In Assam – a wetland too popular for its own good

Near the confluence of the three rivers that form the Brahmaputra, Maguri Motapung Beel in Assam is under threat from overfishing, silt and floods from the mountains, and oil exploration
<p>Fishing is what keep the Maguri Motapung Beel alive; the more the fish, the more the birds, long nets are spread in relatively deep water to catch the bigger fish [image by: Nivedita Khandekar]</p>

Fishing is what keep the Maguri Motapung Beel alive; the more the fish, the more the birds, long nets are spread in relatively deep water to catch the bigger fish [image by: Nivedita Khandekar]

A lovely wetland with a rich diversity of fish and wildlife, located by the foothills of the Himalayas and yet close to a major commercial hub – this should be a perfect recipe for a successful tourism spot. Unfortunately, these are the very reasons that are causing distress to the Maguri Motapung Beel, 15 kilometres north of Tinsukia, a commercial hub in the state of Assam in north-eastern India.

What might appear serendipitous to visitors has taken a toll on the health of the wetlands. The rich diversity of animals and fish has led to overfishing and the Himalayas have been sending silt and floods leading to land erosion. And then there is the Indian Oil Corporation refinery in Digboi, about 30 km away from Duliajan, with explorations continuing in the area by Oil India,  further threatening the wetlands and communities who live around it.

Maguri Motapung Beel is less than 10 km south of the more famous Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and part of the Dibru-Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve. The wetland derives its name from ‘Magur’, local word for the catfish Clarius batrachus, once found here in abundance. The second half of the name comes from a village nearby, and Beel is the Assamese word for wetland.

Almost 90% of the 9.6 square kilometre wetland, is water and aquatic vegetation. During non-monsoon months, people from the surrounding areas till the land that becomes available after the water drains out. Up to 95% of the approximately 10,500 people from the 10 surrounding villages are directly dependent on the wetland.

Declared an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) in 1996, the wetland has over 110 bird species, of which eight are regarded as threatened by the IUCN. These include the Falcated duck, Ferruginous duck and Swamp Prinia. The Lesser Adjutant, Baikal Teal, Swamp Francolin and Marsh Babbler are classified as less threatened. It also hosts 84 species of fish – including the Golden Mahaseer – and 36 other species of animals.

The Dibru river flows from east to west through the wetland. To the north-west of the wetland is a river, which was once called Dangori. It has been captured by the bigger river Lohit. The wetland is surrounded by farms, grassland, tea gardens and sparse tree cover. The 10 villages that surround it share a unique relationship with the wetland: the villages are affected by the Beel and the Beel, in turn, is also affected by the villages.Keeping this in mind, the ‘Maguri Motapung Wetland Management Plan’ is being developed by the local authorities.

fishing Assam wetland
Those who are entirely dependent on fishing spend the majority of their time in the Beel, on their boat [image by: Nivedita Khandekar]
Changes over the years

Things have not always been so good. Joynal Abedin recalls when people would take part in illegal timber felling as well as hunting birds and animals. Abedin, a resident of Guijaan village nearby, set up the Dibru Saikhowa Conservation Society in 2008. The pioneer of eco-tourism in the area is now the owner of an eco-resort by the Dangori river. He has helped local youth become tourist guides and facilitated boat rides for tourists – the earnings of which goes to local boatmen. Over the last 10 years this concept has now spread from Guijaan to villages around the Beel, including Baghjaan, Hatibat, Natan, Gotton Charali and Purani Motapung.

Durga Nagbanshi is one of the fishermen who benefitted from eco-tourism. After partnering with Abedin’s resort, he has been getting additional income from taking tourists on boat rides. “This additional income is always welcome as fishing does not always yield good income on all days,” he says.

It is nearing dusk when I meet Mahadev Das and his friend Sudhanshu Das from Guijaan Prakash Nagar. They have just set up their fishing net at the mouth of Dibru river.

Only traditional wooden boats are used in the wetland. Tourist trips provide income largely during the four winter months. But it is not just because of tourists that people are taking to eco-tourism. Mahesh Hathibarua, a boat owner from Nutan Gaon, says there have been fewer fish over the years. “There has been drastic reduction in the fish that we get now. Apart from renting my boat for tourists, I also run a puncture repair shop,” to make both ends meet.

Jibosch Gogoi from Nutanga village echoes this as he balances on his small boat in the middle of the wetland – surrounded by water hyacinth, called Metenga in Assamese and considered very good nurseries for fish. There have been floods for the last 6-7 years, and during that time there have been far fewer fish available, he says.

Jibosch Gogoi on his boat in the Beel [image by: Nivedita Khandekar]
New pressures, new strategies

Climate change is set to intensify these problems. The Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change, quoting state level data for 1951 to 2010, noted that “the mean temperature in the state has increased by +0.010 C/year. There is also an increase in seasonal temperatures across seasons with pronounced warming in post monsoon and winter temperatures. The annual rainfall has also decreased by 2.96 mm/year during the same period.” The loss of water as the wetland dries out due to these effects endangers all life, but particularly the fish in the area.

As part of the strategy to sustain fish production in Assam in a changing climate, the document suggests “declaring parts of Beels [wetlands] as protected areas”, banning fishing for certain periods during the year and reviving 5,000 hectares of ponds and wetlands.

One of the major problems adding to the stress is a burgeoning population. According to a recent study carried out by the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs), an “increase in population also has resulted in over-fishing, which is very harmful for the wetland ecosystem… the inhabitants are primarily dependent on fishing which has led to competition and over-exploitation of fish resources.”

Ghana, the local term for this hand-made bamboo snares for catching small fish. Fish enter from the small gap in the front but cannot go out; the open back is covered with water hyacinth shrub to not allow fish to escape [image by: Nivedita Khandekar]
The study further pointed that “most of the fishing methods are improper” and some of the nets are badly designed and “very harmful to fish fauna as due to its small mesh size, young fishes as well as fish eggs and larvae also get entangled in it.” The study found that poison was being used to catch fish, damaging the entire ecysosytem.

Dhattatreya H, who heads the Assam-based Institute of Integrated Resource Management (IIRM), says, “More awareness needs to be created among the locals. We aim to provide alternative livelihoods as dependence on the fishing needs to decrease.”

IIRM is a local partner of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) that has prepared the Maguri Motapung Wetland Management Plan for Tinsukia district administration. It has been submitted to the district administration, which is reviewing it and aims to finalise it by May. If cleared, this will be the first pilot for a wetland in Assam.

Rajendra Agrawal, a consultant to the IIRM and a member of the Tinsukia’s deputy commissioner’s district level committee, explains, “The Beel is an IBA but not a protected site. So a management plan is needed. Our plan has strategy for preservation, conservation and protection of local and migratory birds and of course, the financial implications of the various activities recommended in the plan.”

Suggestions include planting of fruit trees in large numbers to attract birds; community participation in the protection of the wetland; a complete ban on hunting (which has anyway substantially reduced over the last few years) and eco-development committees in all surrounding villages where the members become trained tourist guides.

“In a way it is good that the Maguri Motapung Beel is not so popular. What we need is informed tourism,” Agrawal said.

The women of the wetlands

Living near a wetland has its advantages, especially for women. Ulupi Gharphulia from Goton Milanpur village started fishing when she lost her husband about 10 years ago. Her fishing partner nowadays is Minoti Phukan, daughter-in-law of Gharphulia’s friend. The younger woman came to the village after getting married. Earlier, she lived in Baghjaan and worked in a tea garden, never needing to catch fish. Her husband works on a houseboat. She realised she needed to supplement her income if her children were to study in a better school.

“Every morning, Ulupi Baideo and I go out to the Beel. Small fish and prawns are what we look for. We wade through waist deep water using small nets. It takes us two hours daily,” said Phukan as she showed her catch of prawns.

The two women catch 4-6 kgs of small prawns every day, except when it is raining heavily. During all seasons, they supplement their income by selling the cloth they weave. The wetland offers an array of livelihood opportunities to women and men, but women often come off second best because they are not aware of all the options.

The Fisheries Department of the Assam government launched a scheme with the objective of developing “entrepreneurship in fisheries post-harvest activities”, “women empowerment” and “promotion of value added fish products”. But as often happens with government schemes and programmes, this seems to exist only on paper.

The lure of oil

The wetland is surrounded by another potential threat – oil. There are a number of oil wells around the wetland, from which crude is transported to the refinery in Duliajan, also in Assam. Oil India Limited continues to explore the area for more drilling sites. A few weeks ago a newspaper reported that the Divisional Forest Officer of Tinsukia Wildlife Division had asked Oil India not to proceed with a seismic survey at Baghjaan and nearby areas that are very near the Maguri Motapung Beel.

The officer had reminded the public-sector giant that the areas – Baghjaan, Barekuri, Maguri-Motapung Beel – are declared IBAs and fall under the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. “You have mentioned in paragraph four of your letter that you will use eco-friendly explosives for blasting under the earth whereas according to provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 2005, you are not allowed to use any type of explosive in such areas,” the letter said.

Oil India’s track record of going ahead with new projects without permission has made activists and locals edgy about this latest survey. Five years ago, the company had proposed to route three pipelines under the Maguri Motapung Beel. Activists say Oil India went ahead with the work without obtaining relevant permissions. According to the Assam Oil Inspection Report, available on the website of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the activists also claimed that there was no public hearing or Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for this.

Tridiv Hazarika, spokesperson for Oil India Limited, says in response, “We abide by government guidelines wherever we need to cross water bodies. It is absolutely forbidden to cross any water bodies, so we take the pipeline underground.” In this case, high end technology was used to dig tunnels without disturbing the water body above, he adds.

Speaking about the latest proposal of a seismic survey, which needs blasting with dynamite about 7-8 feet below the surface, Hazarika says it was done as part of the analysis of prospective drilling. “Oil India will keep exploring new areas. The survey is done in non-monsoon months and it takes about 2-3 months.”

When asked about public apprehension about the possibility of a pipeline leak in the future, Hazarika turned the conversation to pilferage by local people. “What about people taking away condensate? Or, the racket of puncturing our pipeline?” he asks. Then he added, “The highest technology will be used to minimise the chance of leaks.”

The Maguri Motapung Management Plan mentions oil leaks as a possible source of pollution in the wetland but does not name Oil India or any of its proposed projects. “We did get to hear a lot of objections against Oil India when our report was being prepared. But at that time, no survey was going on. Now, the district level committee is to ensure that a meeting of Oil India and the Forest Department takes place,” says Agrawal the IIRM consultant.

Errata: An earlier version of the article mentioned an “Oil India refinery”, the refinery referred to was the Digboi refinery 30 kilometres from the wetlands operated by the Indian Oil Corporation. We regret the error.

All photos and videos by Nivedita Khandekar

The story was possible due to a grant from the Earth Journalism Network