World Wetlands Day 2019: the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands remains important

Written by Anne van Dam, on 31 January 2019

The Netherlands is a country built on water and wetlands. What is the traditional Dutch way of dealing with wetlands? Drain them and turn them into polders, which increases flood risk and threatens biodiversity. Nowadays, we try to undo old wrongs by restoring wetlands, but the old-fashioned attitude is still widespread, here and  in other parts of the world. Because we are now much more aware of their valuable benefits, it is becoming even more important to protect them. The Ramsar Convention plays an important international role in wetlands conservation and sustainable management.

Wetlands: important for nature and for people

Internationally, wetlands are defined as all areas that are permanently or intermittently inundated with a depth of water of maximum six metres. These include inland water, such as peat areas, wet grasslands, shallow lakes, marshes and swamps, streams and rivers; but also coastal areas such as mudflats, seagrass areas, mangroves, and coral reefs; and human-made wetlands such as rice paddies, salt pans and aquaculture ponds.

Wetlands used to be seen as wastelands and sources of disease that did not produce anything useful and were best "reclaimed": drained and used for agriculture or other forms of development. With its many polders, The Netherlands is a prime example of this philosophy. Nowadays there is more awareness of the dependence of human well-being on what healthy natural ecosystems and biodiversity produce: food, clean water, oxygen, building materials but also recreation, inspiration and a feeling of identity.

The benefits we obtain from natural ecosystems are called ecosystem services. This is not just a theoretical concept: most of the water flowing from our taps and showers here in the Netherlands comes from rivers or dunes. The better the quality of these natural systems, the lower our efforts and costs to produce drinking water. Other examples are the restoration of river floodplains which creates more room for the river so that we can avoid dike breaches and floods. This doesn’t just happen in the Netherlands. The destruction of mangroves eliminated protection from the tsunami in southeast Asia in 2004, resulting in less damage in areas where mangroves were still intact. Wetlands also produce food: fish from traditional inland fisheries in developing countries, for example, represent an important source of high quality food for the communities with the lowest incomes. Wetlands also help to adapt to climate change in many ways, but particularly important is storing excess water during periods of peak rainfall.

Compared to other types of ecosystems, wetlands contribute a disproportionally large part to these benefits. The total economic value of ecosystem services of wetlands is estimated to be about half of the total value of nature in the world. This means that the protection of wetlands is crucial for everyone, and not just for waterbird enthusiasts or nature lovers.

Despite their importance and their economic value, wetlands area in the world keeps shrinking, according to the recently published Global Wetland Outlook 2018. Since 1970, about 35 percent of the natural wet areas, such as marshes, lakes and shallow coastal wetlands have disappeared. Right now, wetlands cover only about 3 percent of the Earth's surface, or some 14 million km2. This represents a huge loss, and wetlands in fact are disappearing three times faster than forests. For biodiversity and water quality, the story is not much better. Since 1970, 81% of the freshwater species and 36% of the marine species have been affected by the decline of wetlands. In 2050, one third of the world population is expected to struggle with excessive concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in rivers, lakes and other wetlands.

The Ramsar Convention: from waterbirds to sustainable development

The Ramsar Convention is an international treaty signed by 170 countries to protect wetlands.  It is named after the city in Iran where it was signed, and it began with 18 only countries in 1971. The last country to join was North  Korea in 2018, making it one of the largest international agreements, after the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 196 countries) and the UN Climate agreement (UNFCCC, 197 countries). These 170 countries together designated over 2,300 Ramsar wetlands that they promise to protect and manage in a sustainable way. Together these sites cover about 2.5 million km2 of wetlands. The signatory countries promise to make inventories of their Ramsar sites and to develop management plans. These management plans include the sustainable use of the many other functions of wetlands, such as food production, water storage, and recreation. Recently, the Ramsar Secretariat published a briefing note showing that wetlands contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in multiple ways.

A well-known example of successful wetland management is Lake Chilika, the first Ramsar-site in India. Through measures such as active restoration of the connection to the sea, development of ecotourism, fishery reform and participation of the local population the wetland is now managed in a sustainable way. These efforts have led to visible improvements in the environment, most notably an increase in the number of rare Irrawaddy dolphins, from only 89 individuals in 2003 to 158 in 2014.

Is the Ramsar Convention effective?

Looking at the continuing loss and degradation of wetlands in the world, one could argue that the Ramsar Convention has not been very effective. Should the Convention be more decisive? Isn't there too much overlap with other conventions? One challenge is that the responsibility for implementing the convention’s resolutions lies with the individual countries. The resolutions are binding, but there is no mechanism to enforce them. The Convention is supported by a small secretariat in Switzerland which helps countries implement sustainable management plans for the Ramsar listed wetlands. This is sometimes difficult, as not all countries report their progress in implementing the convention adequately or on time, and many governments do not allocate enough budget, do not develop wetland management plans or do not implement these plans. In some countries, the responsible government agencies lack the necessary knowledge and expertise or the financial resources. Sometimes extreme conditions such as disasters or war interrupt years of hard work. To address wetland loss, there should be more attention paid to  the underlying causes, but this can raise questions about the effectiveness and integrity of governance in individual countries, sensitive issues that are often avoided. This can lead to scepticism about yet another country signing the convention, or yet another Ramsar site that is designated. It raises doubt about the relevance of the convention.

The biggest challenge in achieving better policies and management for wetlands is not formulating the policies and management plans themselves. Uganda, for example, was one of the first countries in Africa to develop policies and legislation for sustainable wetland management. But the small department that is responsible for enforcing the rules competes with powerful opponents in other sectors of government and in the private sector. Wetland departments typically face a lack of awareness about the importance of wetlands and sometimes struggle with resistance or even corruption. Even in countries where the protection of water and biodiversity seemed securely anchored in federal legislation, things can change. In the United States, scientists are now involved in lawsuits to prevent the government from lifting restrictions on development and exploitation of protected areas.

Despite some of these doubts, research shows that countries that take the international agreements seriously, show better performance in wetland protection. Perhaps the effects are not immediately visible, but good governance pays off. An article in Nature showed that the waterbird populations improved in countries with more effective governance and protected areas. An international agreement like the Ramsar Convention is important for supporting environmental policy development and stimulates countries to do better in this respect. Ramsar is also a good international forum for compiling and sharing knowledge about sustainable wetland management. In the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel (STRP), independent experts and non-governmental organisations such as Wetlands International and the World-wide Fund for Nature (WWF) play an important role. Thus, even though progress is sometimes slow and at times it may feel like "muddling along", an international agreement that keeps countries on task remains important and relevant, for the benefit of wetlands and people.

About the author

Anne van Dam is Associate Professor in the Aquatic Ecosystems Group of IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. He represents IHE Delft as an observer at the Ramsar STRP and was a contributing author of the Global Wetland Outlook published in 2018. As part of a collaboration between IHE, the Ramsar Secretariat and Charles Sturt University, Prof. Max Finlayson was appointed in the “Ramsar Chair for the Wise Use of Wetlands” at IHE Delft in 2013. Under the auspices of the chair, several research and capacity development activities have been initiated, including contributions to "The Wetland Book" published by Springer in 2018. Another recent publication by the Aquatic Ecosystems Group includes work on a  global model for wetland ecosystem services.

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