World Wetlands Day & Ramsar– the good, the bad & the ugly

Happy World Wetlands Day. On the whole, our wetlands are anything but happy.

By David Salt

Last week I wrote about the value of ‘days for the environment’ in general. That story was inspired by a story I wrote for the Global Water Forum for World Wetlands Day. Well, today (Tuesday, 2 February 2021) is World Wetlands Day. Given the parlous and declining state of the world’s wetlands, is this ‘day of celebration’ a help or a hindrance in getting appropriate action to save these vital waterscapes? The Ramsar Convention, which is tightly linked to World Wetlands Day, was enacted on the 2 February 1971. Fifty years on, how is it going, and how does it measure up to the looming challenges facing us in the coming half century? The post below originally appeared on the Global Water Forum.

The 2nd of February was chosen as the date for World Wetlands Day because it marks the day that the Convention on Wetlands, also known as the Ramsar Convention, was adopted back in 1971 – so named because the adoption ceremony took place in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

So that means that in 2021 the Ramsar Convention is 50 years old, making it the oldest international treaty for wetland and waterbird conservation, and one of the world’s most enduring and significant international environmental agreements. It’s been responsible for establishing the world’s largest network of protected areas, and has been used as a basis for other international conservation policies and national wetland laws.

And with the creation of World Wetlands Day, which kicked off in 1997 and is supported by the Ramsar Secretariat, it has served as a catalyst for many education programs, citizen science projects and community activities to raise awareness and help protect wetlands. Since 1997 the Ramsar website has posted reports from over 100 countries of their World Wetlands Day activities.

There was a time when a wetland was synonymous for ‘swamp’, a patch of water-soaked land ideal for reclamation and development; a place to be avoided. World Wetlands Day has played a significant role in alerting the broader community to the many values sustained in and around wetlands, and what is lost when they are transformed; which normally meant being drained, cultivated or built on. But is this annual celebration of wetland values actually contributing to saving them? There is much to celebrate but there is also so much more we need to do to secure the future of our precious wetlands as the planet moves into an increasingly uncertain future.

So, the question is: Fifty years on from the adoption of the Ramsar Treaty, is World Wetlands Day saving wetlands or providing governments with an opportunity to window-dress conservation efforts through tokenistic listings? Of course, it’s not a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. But consider the following.

The good

The Ramsar Convention has been going for 50 years and is widely respected. One hundred and seventy countries have signed up to it. In signing up, a country agrees to conserve and wisely use all wetlands, prioritise the conservation of ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ (Ramsar Sites), and cooperate across national boundaries on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland systems and shared species (for example, migratory water birds). There are currently over 2,300 Ramsar Sites, covering almost 2,500,000 km2.

The Ramsar Convention Secretariat also produces the Global Wetland Outlook which summarises wetland extent, trends, drivers of change and the steps needed to maintain or restore their ecological character.

The first Outlook was released a couple of years ago. It reports that the accuracy of global wetland area data is increasing. Global inland and coastal wetlands cover over 12.1 million km2, an area larger than Canada, with 54% permanently inundated and 46% seasonally inundated.

And, as we get a clearer idea on their extent, we also are able to more accurately value the ecosystem services they provide. In 2019, Nick Davidson and colleagues recently updated our best estimates of the value of natural wetlands and found that the (2011) global monetary value of natural wetland ecosystem services as being a staggering $47.4 trillion per year.

In area, natural wetlands are only a small percentage of all natural biomes, around about 3%. And yet the ecosystem services they provide (for example, water purification, fish nurseries, carbon storage and storm protection) represent 43.5% of the total value of all natural biomes – small in area, big on services to humans.

Indeed, the ecosystem service of water provision is the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day. Wetlands hold and provide most of our freshwater. They naturally filter pollutants, leaving water we can safely drink. (Each year World Wetlands Day focusses on a different part of the value provided by wetlands. In recent years the themes have been biodiversity, poverty alleviation and protection from natural disasters.)

In many places around the world efforts are now going into restoring and recreating urban wetlands to improve water quality and amenity. Such restoration efforts are expensive but underline just how valuable the ecosystem services provided by wetlands can be.

The bad

So, all this is good. Most of the world has signed up to the Ramsar Convention, and we’re really beginning to document the extent and the value of our natural wetland systems with growing precision (though we are still to incorporate this information into our national decision making systems in a meaningful way; environmental accounts would be a good start).

But the growth of the human population, the development of our coastal zones and river deltas, and our disruption of the Earth system (for example climate change) are exacting a horrible toll which is being disproportionately felt by our wetlands.

The following figures come from the Global Wetland Outlook (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 2018), and are worth reflecting on. Wetlands have been in steep decline for centuries as the human population has grown and spread. Up to 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700 in places where data exist.

Unfortunately this isn’t a case of ‘we didn’t know better’ because the losses have accelerated more recently. Approximately 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970-2015 with annual rates of loss accelerating from the year 2000.

As we lose our wetlands so we also lose the biodiversity that depends on them. More than 25% of all wetland plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

And it’s not just the declining extent of wetlands that’s the problem. It’s also about the degradation of the wetlands that remain. According to the UN, more than 80% of waste water is released into wetlands without adequate treatment. In catchments that feed these wetlands, fertilizer use in 2018 was estimated to be 25% higher than in 2008, exacerbating nutrification and levels of decomposition resulting in declining water quality with impacts for flora and fauna alike.

And the ugly

Our wetlands are important. They provide a range of ecosystem services that are extremely valuable to humans. Indeed, many scientists believe wetlands are critical to our very survival and central to our quest for sustainability. Wetlands contribute to 75 indicators contained in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Despite this, wetlands remain dangerously undervalued by policy and decision-makers in national plans. How can this be? Given the pivotal role wetlands play in delivering global commitments on climate change, sustainable development, biodiversity and disaster risk reduction, how is it they are given such low priority?

And if that wasn’t ugly enough, the spectre of climate change hangs over our (inadequate) efforts to save these vital ecosystems. Climate change promises to reconfigure our coasts and drown many of our low lying coastal systems, while drying out many of our inland wetlands through higher temperatures and changed precipitation. Then there’s the impact from the growing frequency of extreme events such as intense heatwaves and severe storms.

In my country, Australia, we have witnessed mass destruction of seagrass meadows and mass dieback of our extensive mangroves in recent years from elevated temperatures; and this is but a foretaste of what is to come.

Rising sea levels are even now visibly transforming the floodplains in and around Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, the jewel in the crown of my country’s National Reserve System. Kakadu is one of the best managed and resourced national parks in Australia and the world. It’s a World Heritage site and contains two Ramsar Sites. But good management on site and world recognition is not saving it from climate change and rising sea levels.

Talk less, do more

To underline the existential threat facing so many of the world’s remaining wetlands, consider the situation of the town of Ramsar, the place where the Wetlands Convention was adopted half a century ago and which now carries its name. The level of the Caspian Sea, on whose shore Ramsar sits, is dropping 7 cm every year due to evaporation, a trend expected to increase as temperatures rise with climate change. As the sea recedes, the town is becoming landlocked and the surrounding wetlands will be gone within decades. What does that say about the dire outlook for these vitally important waterscapes that wetlands around Ramsar itself will simply disappear in the coming years.

It’s steadily shrinking size combined with pollution and invasive species has many researchers believing the Caspian is headed for ecocide on a massive scale, with nature and people paying the cost. What stronger signal could there be that the Ramsar Convention in and of itself is not enough to protect our wetlands?

And what about World Wetlands Day, a celebration on the day the Ramsar Convention came to life? I’m not saying it doesn’t generate great activity and build valuable awareness. But since it’s running in 1997 we have only seen an acceleration in the loss and degradation of our wetlands. It’s hard to argue the convention is turning the situation around.

Governments around the world happily host World Wetlands Day events and put out glossy brochures describing how wonderful their wetlands are (consider this from the Australian Government). These same governments are signatories to the Ramsar Convention (and the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity) yet they are never held to account when they fail to live up to the commitments they have made to ensure that our precious wetlands are being protected for current and future generations.

The 2nd of February should be a day of celebration of wetlands. However, fifty years on from the adoption of the Ramsar Convention, it should also be a ‘call to arms’ that so much more needs to be done to protect these precious ecosystems.

As the Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (Rojas Urrego) says: “Without the world’s wetlands, we all hang in the balance.”

Banner image: The famous mangrove boardwalk in Cairns (Queensland, Australia). World Wetlands Day celebrates the many values of our precious wetlands. Unfortunately, wetlands are being lost and degraded at an accelerating rate. (Image by David Salt)

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