The government of Rajasthan has taken on the mantle to have Udaipur, the “Venice of the East”, proclaimed as the first Ramsar wetland city of the nation. After frantic activity of inter-department officials, proposals have gone out and everyone’s awaiting the verdict with bated breath. India has 75 Ramsar wetland sites of international importance, but no city has this honour.
In parts, I belong to two cities that cannot imagine their existence without their wetlands. I was born and brought up in Udaipur and in the forests of the Aravalli ranges with my nature loving family. I am now settled in a small lake-island colony in Colombo, the proud city of wetlands. Colombo was declared a Ramsar Wetland City in the Ramsar Convention in Dubai on 25th October 2018. It holds the badge of being the first capital city in the world to have this rare distinction. The metropolitan city shares its space with a variety of critters in a range of habitats—marshes, lakes and ponds.
Udaipur is well suited to become a Ramsar wetland city. The network of interconnected lakes and canals that brings water from the catchment areas makes it one of the foremost manmade ecosystems of watershed management. Madar ki Nahar brings water from Berach River to Fatehsagar, Sisarma River brings water to Lake Pichola, which diverts excess water to Swaroop Sagar, which in turn sends the overflow to Fatehsagar. The lakes are rich in phytoplankton and zooplankton bringing in thousands of migratory birds every year. The nullahs that carry the overflow waters wind through the city and are a sanctuary for waders, fish in pools and kingfishers year-round. Not just the city lakes, but also the ones around it harbour threatened and endangered species like Mahasher, a fish that weighs no less than 40-50kgs and was considered a great sport fish, in Lake Badi.
With or without the title, Udaipur is an important urban wetland with cultural significance. It needs as much projection as a wetland haven to secure the Ramsar title as it needs internalizing the character of a world heritage wetland site.
Udaipur’s lakes, once protected by the monarchy, had rich profusion of crocodiles, otters, terrapins, turtles, fish, insects, migratory and resident birds and other aquatic lifeforms. It was an ordinary sight in the 1950s to see 20-30 crocodiles in one pond, especially in the small pools of Banas River.
Impenetrable bushes and beautiful trees on the periphery as well as on the islands of the lakes served as nesting ground and heronries for thousands of aquatic birds. Reeds and other aquatic vegetation were aplenty in the shallow waters which was an ideal feeding ground for birds. An island (now Nehru Park) in Fatehsagar was the perfect habitat for pythons. These huge reptiles had a bounty provided by thousands of nests and roosting birds. Otters occasionally supplemented their fish diet for birds and eggs. Fatehsagar was a most balanced and perfect wetland. The water of Lake Fatehsagar was so clean that the British officers residing as political agents in the city used its water for drinking.
Come independence, our government began to issue contracts for killing crocodiles (for their skin) like fishes. Within a few years the crocodiles of this region almost disappeared. The heronries and many indigenous trees around the lakes were cleared for the expanding human population. When the first ring-road around Fatehsagar was being made during the reign of Maharana Bhupal Singh ji, wildlifer T. H. Tehsin, later the Vice Mayor of Udaipur, had recommended not having any lights or residential constructions on it in order not to disturb the wildlife. Today, it has both and more.
The naturalist Raza H. Tehsin, an authority on the ecology of the region and the former member of Wildlife Advisory Board, Govt. of Raj., points to the recent ill-advised proposal of another ring road around Lake Pichola. The encroaching colonies have already completely restricted the wild boars and four-horned antelopes from migrating from the surrounding Aravalli hills to the Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary bordering the city. Bar-headed geese and demoiselle cranes avoid coming to Lake Pichola due to the increased disturbance. The migratory birds tend to get distracted and diverted by the residential areas.
While growing up, birdwatching in the wetlands surrounding Udaipur was our weekend activity. Now most of the ponds, marshes and canals as well as the shores of waterbodies like Udaisagar are wallowing in plastic waste. It torments me to see this sudden and mindless onslaught of litter. We can only imagine the distress it would cause to the scores of animals and birds living in these ecologies. The litter harms the aquatic flora and fishes, which act as the food for many species of migratory and local birds. Gradual scarcity of food will reduce the arrival of these winter visitors.
Raza’s suggestions to restore these wetlands include restricting water scooters and speed boats, which injure and kill aquatic birds and fish. Planting of indigenous flora that provide shelter and nesting sites to native and migratory birds. Prohibiting illegal fishing. Limiting construction around the wetlands, both of hotels and homes. Restricting chemicals sewage going into the lakes. This cannot be achieved without the society being a stakeholder and partner in protecting these wetlands.
Udaipur, with combined government and citizen action, has an incredible opportunity to benefit from the international expertise and funds to preserve and restore its lakes, create public awareness and implement world-class measures to protect its aquatic communities holistically. Being a Ramsar City will be a watershed moment in its history.
Udaipur can serve as a model for urban wetland conservation for other Indian cities. If we manage to prioritise these highly vulnerable yet productive ecosystems, the citizens will see how the wetlands work for us—cleaner air, potable drinking water, flood control, evaporative cooling, greener spaces and livelihood opportunities among others. Who knows, Yakshas, the nature spirits that guard the wealth of the planet, will return. And if Yakshas are around, their king Kubera can’t be far away.
The Author, Arefa Tehsin is an Author and Ex-Hon. Wildlife Warden, Udaipur.