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Something is rotten in the Wetland of Deepor Beel

Noah is nowhere

After the Biblical deluge cleansed the Earth aeons back and Noah’s Ark delivered our ancestors to pristine shores, we should have learnt our lesson.

Yet another deluge is foretold in books and each new morrow brings it closer. Last I heard, Noah couldn’t find trees to build another Ark.

The other day, I heard some birds chirping about their housing problem and water issues. In protest, they will be holding a songless march in spring.

We should look inward for it is time to wake up and see where our gluttony and greed has led us.

Yes, Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden but they had this Blue planet to make new beginnings. Where will God expel us now?

When I penned these lines a couple of years back, I really did not think that the horror of environmental degradation would be so severe in such a short time. Deepor Beel, a Ramsar site near Guwahati in Assam, is widely popular for its fish, avian diversity and rich aquatic vegetation. The Beel located about 10 km southwest of Guwahati city is considered as one of the large and important riverine wetlands in the Brahmaputra valley of lower Assam and attracts wild elephants and migratory birds. The Ramsar site is rotting and is on the verge of extinction due to threats from garbage dumping, quarrying, the construction of railway lines, encroachment and brick kilns.

The Rich Ecosystem

The basin is the only stormwater storage basin for the evergrowing Guwahati city and a paradise for migratory aquatic birds during winter. Deepor Beel is one of the Important Bird Area (IBA) sites designated by Birdlife International. The landscape of Deepor Beel is dynamic, attracting ornithologists, wildlife biologists and environmentalists. A birdwatchers' Eden the beel sustains over 200 birds species, including about 70 species of migratory birds.

During the winters, the people of Guwahati visit Deepor Beel, searching for pristine landscape and pollution-free air. Tourists across the world love to come here. However, the threats of pollution and encroachment with the demands of so-called development might soon destroy the unique biodiversity site.

Deepor Beel is indeed an avian paradise and some of the unique migratory bird species that can be spotted here include the white-eyed pochard, the greylag goose, Baer’s pochard and the gadwall, a dabbling duck. Many threatened species of birds like the spot-billed pelican, lesser adjutant stork, greater adjutant stork, black-necked stork, and large whistling teal nests here. The lake supports 50 fish species belonging to 19 families. The people who live in the lake thrive by harvesting the Nymphaea nuts, flowers for sale in the local markets. The tribals also sell the giant water lily and fish. The resources from the beel, like fish, molluscs and fodder for cattle including vegetables, flowers, aquatic seeds, are in high demand.

Threats to Deepor Beel

It is the only wetland in Assam designated for “conservation and sustainable use” under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The open lake basin has a set of inflow and outflow channels. Earlier, Deepor Beel had natural links with the mighty Brahmaputra through the Sola Beel and the swampy areas of Pandu to the northeast. However, the landscape drastically changed due to the construction of residential buildings, NH-37 and Railway lines as the natural links and channels were compromised. It is fed year-round by a stream, originates in the Basistha river and flows through the beel. The stream then merges with the river Brahmaputra through Khanamukh in the north. Earlier the Bharalu also fed the Beel, but now the less said of the waters from Bharalu better it is as sewage from the city flows through the beel through Bharalu. The beel is also staggering due to heavy siltation from the denuded hills surrounding the beel, and sewage from the Bharalu and Bahini rivers. More threats persist in the shape of unregulated fishing practices, quarrying within the beel ecosystem, pushing this once-pristine ecosystem to the brink of extinction.

Disappearing Watering hole for tuskers

The beel is a sought after watering hole for wild Asiatic elephants from the Rani and Garbhanga Reserve Forests in Guwahati. The pachyderms love bathing and feeding on nutritious aquatic food in the wetland. However, the four elephant corridors cross the railway track and are a regular death track for passing herds. The elephants' risk their lives during their passage to the beel from the hills for a feast of the water hyacinth and shoots, rhizomes and flowers of the giant water lily and other aquatic vegetation.

It has become the norm for elephants to get run over or hit by speeding trains on the railway line running through the reserve forests and the Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuarybetween Azara and Kamakhya railway stations.

Environmentalists continue a losing fight to ensure safe passage for the innocent pachyderms voicing concern over further construction of railway lines through the wetland. The horrific tragedy of at least 15 wild elephants hit by passing trains while crossing the railway track is never far from collective memory and yet the list goes on.

Is not there a way out?

Fragmentation of elephant habitat can be avoided with the alternative alignment of the railway line avoiding the elephant corridor between Azara and Kamakhya stations. Thus not affect the entire ‘Deepor Beel’ and any major habitations. This was the same suggestion put forward decades ago by environmentalists. Yet, the decision is pending.

Exploitation threatens Water Resources

The Beel is a rich ecosystem supporting 50 fish species and aquatic resources which provide livelihood support to about 1,200 households in 12 villages around the wetland. However, greed and unregulated fishing activities pose a major threat to migratory birds.

Pollution poisoning the waters

The Deepor Beel, the only major stormwater drainage for the ever-expanding capital city takes in untreated sewage through Mora Bharalu, and the Basistha-Bahini rivers carrying rainwater. To date, the smart city with a population of 12 lakh lacks a proper sewage treatment plant.

Siltation and waste dumping.

The increasing denudation of the hills in Rani and Garbhanga, the home of the Asiatic elephants in the southern side of the beel, owing to stone mining and earth excavation is also threatening the ecosystem. The demon of untreated heaps of unsegregated municipal solid waste dumped in the Boragaon landfill site near the wetland is a sight for sore eyes.

The catchment areas of the wetland include Chakardeo, Pamohi, Sakardhum Mikir, Matia Pahar, Deochotal, Maghuwapara, Banghara Than, Dharapur Chariali, Gorchuk and Boragaon and the expanding city is enveloping these too.

Dumping site or Ramsar Site?

It is heart-rending to see the threatened Adjutant storks and rag pickers sharing scavenging space at the dumping site at Boragoan. It is also a reality that the dumping site is a threat to the wetland and an enlarged picture of a flawed model of development in conflict with environmental protection. Humans and animals face the monstrous pollution billowing from heaps of unsegregated and untreated solid waste. Lost childhood forages the filthy and hazardous waste as hundreds of rag pickers brave the health hazards.

Despite Government promises to shift the municipal dumping site away from West Boragaon, Yet, the heaps of garbage have only grown bigger as the municipal waste of Guwahati city continues to be dumped there.

Shrinking area

Today the Ramsar site stands at the crossroads of development priorities and conservation challenges. Conflicting reports of authorities concerned have made a hotchpotch of the actual area of the Ramsar site.

However, wild elephants used the entire range of land starting from Deochotal to Chakradeo and beyond to the east and west as en route to Deepor Beel. Such elephant corridors prove that the beel is part of the elephant habitat and contiguous to Rani and Garbhanga reserve forests.

Today the growing human presence in the southern part threatens the movement of wild elephants from Rani and Garbhanga reserve forests to Deepor Beel. Concerned officials and environmentalists support the development planning of Deepor Beel after proper demarcation of its boundary and preparation of the Integrated Management Plan as per the new Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, and giving due consideration of the movement of wild elephants.

Major Conservation threats

Experts have listed the following major threats to the Deepor Beel ecosystem: Fragmentation of hydrological regime, siltation, pollution, encroachment and land reclamation, species invasion, including alien species, unregulated recreation and tourism, over-harvesting of resources and climate change. Other threats include accumulation of wastes from the Bharalu and Bahini rivers, unregulated fishing practice, industrial development within its periphery, construction of railway line along the southern boundary, quarrying within the beel ecosystem.

The RRC approved Action Plan for Deepor Beel says that the polluted stretch of Deepor Beel is 40.14 sq. km near Boragaon. Human encroachment, cement structures and other activities have contributed to the shrinking of the beel. The water flow gets blocked due to the embankment for railways further threatening the wetland ecosystem.

Unplanned urbanization is the last nail.

The monstrous threat of unplanned urbanisation around Deepor Beel has already made inroads into the original water spread area. A few years down the line the whole area could be further altered with flash floods and other man-created mishaps.

Wetlands are the lungs of nature and essential for the balance of the environment. If we ignore the alarm bells today, we may face a silent spring devoid of birds and a dried ecosystem very soon.

photo credits Google images

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