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by Dr. Rahanna Juman, Director (Ag.)

The COVID 19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the way humans think about health and the environment.  There is an increasing recognition of the importance of nature for health, including mental well-being. Ecosystem degradation, including that of wetlands, and the careless wildlife trade both increase the risks of devastating pandemics, with up to three quarters of new diseases being zoonotic in origin- passing from animals to humans (Convention on Wetland, 2021).  Water-borne diseases like infant diarrhoea, carried in insanitary water, are also increased by poor wetland management and kill millions of people every year according to several scientific reports.  This makes strategic wetland conservation an important prevention strategy (Wu et al. 2020).

According to the Global Wetland Outlook: Special Edition 2021 which was prepared on the occasion of the Convention’s 50th anniversary, people’s health and livelihoods depend on well-managed wetlands (Convention on Wetland, 2021).  Wetlands have always provided services to humanity, yet recognition of the scale of these benefits and the consequences of their loss is quite recent. Critical wetland ecosystem services include: carbon sequestration and storage, particularly in peatlands and marine ecosystems; ensuring safe and reliable supplies of drinking and irrigation water; the provision of goods and services connected with food security; and management against water-related disasters such as droughts and floods.

Despite their benefits, wetlands remain the world’s most threatened ecosystem. With 35% of global wetland area lost since 1970, they are disappearing three times faster than forests, leaving more than a quarter of wetland species threatened with extinction. Unsustainable use and inappropriate management of wetlands not only results in loss of ecosystem services but can bring direct risks including disease. Control of emergent zoonotic diseases is increasingly seen as dependent on maintenance of well-managed, intact ecosystems and native biodiversity. 

International processes, notably the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) have increased our understanding of wetland ecosystem services, and their role in wise use pathways, actions that promote sustainable use. Both ‘nature-based solutions’ and ecosystem approaches in wetlands and their catchments are of fundamental importance, bringing ecosystem services, climate stabilisation and health benefits to all.  According to a 2019 IPBES report, wetlands remain our most valuable ecosystem, contributing unrivalled services for climate mitigation, adaptation and biodiversity and human health worth more than US $47.4 trillion a year.

Climate change is occurring faster than previously anticipated, with thresholds crossed and major changes inevitable. Wetlands are particularly impacted by sea-level rise, coral bleaching and changing hydrology. Changing weather increases risks of flooding and drought in many places. Wetlands need to be part of delivering climate solutions. Recognition of the scale of benefits, and costs of their loss, is only now understood. Undisturbed peatlands and coastal blue carbon ecosystems (salt marshes, mangroves, seagrass beds) are powerful carbon sinks, but can be significant sources of greenhouse gases if degraded. Wetland actions need to increasingly be included in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), as well as in national adaptation and disaster risk reduction plans (Convention on Wetland, 2021).

Impacts of agriculture on wetlands are becoming more apparent: Agriculture is a key driver of wetland degradation, but the future of sustainable food production is dependent on healthy wetlands and wise use. Over half of Wetlands of International Importance are damaged by agriculture. Transformation of agricultural practices is urgently needed to reverse these trends. Enhanced integration and co-ordination are needed across the agriculture, urban development and wetland management sectors. Major changes are needed to reduce water use and pollution and to stop wetland conversion. Urban planning that incorporates wetlands delivers better health and well-being for city residents.

Wetland deterioration is widespread, but more wetlands are being reported as in ‘good’ rather than ‘bad’ ecological character as countries implement strategic wetland conservation plan. Although biodiversity losses are continuing to rise, but are also better understood than previously. At the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA), we continue to conduct research and monitoring of wetlands so as to provide the scientific data required to effectively manage and restore these essential ecosystems so they can continue to provide ecosystem services for all citizens, and provide livelihood opportunities for many in our society.   So as the world celebrates World Wetlands Day 2022, let us be reminded to value, manage, restore and love our wetlands.