Volunteer-based work will not work here. We need new thoughts and ideas to revive the marsh,” said Jayshree.
Watch the complete discussion here: