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Reflections from World Water Week 2021: Wetlands as key to building resilience faster

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  • Wetland values, status and trends

In recent months the world has seen catastrophic flooding in western Europe and China, extreme heatwaves in North America, and wildfires in Russia, Greece, Turkey and the US.

The Paraná River, one of the main commercial waterways in South America supporting one hundred and twenty-eight million people, has reached its lowest level in nearly 80 years due to a prolonged drought. These extreme events have been linked to climate change, but the degradation of wetlands, as well as poor land and water management, are really the root causes – and climate change is dramatically accentuating these effects. Unless we act fast, the situation will only get worse according to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, issuing a ‘code red’ for humanity. 

Representatives from the private sector, governments and civil society came together at SIWI World Water Week 2021 in late August – an international water policy, practice and knowledge expert platform – to discuss a global priority: how we can build our resilience to these threats. The general direction of these dialogues is encouraging, with a consensus for the need to move faster and reach scale if we are to increase our resilience. Wetlands International collaborated with partners and co-conveners on various sessions throughout the week, showcasing how safeguarding and restoring wetland ecosystems offer effective nature-based solutions to build resilience. 

Yet, wetlands – the arteries in any given landscape and vital to people, climate and nature – are hugely under threat. Over the past fifty years, wetlands around the world have been drained, dammed, and exploited to make way for agriculture, industry and urban development. By stepping up action for wetlands we can save biodiversity, better capture and store water, improve food security through sustaining agriculture and fisheries, keep carbon out of the atmosphere, and safeguard cities and settlements from the worst impacts of floods and droughts. 

Examples abound and Wetlands International is an influential partner in many of them. In our session Water Resource Management for WASH: strengthening communities for climate resilience, we presented the case of Ziway-Shalla lake basin in Ethiopia, where biodiversity has been improved drastically and water has been secured for local communities after restoring degraded hillsides and helping farmers and industry adopt more efficient water use. In Mali, safeguarding and restoring wetlands in the Inner Niger Delta provides food and water security for rural people, many of whom are marginalised and can provide a stabilizing factor in areas where internal displacement and conflict driven partly by water insecurity are growing problems. 

In Asia, restoring upland forest and wetlands in the Cagayan De Oro basin, Philippines, is showing great promise in increasing resilience to extreme events such as the typhoon that killed more than 1,000 people back in 2011. Upstream – downstream cooperation is driving increased resilience to future floods near the coast through landscape restoration whilst improving food security and the local economy for communities in the uplands.  In Indonesia, the Building with Nature initiative has reversed mangrove loss and coastal erosion with novel technology and incentives for local communities to adopt more sustainable livelihoods that simultaneously allow for mangrove restoration.  

Wetlands are also the planet’s biggest terrestrial “carbon sinks”, and rehabilitating peatlands such as the Orshinsky Bog in Russia has restored biodiversity across 22,000 hectares, which can now sequester 320,000 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. In western Europe, “Natural Sponges” can slow down river discharges and reduce flood peaks in the smaller tributaries of major rivers, offering effective protection against extreme floods such as those that recently occurred in Belgium and Germany, but also improving water quality, storing carbon and creating habitats that benefit nature. 

In all cases we see positive indications of resilience emerging. Community food security improved, water levels in boreholes and wells recovering, biodiversity returning, coastal erosion being reversed. The challenge is overcoming the fragmented implementation of nature-based solutions and achieving this across whole landscapes – how to plan, design, invest across sectors, space and time scales. We need linked actions for ecosystems, society and economy, along with inclusive stakeholder engagement, in order to build resilience at scale.  

Diana Kopansky from the UNEP Global Peatlands Initiative stated in Scaling bankable peatland projects for water security, “a systemic transformation towards sustainable land use whereby agricultural commodity production is decoupled from deforestation, and whereby investments in forestry and agriculture lead to landscape restoration, climate mitigation, and biodiversity protection is possible.” What we need now is more knowledge, finance and partnerships to scale up and realise change at whole landscapes, river basins and across entire regions.  

The good news is that we already have the solutions, and coupled with other necessary climate interventions, the case for nature-based solutions is powerful. Although the global climate arena has seen nature-based solutions rise to the fore, their value is yet to be fully recognised. We need the private sector to bring water central to their business strategy and planning, the finance sector to align major investments to support delivery of these targets, and civil society to help these actors to cooperate in line with best practice, state of the art knowledge and local communities. Our ambition is to bring these nature-based solutions to scale in the climate agenda, complemented with the priorities prepared by non-government actors to the forthcoming Climate CoP in Glasgow which identify the need for landscape-wide protection and restoration.