Nepali Times
Making A Difference
"Wetlands are not wastelands"


When Nepalis talk about water bodies they often think only about rivers. But for conservationist Top Khatri, it is all about wetlands.

However, Khatri, who is the national project manager of Conservation and Sustainable Use of Wetlands in Nepal (CSUWN), says it is difficult to get officials and locals alike interested in marshes, swamps, floodplains and lakes which form a vital part of Nepal's aquatic ecosystem.

"Wetlands are not wastelands," says Khatri, who adds these vital water systems are being threatened by encroachment, pollution and drainage. "There is very little awareness about how important they are for the environment."

Although wetlands account for only five percent of Nepal's total surface area, their importance far outstrips their size. Wetlands are vital stopovers for migratory birds, they are rich repositories of biodiversity, they recharge groundwater by storing monsoon runoff during the dry season and they are important for agriculture.

Nepal has 20 wetland ecosystems of global significance, but Khatri worries that they are not given priority in the national agenda. Furthermore, Nepalis have limited knowledge about their importance.

Wetlands in Nepal are home to many of the 89 globally-threatened animal species. Nearly a quarter of the 867 bird species found in Nepal depend on wetlands, including several migratory birds on the brink of extinction.

"Destruction of wetlands and pollution of rivers and lakes have led to dwindling bird populations and climate change has forced birds to change their migratory patterns," says Hum Bahadur Gurung of Bird Conservation Nepal.

Both Gurung and Khatri are keen to draw attention to the importance of wetlands by marking World Wetlands Day on 2 February. The date marks the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971 in Ramsar, Iran, and this year's theme is 'Wetlands and Tourism'. They celebrated the day by releasing the findings of a nationwide bird census carried out in January (see box) and want to draw the attention of the government to make necessary laws and implement protection measures for wetlands.

Khatri says his organisation wants to use this year's World Wetlands Day to integrate wetland protection with
eco-tourism so that money from visitors can be ploughed into conservation work. For this it is important to involve local people living on the fringes of wetlands so that they have a stake in the protection of the water bodies. So far 463 households directly dependent on wetlands have been identified for alternative livelihood support around Ghodaghodi Lake in Kailali and Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in Sunsari.

The Kosi Tappu was the first wetland site of international importance identified in Nepal, and is the largest with 17 types of wetland within its perimeter. Conservation and Sustainable Use of Wetlands in Nepal has also begun a home stay program for tourists and birdwatchers in Kosi Tappu so that income is injected directly into the village economy.

"Introducing activities like kayaking or rafting in wetlands, not only generates awareness but also helps increase incomes for local communities," says Khatri.

Khatri and Gurung are working together to organise bird watching events in Kosi Tappu, Pokhara, Jagdishpur and other wetland sites on Friday.

What worries Khatri is that although national legislation, park rules and regulations have been passed to protect biodiversity around wetlands around the country, enforcement remains weak. He says: "The National Wetland Policy is finally awaiting cabinet approval, but that is just the beginning. In Nepal, it is always the implementation that is a bigger challenge."

Bird census

To mark World Wetlands Day on 2 February a water bird census has been organised throughout Nepal. The annual census is held throughout Asia, and in Nepal it is organised by Bird Conservation Nepal, Himalayan Nature and Bird Education Society.

Two hundred volunteers fanned out across Nepal in January from Kosi Tappu, Chitwan National Park, Rara Lake to Ghodaghodi Lake. "By including locals and volunteers, we are encouraging a sustainable method of conducting a bird census," says Hem Sagar Baral of Himalayan Nature.

So far the volunteers and groups involved have gathered data through a direct count method where data collectors are given a bird form and site form. The bird form is to register the total numbers of birds seen at a certain time in a wetland while the site form is to collect information about the coordinates of the site and to see if the site is endangered or polluted.

After the data is collected, Baral uses the raw findings to make a complete count. The final count will be released soon and will help conservation groups to plan out future efforts to protect wetlands which are important habitats of migratory and resident bird species.

Although it is too early to predict whether the bird population has decreased or not, Baral says from what he has seen in Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve, the number of water birds seem to be decreasing.

Says Hum Gurung of Bird Conservation Nepal: "The census will help us gauge the trend in bird populations."

Read also:
Not just for the birds
Nepal's endangered wetlands are a vital stopover for trans-continental bird migrations

Feathered friends, PAAVAN MATHEMA
This autumn, take time off to watch Nepal's amazingly rich bird life

Water world, SAMUEL THOMAS
A fresh new look at Nepal's fresh water, with the message: no wetlands, no water.

1. Roshan
Hi there, ghodaghodi taal is not located in Bardia, its in Kailali district. Please make sure not to give wrong information to the readers.

2. David Stengel
Namaste, Are you familiar with the book, The Fabulous Flemmings of KTM, who came to Nepal in 1949 "on the wings of a bird"?  Dr. Bob received permission to enter the country as an ornithologist and Dr. Betty later started Patan Hospital (then known as Shanta Bhawan).  I also enjoy bird-watching, and was happy to see a Nepali pheasant (Khalij) in the forests near Pokhara last year.  

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)