The existential toll of climate change on wetlands – maybe we should go with the flow.


By David Salt

Every February we’re encouraged to think about wetlands as we celebrate World Wetlands Day. While society has come a long way in changing its mind about the value of wetlands – once they were smelly swamps, now they are precious, life-sustaining ecosystems – these days we’re stuck in a form of denialism about their prospects as climate change radically threatens their very existence.

The sad truth is, climate change modifies water levels, and the best protected wetland in the world ceases to be a wetland without water. Too much water, in the form of rising sea levels, will have the same outcome. If we can’t protect our wetlands in the space they exist today, do we need to make more effort to let our wetlands move with the flow?

Fifty-one years of Ramsar

Fifty-one years ago, on the 2nd of February 1971, one of the world’s most important international environmental conventions came into being with the adoption of the Convention of Wetlands. It’s important because it was the first international treaty for wetland and waterbird conservation, and one of the world’s most enduring and significant international agreements on the environment. It’s been responsible for establishing the world’s largest network of protected areas – being declared a Ramsar Wetland is akin to being listed as a World Heritage area – and the treaty has been used as a basis for other international conservation policies and national wetland laws.

The adoption ceremony for the Convention was held in the Iranian city of Ramsar, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and most people know this Convention as the Ramsar Convention. To mark the day of the treaty’s creation, the Ramsar Secretariat has promoted the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day, and it’s been run on this date every year since 1997.

The Ramsar Convention together with World Wetlands Day have transformed the way humans engage with wetlands. They’ve gone from ‘swamps’ only fit for draining and development, to critical land and water scapes that provide humans with a range of valuable ecosystem services in addition to being critical habitat for biodiversity conservation. Wetlands, in all their forms, are now recognised as precious and irreplaceable.

However, our efforts to increase awareness about the state and value of our wetlands have also revealed they are in serious trouble. The Ramsar Secretariat’s Global Wetland Outlook (newly revised this year) tells us that over a third of the planet’s wetlands have been lost since the Convention was enacted. Indeed, wetlands are our most threatened ecosystem, disappearing three times faster than forests. Land-use change is the biggest driver of degradation to inland wetlands since 1970. Agriculture, the most wide-spread form of land-use change, has damaged more than half of the Wetlands of International Importance (often referred to as Ramsar Wetlands). Climate impacts to wetlands are happening faster than anticipated. Rising sea-levels, coral bleaching and changing hydrology are all accelerating, with arctic and montane wetlands most at risk of degradation and loss.

Land locked and lost (or drowned)

And here’s an irony the Treaty’s designers probably never envisaged: The city of Ramsar, the place that gave the treaty its name, is rapidly becoming land locked as the Caspian Sea shrinks under climate change and water extraction. Its surrounding wetlands will be gone within decades.

The Caspian Sea is actually a landlocked lake with a surface that is already around 28 metres below sea level. And it’s dropping by 7 centimetres every year. As temperatures rise with global warming, evaporation will accelerate this decline. The Caspian Sea will be nine to 18 metres lower by the end of the century and lose a quarter of its size. How do you sustain a wetland that can no longer be kept wet? Researchers believe the unfurling crisis will result in an ecocide as devastating as the one in the Aral Sea, a few hundred kilometres to the east.

Falling water levels are challenging many other major landlocked lakes and seas (consider the Aral Sea and Lake Chad) but most coastal wetland systems face the opposite problem – rising sea levels associated with warming oceans, another consequence of climate change. Sea levels are currently rising by between 3-4 mm per year but this is expected to accelerate in the coming decades. This could lead to the submergence of 20–78% of worldwide coastal wetlands by 2100!

Whether water levels are rising, falling or doing major damage through extreme weather events (think of this season’s unprecedented flooding all around the world), the prospects for the planet’s precious wetlands are darkening with every year. World Wetlands Day (and the Ramsar Convention) have played a valuable role in highlighting the importance of these watery ecosystems, as well as identifying wetlands of particular significance; but as climate change bites we need to face the grim reality that changing water levels mean that many, possibly most, wetlands cannot be protected by surrounding them in strong laws, good signage and a more receptive society. The sad truth is that shifting water levels mean many wetlands cannot be protected in their current spaces.

Just as the city Ramsar heralds this grim reality, the history of the Caspian Sea upon which it lies, may hold a possible solution. The Caspian Sea has a history of rises and falls. Around 10,000 years ago the sea was about 100 metres lower. A few thousand years before that it was about 50 metres higher than today’s level. Yet people who lived beside the sea were able to move with the fluctuating sea level. Back then, no large human infrastructure was around to be destroyed, and people moved (adapted) as required. The same applied to animal and plant species. Ecosystems simply moved up and down as the sea level shifted, as they had done over the past 2 million years or so.

In today’s world, with massive city infrastructure and property rights attached to specific locations, moving with a changing water level presents enormous challenges. And yet, doing nothing (ie, not moving) is not an option either. Roughly a tenth of the world’s population and assets are based less than 10 metres above sea level. Sea level rise means land currently home to 300 million people will be vulnerable to annual flooding by 2050.

Water is the messenger

Jay Famiglietti, Executive Director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, recently observed that “Water is the messenger that delivers the bad news about climate change to your town, to your neighborhood, and to your front door.” Our first response, unfortunately, is usually to deny the message as we have so much invested in ‘sustaining’ the status quo. Economists would say we worry too much protecting ‘sunk investments’.

We’d rather reinforce and armour our shores against the rising tides, than consider moving to adapt to rising (or falling) water levels. Not only is this expensive and fails to address the underlying problem – sea level rise is predicted to accelerate, not stabilise – it makes us more vulnerable to the multiple threats being generated by climate change (eg, more intense storms and extreme rainfall).

In many ways, we’re doing the same with our wetland reserves. We’re managing them for the proximate dangers that threaten their natural values such as guarding against pollution, overexploitation and development. But, as with our cities and towns, we’re ignoring the consequences of changing water levels in a time of climate change. The places where we find wetlands today may not sustain wetlands into the future.

In some cases, wetlands have the capacity to move (migrate) with the water level as it changes. Some research is suggesting that sea levels could rise faster than a wetland’s natural migration rate. Other studies have shown their capacity to move is limited by how land is being used around existing wetlands.

The challenge of sustaining our precious wetlands in a time of climate change and changing water levels is enormous. The first step in meeting this challenge is getting beyond denial. Seas are rising. Lakes in many places are shrinking. We can see it happen, and there is a strong scientific consensus it’s only going to get worse. Given this reality, we need to extend the tool box of policy measures to conserve these vital ecosystems. It’s not enough to increase our protection of existing wetlands. We need to start planning on how we can facilitate their ability to move with changing water levels – to go with the flow.

Research is happening in many places around the world to explore what’s possible. For example, Australian scientists are developing the idea of “rolling covenants” to protect coastal ecosystems in the face of sea-level rise. These are conditions on land titles that permit productive use of land in the short term, while ensuring land use can shift over time to allow for coastal ecosystem migration in the medium to long term.

Of course, such provisions require considerable funding and a change in mindset on what is an appropriate way to use (and set aside future uses) of land. But such change is possible when society gets beyond denying what climate change means and works with the change rather than attempting to control it.

‘Making room’ for water

One of the best examples of this is the response of the Netherlands to the threat of rising sea levels and increased flood risk. The Netherlands is both flat and low lying, and has always been prone to flooding. More than half of the Netherlands is located on flood-prone land. Following two particularly horrifying floods in the 1990s, requiring the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, the Netherland’s government adopted a new paradigm in water management.

Rather than building bigger dykes and dams to control the floods, they adopted an approach called making “Room for the Rivers” in which floods were better accommodated by the landscape. Many farms were converted to wetlands (proving a boon for bird life), land around rivers was dedicated to allow for flooding, and cities and towns were adapted to cope with flood waters.

The approach cost billions of dollars, many land holders were required to give up their homes and their farm land, and the whole community needed to change the way they dealt with flooding.

The result? Dutch rivers can now absorb about 25% more water than they could in 1995, and the recent episode of historic floods that devasted parts of Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland, left the Netherlands relatively unscathed.

If the Netherlands can make room for their rivers and demonstrate the value of this approach to flood control, what would it take for the world community to ‘make room’ for our wetlands?

This World Wetland Day, we all need to consider how we can better go with the flow.

This blog originally appeared on The Global Water Forum

Banner image: Climate change is moving water levels. Moving water levels means wetlands also need to move. We need to ‘make room’ for our wetlands. (Image by David Salt)

A tale of two wetlands – what a difference a minister makes

Or is this about different approaches to political lobbying?

By Peter Burnett

This is the story of two ‘Ramsar’ wetlands, one on the west coast of Australia, and one on the east. And it’s also the tale of two large developments, one affecting each wetland.

Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, made at Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. Australia has 65 Ramsar sites and we tell the world we look after them.

Domestically, Australian Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) as ‘matters of national environmental significance’. This protects them from any developments that are likely to have a significant impact upon them, unless the environment minister approves the development, following an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

The two wetlands

The first wetland borders a part of Moreton Bay, near Brisbane in Southeast Queensland. This wetland is subject to a $1.3 billion residential and tourism development by Walker Corporation at Toondah harbour. Originally submitted to then federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg in 2015, this controversial development appears to be stalled, as a draft environmental impact statement forecast by Walker for release in ‘early 2021’ has yet to be submitted to the federal environment minister.

The other wetland is on Eighty Mile Beach between Broome and Port Hedland in Western Australia. This wetland lies near the proposed site for a large-scale wind and solar renewable energy project (known as the Asian Renewable Hub) being proposed by NW Interconnected Power Pty Ltd.

The Renewable Hub would occupy a huge area of 6,500 square kilometres in the East Pilbara and produce a staggering 26 Gigawatts from a combination of wind turbines and solar panels. This is equivalent to the output of 15 or more large coal-fired power stations.

Originally aiming to supply power by undersea cable, the now-enlarged hub project will use renewable energy to extract hydrogen from desalinised water. The hydrogen will be converted to ammonia and piped 20 km out to sea, for loading onto tankers. The project was given ‘major project’ status by the federal government in October 2020 and is said to cost around $22 billion.

Both these wetlands provide important habitat for a range of water birds and migratory birds in particular. Migratory birds are also ‘matters of national environmental significance’, being protected by the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species. This meant that the species most affected by the developments are, in theory at least, twice protected.

Two recommendations for rejection but only one accepted

In both these cases the federal environment department advised the minister that the projects should be rejected upfront as ‘clearly unacceptable’, without going through the full EIA process.

In the Toondah Harbour case, minister Josh Frydenberg rejected the advice and allowed the project to proceed to its current assessment.

But it’s not as simple as that. Using Freedom of Information, The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) discovered that the minister received two consecutive briefs on the same topic, on the same day (see the ACF Submission to the independent review of the EPBC Act April 2020, pages 28, 29). One conveyed the department’s advice that the development was clearly unacceptable — this was the advice that Frydenberg rejected.

The second brief advised that the impacts on the Ramsar wetland and migratory species were significant and, in the case of the wetland itself, difficult to mitigate and offset. Frydenberg accepted this advice and decided that because significant impacts were likely, the matter should proceed to environmental assessment.

In the Renewable Hub case, current environment minister Sussan Ley accepted the department’s advice and stopped the project from moving into full EIA, at least for the time being.

In her official statement of reasons, she accepted that the installation of a marine infrastructure corridor through the Ramsar area would disrupt tidal flows, ultimately affecting the foodwebs on which the migratory birds depend. She also found that the foodwebs would be affected by ammonia spillage, desalination brine and a chronic increase in pollutants from a new town and shipping route.

Unusually, though not unsurprisingly given the identified impacts and uniqueness of the area concerned, the Minister also found that these impacts could not be compensated for by biodiversity offsets. Overall, there would be permanent and irreversible impacts to Eighty-mile Beach and its migratory species if the project proceeded in its current form.

Why the different decisions?

Why did one minister reject the department’s advice while the other minister accepted it? The differences might be down to simple differences in ministerial values or style.

But I think the two cases show different to approaches by developers to regulation.

Walker Corporation’s approach might be described as old style politicking, involving significant political donations to both major parties and backroom influence — Walker lobbied extensively against a ‘clearly unacceptable’ decision.

Frydenberg seemed so keen to allow the project to proceed that he wrote to a Queensland (Labor) minister floating the ‘option’ of the two governments working together to amend the boundary of the Moreton Bay wetland under the ‘urgent national interest’ clause of the Ramsar Convention. Frydenberg went on to note that ‘any proposed boundary change would need to have a ‘clear benefit to the ecological character of the wetlands a whole’, something that seems to me like clutching at straws to me (and also a bad look politically).

Walker Corporation sent executives to Geneva, to discuss a boundary change with the Ramsar Convention Secretariat, a most unusual move. The move was even more strange given that a file note subsequently released under FoI disclosed that Walker Corporation told the Secretariat that it could potentially reconfigure its development, including by restricting construction to an area outside the wetlands, or by looking ‘for other suitable development areas nearby’.

This was news to the department. ‘I wonder whether that is an error of what was discussed, given that it is at odds with Walker’s discussion with us to date, and the referral (which states that there are no alternatives to the proposal)’ wrote a senior department official to colleagues.

The hub consortium on the other hand appears to be playing with a straight bat. Despite the enormous size of the project, and its significance to Australia’s future as a ‘hydrogen superpower’, as Professor Ross Garnaut has termed it, apparently the consortium was not consulted about this unusual decision.

Yet the consortium issued a flat media release accepting the minister’s decision and committing to revising their proposal. ‘We will take [the Minister’s] concerns on board as we continue to work on the detailed design and engineering aspects of the project,’ they said. ‘[We] will address fully any concerns in preparing future project referrals.’

A tale of two approaches to political lobbying?

Both of these developer reactions are unusual. The chutzpah of Walker Corporation, to the point of taking its lobbying to Geneva, presumably to convince the Ramsar Secretariat that yet another Australian foreshore development represented an ‘urgent national interest’ is breathtaking.

And the environment department’s sending two briefs to minister Frydenberg, containing either conflicting or ‘alternative’ advice, is very suspicious. At a minimum, it represents an attempt by officials to avoid disclosure under FoI of a minister’s rejection of their advice by ‘splitting’ their brief. It should be investigated by the Public Service Commission as a possible breach of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct.

On the other hand, the apparently mild (to say the least) reaction of the Asian hub consortium is also breathtaking. I would have expected the proponents of something this big to have been throwing their weight around with vim and vigour.

Perhaps these developers are cool customers playing a very long high stakes game and figuring that the best strategy is to hold the tongues and get on with the job.

Perhaps they are expressing outrage privately and we just don’t know about it. If so, there is no sign of it in a recent FoI release.

In any case, these two wetland decisions leave some significant unanswered questions, the most important of which concerns the power of lobbying. These cases provide another illustration of why the EPBC Act is badly in need of reform.

Banner image: Australia has signed international conventions committing it to protect migratory bird species and wetlands used by migratory birds. Proposals to develop on or near Ramsar listed wetlands deserve close scrutiny, and shouldn’t be allowed if they threaten these wetlands. (Image by David Salt)