Straight to content

A world without wetlands is a world without freshwater

Published on:
  • Rivers and lakes
  • Wetland values, status and trends

Thirty years ago, the Hadejia-Nguru wetland, a large oasis on the edge of the Sahara in northern Nigeria, was home to two million fishers, cattle grazers and farmers.  Then the government dammed the two rivers that fed its complex network of lakes, reed beds, natural channels and wet pastures to supply distant irrigation projects.   

With 80 percent of its water inflow gone, the wetland has since largely dried out.  Camels walk where fishers once threw their nets; fields are abandoned; wells are empty; trees are desiccated skeletons.  

The Hadejia-Nguru wetland was once part of a wider wet region around Lake Chad, then Africa’s fourth largest lake, straddling the borders between Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.  Dams on rivers in several countries mean it has had virtually no water for many years.  More than 90 percent of the lake is gone. What remains is largely covered in weeds. 

While climate change plays a role here it is only part of the reason. The lake and its wetlands are dying because river flows have been captured and diverted.  

As the desert invades, conflicts between herders and farmers for what little water remains have intensified across the region, local economies have been decimated, poverty and destitution have increased, more than two million people have left, and terror holds sway among those that remain.  Perhaps nowhere on Earth is the link between wetlands, livelihoods and peace shown so starkly, nor the consequences of breaking the link so brutal.   

Across Africa, lakes, rivers, floodplains, inland deltas and other wetlands still play a crucial role in ensuring food security.  But many have been sacrificed.   

It need not be like this.  Wetlands International has been trying to defend the continent’s surviving wetland wealth, for the benefit of their inhabitants as well as nature.   

In the Inner Niger Delta of Mali, we have worked for years to reconcile the needs of two million fishers, nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers, and to warn governments against the dangers to these livelihoods from planned hydroelectric dams upstream.  And in the Central Rift Valley of Ethiopia — where greenhouses are sending more than a billion cut roses to Europe each year and emptying lakes, wrecking fisheries and drying up fields – we are helping to democratize water use and policymaking. 

But schemes that grab water and diminish wetlands continue to be built, turning watery places that provide safe and productive refuges in times of drought or conflict into sources of conflict and outmigration.  

In 2022, the Tanzanian government was completing a giant dam on the River Rufiji that would deprive the river’s delta of the silt and seasonal floodwaters that sustain backwaters containing East Africa’s largest stand of mangroves, the main source of sustenance for the delta’s village communities.  

Meanwhile, the government of South Sudan sought to revive a half-completed scheme to divert the River Nile away from the Sudd, Africa’s second largest wetland.  The bypass could, it claimed, provide irrigation water at home and deliver water downstream to Egypt, the would-be paymaster of the project.  An upsurge of anger from environmentalists and representatives of the many tribal communities who live in and around the Sudd, and prosper from its natural wealth, has put the plan on hold.  But for how long?  

Beyond Africa, wetlands are similarly critical to water security, food production, local economies and social stability. From the bayous of the Mississippi delta to the vast reed beds of the Danube Delta in Ukraine; from the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, a lake that nurtures most of the abundant fish life of the Mekong, to the yak-grazed wet pastures on the Rouergai plateau in central China; and among the myriad coastal wetland ecosystems rich in crabs and mussels, fish and mangroves, prawns and oysters; they are central to the livelihoods of a billion people – more than an eighth of the world’s population.  

Besides nurturing fisheries and watering fields, they provide pastures for livestock, harbor 40 percent of the world’s biodiversity, sustain river flows, recharge underground water reserves, reduce flooding, stabilize local climate and create fresh, potable water out of the undrinkable. But most governments put each of these functions in different ministerial silos.  So, few in power see the full picture, or recognize their full importance.  

Wetlands are too often still seen as an impediment to development.  But with wise use, they are nurturers and sustainers of prosperity and peace. With so many gone, the challenge is not just to protect the survivors, but to extend and improve them.  Just as the global community discusses a restoration of the world’s forests, it needs a restoration of the world’s wetlands too. 

Healthy wetland ecosystems are key to ensuring water and landscape resilience. At Wetlands International , we are involved in the Water, Peace and Security partnership that helps stakeholders identify and understand water-related security risks and undertake timely, informed and inclusive action for conflict prevention and mitigation. Our Source to Sea initiative aims to improve the conservation status of high-value wetlands in the Rift Valley and along the East Africa mangrove coast for water-resilient communities. And in the Mediterranean, our Water-4-Resilience partnership is developing location-specific strategies to promote landscape scale restoration reducing the impact of water extraction, dams and coastal developments.  

View on Youtube. Opens in a new window