High Altitude Wetlands — The Silent Sufferers of Climate Crisis

Wetlands constitute some of the most unique ecosystems — neither land, nor water, neither terrestrial nor aquatic. Formed by land inundated with water either seasonally or permanently, they are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems supporting a large array of flora and fauna. Not only this, they also prodigiously perform critical ecosystem services like water storage and purification, carbon sequestration, nutrient storage among others. However, like most other natural ecosystems, wetlands today are threatened due to climate change and unsustainable anthropogenic activities like infrastructure development.

High-altitude wetlands (HAWs) are typically classified as wetlands occurring above elevations of 3,000 meters[1]. They play an important role in the hydrological regime of rivers and act as a buffer between glacial melt waters, provide baseflow support to several rivers and streams, and many of them form headwaters of major continental rivers.

In an otherwise harsh geography where not much life is able to thrive, they are like an oasis, providing suitable conditions for flora which attracts various species of animals and bit by bit leads to the construction and sustenance of an entire ecosystem. Due to their relative isolation, many rare species of plants, mammals and avifauna inhabit these landscapes, with migratory birds using them as breeding grounds.

HAWs exist in myriad shapes and forms, from waterbodies like ponds and lakes to meadows and peatlands (swamps, marshes, bogs, and fens)[2]. In addition to the in-situ services, they play an equally critical role vis-à-vis the ex-situ services provided. Through their water storage capability, they regulate the downstream discharge of rivers and mitigate threats of floods, and consequently excessive soil erosion.

Human settlements, although relatively sparsely populated, have existed in their periphery for centuries, eking out a living through subsistence farming and livestock rearing, and today are a rich repository of traditional knowledge systems that are well adapted to exist in harmony with nature and serve as an example to modern economic systems on sustainable living.

Owing to the life-sustaining services wetlands provide, these communities have had an attitude of deep reverence for them, deriving water, fodder for livestock and medicinal plants. As a progression of this spiritual thought, the wildlife that plays an important role in maintaining the delicate balance of these ecosystems are also accorded religious significance and are thus ineluctably conserved.

Like many other high-altitude ecosystems, HAWs have been facing accelerated threats due to global warming and climate crisis. An expansion in the area of glacial lakes has been observed due to increased glacial melt and increasing temperature of water bodies is affecting circulation patterns, thereby impacting wetland biogeochemistry and ecosystem functioning. Timing and volume of discharge during dry and wet seasons is changing to which both the ecosystem and local communities are finding difficult to respond and adapt.

With decrease in permafrost area and magnitude, peatlands are experiencing a ‘drying up’ and consequent ‘desertification’. This has a twofold impact: one, it reduces the amount of fodder availability for both wildlife and livestock; two, limited fodder implies competitions between these two which eventually leads to a decrease in wild herbivore population or a prey loss for predators in the landscape forcing them to go into human settlements for prey leading to livestock depredation.

This in turn can lead to retaliatory killing of wild predators, which are already threatened due to climate crisis. Apart such direct impacts upon the ecosystem, this also disturbs the age-old socio-cultural fabric of the local communities. By being forced to exhibit violent behaviours towards the species they venerate, there arises a spiritual conundrum which questions the very foundations of these community systems.

Many HAWs have in recent times have also opened up to tourism activities with better road and air connectivity, which has within a very short period of time has exacerbated into uncontrolled mass tourism and led to excessive habitat degradation. It has also led to waste management issues, which on one hand cause direct air, water and soil pollution, and on the other hand have led to the issue of feral dogs[3]. These canines, that forage on waste generated and left behind by humans, have over the years grown significantly in population as well as evolved into proficient pack hunters that are now threatening wildlife by killing them directly or passing on diseases that wild animals do not have the immunity to tackle.

What to do then — the first and foremost step is having more research into the ecosystems including preparation of a detailed inventory and assessment of ecosystem health. With emerging technologies like drone-based data collection, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data analysis, there exist many opportunities to create prediction models that can inform policy decisions[4]. Reducing direct human pressure on the ecosystems through creation of alternative livelihood options is another area of focus, which includes ensuring that existing or upcoming tourism models are consumption conscious and adhere to the regions’ carrying capacities.

HAWs are ‘silent’ ecosystems, due to which their outwardly ‘barren’ appearance is often mistaken to be their inherent nature. Since their degradation does not manifest directly into immediate economic loss or damage to life and property, it often tends to be underestimated and under reported, but can have devastating cascading impact downstream impacting millions of people. It is the need of the hour to revive wetlands in collective consciousness and create an action-oriented discourse on acknowledging their role in our economy, culture and beliefs.

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References:

[1] https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-94-007-6173-5_278-2

[2] https://bioone.org/journals/Mountain-Research-and-Development/volume-30/issue-1/MRD-JOURNAL-D-09-00091.1/WWF-Initiatives-to-Study-the-Impact-of-Climate-Change-on/10.1659/MRD-JOURNAL-D-09-00091.1.full

[3] https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/in-ladakh-the-snow-leopard-has-a-new-foe-feral-dogs/article28294567.ece

[4] https://news.ucsc.edu/2019/07/conservation-ai.html

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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Development professional | Mountain lover ⛰️ | Hiker 🥾 | Runner 🏃‍♂️ | Cyclist 🚴 | Photographer 📷 | Blogger 👨‍💻

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Parth Joshi

Parth Joshi

Development professional | Mountain lover ⛰️ | Hiker 🥾 | Runner 🏃‍♂️ | Cyclist 🚴 | Photographer 📷 | Blogger 👨‍💻

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