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World Wetlands Day 2017

Dealing with natural disasters

Let’s remember wetlands as a strategy to protect ecosystems, populations & local economies

Most may know and appreciate wetlands as beautiful spots for bird watching, nature photography, duck feeding or walking and boating. Wetlands’ role in ‘ecosystem services’ and benefits to nature and rural communities in low and middle-income countries is also well known. They also play a vital role in guarding against natural disasters. Well-managed wetlands can protect countries, populations and local economies from unpredictable weather patterns and extreme climate events. Raising awareness of the value that these natural ecosystems play in protecting against natural disasters is the theme of World Wetlands Day 2017 (Box 1).

The increased frequency and severity of extreme climate events in recent years has become a serious cause for concern, adversely affecting the economies of a number of high and low-income countries. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) lists 7056 disasters worldwide between 1996 and 2015. These have resulted in the death of more than 1 million people, of which 90 %, are from low and middle-income countries. More than half of these causalities are caused by tsunamis and earthquakes and similar events, including droughts, floods, storms, landslides, wildfires and other extreme weather events. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) envisages more extreme events in the future and UN Water clearly highlights the water (including inland and coastal wetlands) connection with more than 90% of all natural threats and risks that humanity faces.

In 2015 alone some 371 disaster events were recorded, that were triggered by meteorological and geophysical hazards. This resulted in $70 billion of damage, affecting nearly 100 million people. Of these, 50 million are affected by droughts and another 30 million-by floods, more than 20,000 people were killed (World Disaster Report, 2016). The plant’s most vulnerable wetland ecosystems are in China, India, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, Iran and Venezuela. When degraded, wetland ecosystems lose their regulatory function, causing an increase in the impact of disasters. The 2004 Asian Tsunami presented clear evidence of how mangroves protected coastlines from devastation, and showed that areas where mangroves had been removed suffered severe damage – to the coastal area and its inhabitants. It is estimated that the global degradation of wetlands amounts to a loss of some $20 trillion in ecosystem services annually (Costanza et al 2014).

Box 1
About Ramsar & World Wetlands Day

World Wetlands Day (2 February) is organized by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands as a moment to reflect on the importance of the social ecological diversity of wetland ecosystems for our planet. The day marks the adoption of the Convention, and international treaty signed in 1971 – in Ramsar, Iran. This intergovernmental treaty provides guidelines for international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetland and their ecological service for more than 40 years. Since, its creation, each year the convention promotes the wealth of ecological benefits and services that wetlands ecosystems bring to the world – including wetlands and health; wetland and jobs; wetlands and livelihoods…

World Wetlands Day 2017 highlights the benefits wetlands offer as a natural safeguard against disasters. This is a good moment to focus attention on the critical importance of promoting wise use and sustainable development of wetlands as natural disaster protection – for ecosystems and populations – against floods, storms, land degradation, tsunami and related incidents. Generally, there is a need to integrate responsible management of wetlands in national strategies for environmental protection and sustainable development.

Wetlands are natural storm water conveyance systems and mechanisms to implement green infrastructure solutions that address the hazards and extreme climate situation such as flooding, coastal storms, and extreme temperatures and an alternative for sole reliance on ‘grey’ or engineered solutions. The Soil Science Society or America provides economic estimates to support this narrative, giving the example of Portland where reduction in storm water flow by installing green infrastructure has saved taxpayers more than $300 million; while maintenance of grey infrastructure is estimated at $1.4 billion.

The evidence and practical examples of wetlands benefits are clear (Box 2). But more effort and investment are needed to get this thinking and the research evidence on wetlands ecosystems into policy action on a large scale. More experience sharing is needed to illustrate how wetlands minimize risks and save lives during disasters.

We also need to maintain and restore wetlands in vulnerable zones so that when the disaster strikes, this ‘green infrastructure’ is in healthy condition. The profile and importance of wetlands’ contribution to stable and healthy ecosystems are being promoted in many restoration efforts worldwide. National awareness campaigns and activities in countries highlight the importance of wetlands ecosystems. The primary focus seems to be on ecosystem services and preserving biodiversity, but some experts highlight the connection between well-managed wetlands and natural disaster mitigation.

Faced with the challenge of disasters, the global research community plays an important role in generating and presenting science-based evidence that makes the case for increased attention and investment in sustainable development – in this case the significant benefits that well-preserved wetlands bring to our society. Through their knowledge products, advocacy and public outreach actions, researchers, think tanks, environmental conventions and UN agencies need to continually highlight the importance of wetlands to addressing climate change adaptation. And to provide new evidence that investigates how safeguarding biodiversity and wetlands make a real difference in tackling water-related risks and being prepared for extreme climate events.

Nidhi Nagabhatla and Vladimir Smakhtin

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) is a strong and vibrant intergovernmental mechanism for wetland protection globally. It unites 169 countries, protects over 2200 wetlands of international importance (Ramsar Sites) with a total area of 215 M hectare- which is equivalent to the size of Mexico. But this is only a policy mechanism, and it needs much more support for action on the ground. Beyond science and policy debates, protecting wetlands and understanding their role in Disaster Risk Reduction and other economic benefits is of importance to all citizens of the planet.

Dr Ania Grobicki
Deputy Secretary of the Ramsar Convention,
International Advisory Committee- UNU-INWEH

Box 2
World Wetlands Day 2017
celebrations are profiling useful examples of innovation and action in all regions of the world.
• Thames River Wetlands Beachville Restoration (UK), in receipt of a foundation fund to restore wetlands to prevent downstream flooding.
• Community level organizations in the southern province of India are calling for a collective effort to safeguard wetlands by training youth groups on the understanding around wetlands for disaster risk management.
• Cuba with support of Global Environment Facility (GEF) is planning the conservation of mangrove ecosystems and is promoting their role as coastal shields to extreme climate events.
• Farhad Dabiri, Iran’s Department of Environment is revisiting issues of water allocation to different sectors to help revive wetlands. Here the goals is to ensure sustainable environmental flows and position these ecosystems as part of a mitigation strategy for projected disaster events linked to the country’s dwindling water resources, that is informed by recent studies on severe and extreme drought prediction (Khazanedari et al 2009).
• Sri Lanka is harnessing local media for Wetlands Day to spark reflection, and hopefully debate, on illegal filling of the Muthurajawela wetland near Colombo. This area has been subjected to frequent occurrences of urban flooding, with a recurring impact on the economy, mainly food prices.
• In Zimbabwe, wetlands advocates are addressing how to deal with extreme climate variability and the resulting persistent heavy rains that occurred in December 2016, that, after two previous seasons of drought, have caused widespread floods and waterlogging. Taking this as a wake-up call, these policy makers are studying wetlands currently under threat from expanding housing projects and assessing what are the best approaches to wisely manage what remains of the nearby wetlands.
• In China and Hong Kong, environmental groups are evaluating government proposals to develop the wetland area in China and Hong Kong, environmental groups are evaluating government proposals to develop the wetland area in the Shenzhen River as a strategy to better manage potential ‘ecological disaster’