Wetlands provide a wide range of essential, life-supporting services and products to communities and businesses in countries the world over. Despite national governments having signed numerous multilateral environmental agreements, wetlands loss continues unabated and threats intensify amid population growth, coastal property development and land use change.
A host of international organizations are looking to change the economic calculus driving ongoing wetlands loss. Marking the Ramsar Convention’s World Wetlands Day 2013 on February 1, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Wetlands International, and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research with the support of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and the Geneva Environment Network released an environmental policy paper that “urges a major shift in our attitudes to wetlands, to recognize their value in delivering water, raw materials and food, essential for life, and crucial for maintaining people’s livelihoods and the sustainability of the world’s economies.”
Valuing water and wetlands
Provision of clean drinking water, storm protection, flood regulation, waste filtration and facilitating irrigation for agriculture, as well as providing habitat for a tremendous diversity of fish, avian and aquatic life are among the increasingly critical ecosystem services wetlands provide. Nonetheless, it’s estimated that 50 percent of the world’s wetlands were lost over the course of the 20th century “due to factors such as intensive agricultural production, water extraction for domestic and industrial use, urbanization, infrastructure and industrial development and pollution,” according to The Economics of Ecosystem and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Water and Wetlands report.
“Everyone in the world depends on water for our life, livelihoods and business, and coastal and inland wetlands are the natural infrastructure that manage and provide our water for us,” Deputy Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention Nick Davidson stated. “This report confirms just how hugely valuable our remaining wetlands are to all of us, yet we continue to damage and destroy them at our increasing peril.”
“The TEEB report makes it clear that investing in the natural infrastructure of wetlands is a vital part of the future development agenda for water. Solutions for water security work best when we combine sustainable human ingenuity with the services provided by healthy ecosystems,” added Mark Smith, Director IUCN Global Water Programme.
Moreover, it’s the world’s poorest, and those who rely directly on harvesting or extracting natural resources, that bear the brunt of water and wetlands loss, the organizations’ leaders note. “It is poor people who suffer the most when biodiversity is lost, because their survival depends on the wealth of nature,” TEEB Study Leader and UNEP Goodwill Ambassador Pavan Sukhdev, currently Chair of the TEEB Advisory Board, stated.
“When we destroy wetlands, we disrupt nature’s water cycle and its ability to provide water for households and farms, so inadvertently we add to the suffering of the poor. This report reinforces the message that restoration and protection of wetlands is vital to address today’s most pressing challenges of water and food security, climate change, and poverty. ‘TEEB Water and Wetlands’ calls on development policymakers to recognize these ecosystem values and put in place policy responses that promote the conservation and restoration of wetlands.”
Including mangrove forests, swamps, marshes, bogs and other riparian and lake ecosystems, greater recognition, demonstration and capture of the value of ecosystem services water and wetlands provide offers policy makers “insights on critical water-related ecosystem services in order to encourage additional policy momentum, business commitment, and investment in the conservation, restoration, and wise use of wetlands,” the group of organizations explain in a press release.
One concrete example offered in the TEEB Water and Wetlands report comes from Tunisia, where improved water management practices have led to restoration of Lake Ichkeul, the benefits of which have included a doubling in tourist numbers since 2005.
“The promotion of the lake as a tourist destination helped raise awareness of the value of the lake ecosystems and the importance of the wise use of wetlands,” the report authors relate. “It also generated new sources of income for the Park management and conservation and allowed establishment of basic training and credit schemes to increase the involvement of local communities in tourism activities.”