What exactly are wetlands? Many people consider them to be mosquito infested swamps or marshes which ought to be drained for the land. However, amongst conservation circles wetlands are considered to be precious areas where water and the land meet and they are often rich with biological life. In Pakistan, these wetlands are home to migratory birds. Many endangered species like the white headed duck, the marbled teal and the ferruginous duck can be found in our lakes.

I remember my first ever visit to a wetland located in Dera Ghazi Khan, called the Rangla Wetlands Complex. I had never been bird watching before -- it`s not exactly at the top of my list of favourite past times! Yet on a clear but chilly winter morning, I found myself being awoken at the crack of dawn to look for the marbled teal and ferruginous duck in Rangla. I was assured that the early morning light is the best in which to view the birds and so we departed for the Thal Desert (located around two hours drive from Dera Ghazi Khan city) at 5 am.

By the time we arrived in the Thal Desert, the sun was up and it was a bright, clear day. As we made our way towards the bigger lakes on a dirt track, we could hear the calls of a partridge, and as we neared the lakes, the air was full of the sounds of songbirds. We even spotted an eagle or two. Clearly, Rangla is a bird-watcher`s paradise.

Rangla is also the sole breeding site of the marbled teal and the ferruginous duck (both endangered species) in the Punjab. It was difficult to spot either of the two out on the open lakes as they prefer the more inaccessible reed-covered lakes where they can safely lay their eggs. We camped out in the sand dunes overlooking one of the lakes, and spent a good two hours peering through high-powered binoculars, spotting coots, egrets and cormorants -- but no marbled teals or ferruginous ducks. Their numbers have declined in recent years due to unscrupulous hunting by shikaris from large towns and cities who descend on these lakes for winter shoots.

Rangla, of course, is a part of Pakistan`s internationally famous wetlands (the Indus flyway is an important migratory route for birds from afar as Siberia). Many of these wetlands are now being conserved by a multi-million dollar project which is being implemented by the UNDP through the government of Pakistan. Called the Pakistan Wetlands Project, this major initiative is backed by a grant from the Global Environment Facility, which promotes and partially funds international efforts to conserve biological diversity. Other sources of financial support come from the UNDP, WWF-Pakistan and several other agencies. A total of about 12 million US dollars are being invested over a period of seven years. The government has appointed WWF-Pakistan to supervise all the technical work. I will be working with them in the next month as I travel to many of these wetlands to write a report.

According to Richard Garstang, the National Project Manager and chief technical advisor of the Pakistan Wetlands Project, “This is a grant, not a loan, so it doesn`t have to be repaid.” The South African born Richard has been living in Lahore, Pakistan since 1996 when he started work at WWF-Pakistan as a conservation advisor. He is now married to a Pakistani and is committed to living in this country for the foreseeable future.

Richard explains that half the grant is being spent on creating an enabling environment for the project. “We need to streamline laws and procedures, increase the capacity of government, come up with detailed management strategies, influence public opinion and generally convince people that saving the wetlands is a worthwhile thing to do. The average person does not even know what a wetland is,” he adds.

The rest of the grant is being spent on four demonstration sites which are typical of the whole region. The projects being implemented in these sites have a high degree of replicability. “We selected the western Makran Coast from the Basol River to Jiwani, the central Indus Basin between Taunsa and Sukkur Barrages, the Salt Range lakes which include all the major lakes from Kallar Kahar to Kalabagh and the north west Alpine lakes that include the high altitude wetlands of NWFP,” says Richard. The project thus spreads from the coastline to the high mountains, covering different eco-systems.

Pakistan`s fresh and salt water wetlands that support a broad range of natural life including human beings, their crops and livestock, are degrading under a range of threats from siltation to heavy metal pollution. These wetlands also attract many hunters each year who are decimating the migratory bird populations. Restoring these water bodies to a natural state and ensuring that the use of wetlands resources becomes sustainable is an essential step for the long-term survival of both wildlife and rural communities in a water stressed country like Pakistan.