High altitude wetlands such as glacial lakes, marshes, wet grasslands, peatlands and rivers support unique ecosystems and services that sustain the livelihoods of people. They store water from rain and glacial melt, feed aquifers, trap sediments and recycle nutrients, enhancing both the quantity and quality of water.
These wetlands are important staging areas for migratory birds and breeding grounds for birds, fish and amphibians. Their ability to promote vegetation growth lessens soil erosion and buffers water flow, providing a steady flow of water downstream while reducing the severity of disasters such as landslides, floods and droughts.
High altitude wetlands face an array of threats, including the rapid melting of glaciers due to climate change, overgrazing of livestock, water diversions for agricultural and human use, and increased pollution.
There is an urgent need for the conservation of highland wetlands in the Greater Himalayan Region. Increased glacial melting is resulting in the retreat of nearly two-thirds of the Himalaya’s 1500 glaciers. With more than two billion people dependent on this glacial melt, the wise use of wetlands is critical for maintaining steady water flows and reducing the risks of floods.
Restoring mountain peatlands in China
On the Tibetan Plateau, we are working with pastoralists to restore tens of thousands of hectares of marshes in the Ruoergai peatlands. The 10,000 square kilometer plateau consists of marshes with deep peat layers and is the source of all the major rivers in East and South Asia. These wetlands were drying up due to overgrazing. The loss of grass caused erosion, desertification and a decline in the water storage capacity of the soils. This resulted in downstream flooding.
Our work blocking erosion gullies and reducing grazing has contributed to improved regulation of river flows for the Yellow and Yangtze, and a reduced risk of flooding and drought for millions of people downstream.
Rejuvenating wetlands on Wular Lake in India
Wular Lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia. Located in the Jhelum basin of Kashmir, India, the water storage capacity of this glacier-fed lake was rapidly being lost due to siltation and conversion into agricultural lands. A 20% decrease in storage capacity in the last 30 years led to increased floods and droughts.
We developed a plan to improve management practices that includes upstream restoration, soil conservation and the removal of willow plantations to increase the lake volume. Restoration will lead to better livelihoods for the 100,000 people that live along the lake margins. Millions of people that live downstream in the Kashmir valley will gain relief from future floods and benefit from enhanced access to water in times of extreme droughts.