The Himalayan mountains are called "water towers": an enormous high-altitude storage system for fresh water in the form of snow, springs and underground water. Nepal's 6,000 rivulets and rivers contribute more than 40 percent of the total flow of the Ganges. But this resource is never constant. Depending on the time of year, or geographical area there is either too much water or too little.
This gap in water supply, particularly in the absence of adequate storage facilities, creates surpluses at times and places, and shortages for the rest of the year. When governments and planners talk about water, they only think of rivers. However, equally important to the ecosystem and tothe evening out of water supply are wetlands. Wetlands are undervalued, and regarded as wastelands.
Wetlands in Nepali are called simsar-derived from the Persian word "sih", which means low-grade land not suitable for cultivation, and the Sanskrit "sar" for water. They are increasingly threatened by a spreading population most of whom depend on agriculture for livelihood. Wetlands are often drained or reclaimed for agriculture, industrial and urban use, particularly in the more developed central region of the country. The modification of land-use is particularly noticeable in the tarai where migrants have pushed population growth rates up to nearly 4 percent in areas like Kailali. This poses a serious problem because the tarai also has the greatest diversity of wetlands-the Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve alone has 17 wetland types. Of 163 tarai wetland sites inventoried by the IUCN in 1998, 43 percent had suffered some degree of drainage.
Inappropriate wetland management often results in increased fragmentation of wetlands and forests, reducing previously extensive populations of mammals and large reptiles into genetically isolated sub-populations, many of which are now at risk.
Nepal has several wetland ecosystems of global significance, including 20 of 27 globally recognised freshwater wetland types. Though wetlands account for only 5 percent of Nepal's total surface area they have high ecosystem diversity and high biodiversity values. Of the various species found in Nepal, wetlands support 66 percent of 89 globally-threatened animal species found in the country, 47 percent of 74 near-threatened animal species, 85 percent of 20 endemic vertebrates, 25 percent of 7,000 vascular plant species, 23 percent of 859 bird species, 12 percent of 91 globally-threatened plants, and 10 percent of 246 flowering plant species. Wetlands are also important stopover and breeding grounds for migrant and wintering birds and waterfowl.
The nation's water resources have traditionally been seen in terms of their potential for hydropower generation and irrigation. There is a shift now to thinking in terms of more holistic management of water resources and implications for biodiversity and livelihoods. This focus comes on the back of a landmark policy instrument adopted last year.
The Water Resources Strategy of 2002 sets guidelines for the sustainable use of water, and is a landmark for Nepal by being the first policy document related to water resources that acknowledges environmental conservation and ecosystem maintenance as a priority during water resource planning.
Nepal's freshwater resources must have a wider definition to include riverine floodplains, marshes, ox-bow lakes, swamps, ponds and lakes from the plains to the high Himalaya, glacial lakes, river-recharging cloud forests, spongy alpine meadows and much undervalued and overexploited groundwater resources.
The alarming level of groundwater extraction directly affects the health of our wetlands. Kathmandu's deep aquifer has dropped from 9m to 68m below the surface within the past decade. It has been estimated that total sustainable withdrawal of groundwater from the Valley's aquifer is approximately 26.3 MLD while current withdrawals total about 58.6 MLD. More importantly, the discourse over water resources must include their crucial importance to livelihoods, especially the livelihoods of the marginalised wetland dependent communities in Nepal.
The slogan for Wetlands Day is succinct: No wetlands, no water. The preservation and well-being of our wetlands is inextricably woven with our future. Ignore one, and we jeopardise the other.
Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve
This stretch of the Sapta Kosi River and its floodplain in the tarai lowlands in eastern Nepal, adjacent to the Indian border has a high density of migratory and resident bird populations-467 species listed, with recorded congregations of over 50,000 migratory waterfowl during the winter months. It has the largest known heron sanctuary in Nepal and the last surviving population of the Asiatic Wild Water Buffalo. There are Gangetic Dolphins and two endemic fish species in the Sapta Kosi River. It also has 45 percent of total vertebrate species of the country. Kosi Tappu Birdwatching Festival this year: 2-8 February.
Ghodaghodi Lake Complex
A complex of lakes, marshes and seasonal ponds in the lowland plains stretching up to the foothills of the Siwaliks. The Ghodaghodi Lake Complex is an unprotected wetland ecosystem, a key link between the Churia Hills and tarai, and a corridor connecting Royal Bardia National Park with the Royal Sukhlaphanta Wildlife Reserve. The site falls within the Tarai Arc region identified by the WWF linking Royal Chitwan National Park with Corbett Tiger Reserve in India. The area has high global biodiversity values including several endangered species of gharial, marsh crocodile and red-crowned roofed turtle.
The deepest lake in the Himalayan range is located in the heart of Nepal's largest protected area-Shey Phoksundo National Park. The trans-Himalayan ecosystem is remarkable for its unique flora and fauna, including the endangered snow leopard, the musk deer, blue sheep, wolf, ghoral and marmot. Shey Phoksundo contains the highest number of endemic plant species in Nepal, including several medicinal species.
Nepal's largest lake is situated at an elevation of 3062m in the Rara National Park near Jumla. Designated as a National Park in 1975, the area is home to wild animals such as the Himalayan bear, the Himalayan tahr, ghoral, musk deer and the red panda. A high altitude lake ringed with thick forests of pine, juniper and spruce.
Maintaining wetland diversity and functions is particularly important to the livelihoods of indigenous wetland-dependent communities. Nepal has people from some 60 ethnic groups of which people from 21 ethnic communities have traditionally based their livelihoods on wetlands. They account for more than 17 percent of the country's population and more than 90 percent are of tarai origin. In certain tarai districts, Kailali for instance, more than half the population is of wetland-dependent ethnic origin. Many of them are being forced to shift from wetland activities and many are in a state of transition. This forced shift is an indication that these peoples cannot survive on dwindling wetland resources. People most dependent on wetland resources own very little. The majority of these groups are officially landless or do not enjoy secure land ownership.
The major wetland peoples of Nepal include the Sunaha, in the Karnali basin (including Rajis of the uplands and the Khuna of the tarai); the Mallah in the Gandaki barrage in Nawalparasi; the Pani Bote and Pakhe Bote, in Nawalparasi and Chitwan; the Mushahar along the Narayani; the Bantar of Sunsari and Saptari districts; the Gongi in the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve; the Mukhia of Rautahat district; the Dushad of Parsa; the Sahani of Rautahat, Parsa and Bara districts; the Kewat of Nawalparasi; the Danuwars of Chitwan, Siraha and Sindhuli; the Majhis, indigenous people of the inner tarai; the Darai of Chitwan and Nawalparasi; the Kumal of Chitwan district; the Barhamus of Gorkha; the Kushar; the Dhangar of Morang, Sunsari, Sarlahi and Dhanusha; the Podes of Panauti and Phewa Tal of Pokhara; and, the Tharus in the tarai.