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“Peek – A - Boo” game of the guests who never left

By Sushmita Krishnan

Weed clearing works under progress on the Kodoor River in Kottayam, India. | Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO

World Wetland Day 2024 dawns with a spotlight on the intricate interplay between wetlands and human well-being, echoing the theme aptly chosen for this year's commemoration. The theme of Wetlands Day 2024, "Wetland and human well-being" underscores the undeniable linkages between the health of these ecosystems and the prosperity of communities worldwide. 

Wetlands serve as natural buffers against the impacts of climate change, providing flood control, water purification, and supporting a rich biodiversity that sustains fisheries and agriculture. However, the delicate balance that nurtures this coexistence is under threat, and the pervasive issue of invasive species emerges as a pressing concern.

In nature too, some guests arrive with breathtaking allure but carry a nuanced agenda. Alien invasive species, often introduced as ornamental plants, emerge as the captivating protagonists and challenges of our ecosystems. Their mesmerizing appearance beckons us into their realm, offering both ecological complexities and opportunities for mindful coexistence. Join us in unraveling the peek-a-boo game played by these enigmatic invaders.

The Charismatic Duality of Beautiful Invaders

Irrespective of the landscape, nature accommodates, or is compelled to accommodate, new and charismatic guests – akin to the water hyacinth engaging in a playful game of intrigue. As the adage goes, "All that sparkles is not gold"; not every beautiful element in nature aligns seamlessly with the native ecosystem. However, the toll of such introductions often leads to a decline in native biodiversity, as these guests lack natural enemies to check their advance.

These guests, resembling lingering house guests (not all of them), play a beguiling game. They exude an inviting and lively exterior, all while suppressing the natural inhabitants of the ecosystem.

The Water Hyacinth's Deceptive Elegance and Global Implications

Consider the water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipses), with its violet-hued flowers adorning water bodies, especially the wetlands – an elegant spectacle that effortlessly captivates. Yet, this is merely the surface of the game they play. Beneath the water's surface lies depleting aquatic biodiversity and reduced oxygen levels for organisms to flourish. The water hyacinth, seemingly a graceful visitor, is, in reality, exacting a substantial toll on the ecosystem.

Much like the lingering guests who never left our homes, the water hyacinth plays a peek-a-boo game with nature. Its outer beauty conceals the ecological havoc it wreaks beneath the surface. Its unchecked growth obstructs sunlight, depletes oxygen levels, and creates a hostile environment for native aquatic species. The consequences are severe, impacting the delicate equilibrium of aquatic ecosystems and impeding the growth of native flora.

One of the most alarming repercussions of the water hyacinth invasion is its detrimental effect on fishing communities. As this alien intruder proliferates, it obstructs waterways, making it nearly impossible for fishermen to navigate. In the Vennambad lake in Kerala, India it has become nearly impossible for the fishing community to go for their daily catch as the water hyacinth is damaging their motors.

This reminds us of a saying – “bandits fighting one another forgo their animosity when fighting against a common enemy”. In this context, the phenomenon is termed "invasional meltdown," where one invasive species facilitates the invasion of another into a new environment, resulting in heightened damage to native species and ecosystems. The once-thriving water bodies turn into stagnant, impenetrable expanses, endangering the livelihood of those dependent on fishing.

Innovative Solutions, Nature-Based Triumphs, and Livelihood Generation

However, in the face of adversity, innovative solutions emerge. Enterprising women have found a way to repurpose this invasive weed, turning a problem into an opportunity. By harnessing the resilience of the water hyacinth, these women craft bags, mats, and various other items, showcasing the power of human creativity in the battle against ecological adversaries.

Women making craft using water hyacinth stem Photo credit: Soman

Moreover, the craftswomen are not just turning a profit; they are contributing to environmental sustainability. By utilizing water hyacinth as a raw material, they indirectly contribute to the control of its rampant spread, transforming a potential menace into a valuable resource.

In addition to these handcrafted wonders, women in Deepor Boel,  Assam, India are venturing into the realm of handmade paper production, utilizing the pulp of water hyacinth. In 2021, KumbhiKagaz, an organization making paper products from invasive weed water hyacinth, based in Deeper Boel, achieved a breakthrough by formulating a process that incorporates 90% water hyacinth pulp and 10% recycled paper, effectively addressing 23% of the waste amassed in landfills. With this innovative approach, each kilogram of water hyacinth yields 18 sheets of paper, equivalent to 72 sheets of A4 size paper. In terms of water consumption, the traditional manufacturing of one A4 size 75 GSM sheet using tree pulp requires 15 to 20 liters of water. In stark contrast, producing the same A4 size sheet with water hyacinth consumes merely 1.5 liters of water, marking a remarkable 90% reduction compared to conventional paper production. This not only adds an eco-friendly dimension to the products but also serves as a sustainable alternative to traditional paper-making methods championed by the women in the community of Deepor Boel.

In conclusion, while the water hyacinth may pose challenges to wetland ecosystems and the communities that depend on them, the resourcefulness of local women offers a beacon of hope. By transforming an invasive weed into a valuable resource, these women exemplify the spirit of resilience and innovation needed to foster harmony between human activities and the delicate balance of wetland ecosystems. As we commemorate World Wetland Day 2024, let us celebrate not only the importance of wetlands but also the inspiring stories of individuals turning challenges into triumphs for the well-being of both nature and humanity.

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