Buffering Goa’s wetlands against threat of destruction

Activists want catchment areas, streams, waterways to be protected; oppose concretisation of lakes and ponds
WET & WONDERFUL: Wetlands are great habitats for birds, nurseries for fisheries, and a reliable system for recharging of ground water.
WET & WONDERFUL: Wetlands are great habitats for birds, nurseries for fisheries, and a reliable system for recharging of ground water.Photo: Gomantak Times

From the six wetlands shortlisted by a government-appointed task force around two decades back to 15 actually notified by the Goa State Wetland Authority (GSWA) till recently, some progress has been made towards the conservation of these water bodies in the face of rapid development.

In a landmark judgment, the High Court of Bombay at Goa, in August 2003, had directed the government to constitute a task force to identify wetlands in Goa for their protection.

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The eco degradation of Carambolim lake – an important bird and biodiversity area (IBA) for local and international birders – had been akin to a case study for initiatives to extend protection to other wetlands in Goa.

Much before GSWA, a state government body, formed in 2016, came into existence, the division bench that had included Justice Ferdino Rebello had taken serious note of pollution in the Carambolim lake.

“The notification of wetlands by GSWA has proceeded on the right track after the high court directive,” Philip Fernandes, a former task force member, said.

GSWA, with Pradip Sarmokadam as head of this nodal agency, besides notifying 15 lakes, has taken up 29 more as per the authority’s agenda of defining strategies for conservation and prudent use of wetlands within their jurisdiction.

But, environmentalists have questioned the approach of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in handling the wetland conservation and management agenda.

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Initially, it came out with the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010 for India, but later issued what activists termed as a diluted version of the rules.

The Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority (CWRA) was replaced with a National Wetland Committee, which didn’t exactly please the activists.

Under the new rules, states and union territories were mandated to identify and notify wetlands while they had been lax in implementing the earlier rules.

Even as GSWA was being formed and before it began its work, Goa’s environment and natural resources being under tremendous pressure due to development activities, the lakes and wetlands in Goa faced massive destruction in various ways.

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For instance, the Pilar lake in Sulabhat, Agasaim, the water body with a historic past, was needlessly concretised under a beautification scheme.

Later, the lake’s border area was developed as a site for parties and events, ruining its ambience while a multi-dwelling project nearby exposed it to the threat of sewage.

Another instance of major damage to wetlands was in Nuvem, along River Sal while laying the Western Bypass. The streams and waterways were clogged as dynamics of hydrology were given inadequate attention.

The same insensitive approach is being adopted further along with water bodies in Seraulim, Benaulim and Navelim being buried under truckloads of mud for completion of the bypass.

There are a number of other cases, wherein wetlands have been polluted, reclaimed badly or neglected, though they are great habitats for birds, nurseries for fisheries, a reliable system for recharging of ground water, and provide other ecological services.

The lakes and wetlands in Goa have faced massive destruction in various ways.

Some villagers have been opposing the notification process initiated by GSWA proposals. But, discerning villagers in some areas, like Chandor, have readily accepted the proposals.

The main point of contention is the 50-metre buffer zone. “The problem is of the buffer zone, as people are objecting to it as land has become very scarce. Almost all wetlands are in rural areas and villagers are affected,” Fernandes said.

“The government should strictly allow only small houses in the buffer zone, but not multi-dwelling units or housing colonies as they will discharge effluents in the water bodies. Otherwise, buffer zones will face opposition as they are in private land,” Fernandes said.

Abhijeet Prabhudesai of Rainbow Warriors, an NGO, urged GSWA to take local stakeholders – farmers, fishermen and residents with houses on the wetlands’ periphery – into confidence before notifying them.

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“The 50-metre buffer zone should remain at all costs. But, nearby residents should be allowed some leverage to expand their dwellings. If people’s needs are genuinely taken care of, then they will want to save the lakes from vested interests,” he said.

Encouraging villagers to cultivate their fields during the monsoons is important. 

“This is the way forward and subsequently – that is October to March – water should be stored. This was the age-old practice followed by our ancestors, a shining example being the Chinchinim comunidade in present times," Fernandes said.

"Only abandoned fields should be declared as wetlands and the forest department should take up community-based protection,” he added.

The government should strictly allow only small houses in the buffer zone, but not multi-dwelling units or housing colonies as they will discharge effluents in the water bodies.

The government had represented to the Centre that there is hardly 300 sq km left for development and the rest comprises forest, wetlands and green areas. 

“This very understanding is completely flawed. If you take a bird’s eye view of Mandovi and Zuari, the entire area below is a wetland,” he stated. 

Vested interests eyeing properties near wetlands are spreading false propaganda and they are backed by local panch members.

“The environment and man should go hand-in-hand, but the government and real estate lobbies are pitting one against the other,” he said.

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While development in Goa is occurring at a fast pace, GSWA has to necessarily follow procedural norms for reasons of transparency.

“The process is an ongoing one and after the grievance committee holds meetings with stakeholders, the authority will next take a call about notifying the wetlands,” Pradip Sarmokadam, head of GSWA said.

GSWA aims to work out strategies for conservation and prudent and sustainable use of wetlands. While striving to ensure activities of fisheries, harvesting and ground water use sustainably, it assures to “recommend mechanisms for maintenance of ecological character” in private lands near wetlands.

Calling for a holistic approach, activists emphasize that the catchment areas, streams and waterways should be protected. They are also opposed to concretisation of lakes and ponds, especially the walls as it is not eco-friendly.

“The walls, made from traditional laterite and mud constructions, are perfectly strong and eco-friendly,” Prabhudesai said.

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