Earlier this month, the world celebrated World Wetlands Day on February 2nd 2020. It marks the anniversary of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) in Ramsar, Iran, on 2 February 1971. World Wetlands Day was first celebrated in 1997.
What are Wetlands?
Wetlands are present where water meets land. They include marshes, peatlands, rivers, lakes, floodplains, flooded forests, swamps and so on. The water in wetlands can be freshwater, brackish or saltwater. They can be tidal (filled during tides) or non-tidal.
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands was signed in Iran in 1971. It defines wetlands as ‘areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres’.
These important habitats are present everywhere from the tropics to the tundra region. Globally they cover an estimated 748 to 778 million hectares of the Earth’s Surface!
Importance of Wetlands
Apart from being the planet’s most productive habitats, wetlands are enriched with biodiversity due to their primary function of providing water, food and shelter for innumerable species of plants and animals.
They also provide a wide variety of benefits to the humans in terms of economic gain through water supply in both quantity and quality, fisheries, agriculture (Wetlands are important storehouses of plant genetic material. Rice, for example, which is a common wetland plant, is the staple diet of more than half of humanity), timber, energy resources (peat and plant matter), wildlife resources, storm protection, transport, tourism and recreation. Wetlands are also important in the fight against the current climate emergency.
Wetlands act as storehouses of carbon and other greenhouse gases. They also act as important ‘sinks’ for these gases by absorbing them through their biological functions.
Wetlands have significant cultural values as they are related to religious belief. They represent aesthetic inspiration, provide wildlife sanctuaries and are important for local traditions and customs.
Threats to Wetlands
Wetlands are the most threatened ecosystems on the planet due to overexploitation, drainage, conversion and pollution. The continuous rise of human population leads to an increased demand for agricultural land, infrastructure development, building dams, and invasion by non-native species of plants and animals.
A significant threat to wetlands in this century is climate change. Changing climatic conditions can severely degrade the quality of benefits enumerated earlier. This can also hinder the Sustainable Development Goals since many of these benefits are directly related to successfully achieving these goals.
Rising sea-levels will lead to increased flooding in particularly low-lying regions affecting coastal cities and the people living there. An input of saltwater in freshwater ecosystems will also lead to loss of livelihoods, water and biodiversity in these regions. This would have a domino effect on agriculture and other human activities that require a fresh water supply.
Conversion and degradation of wetlands releases large amount of carbon and methane into the atmosphere.
Wetlands and adaptation to Climate Change
Protecting and conserving wetlands can be an important tool in humanity’s arsenal for combatting climate change. Recent research has established the high sequestration potential (ability to absorb greenhouse gases) of wetlands. If they are not protected, these ecosystems could release a huge amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Besides helping to mitigate climate change, conserving wetlands also provide benefits to local communities through enhancing their livelihoods. Using local communities to manage and protect wetlands have returned huge dividends in the form of better quality of freshwater supply, increased seafood yields, opportunities to establish eco-tourism and recreation.