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Strategic Intent (2020-2030)

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It’s time to bring back our wetlands at the scale and pace needed to address the water, climate and biodiversity crises.

By Jane Madgwick, Wetlands International CEO (2004-2023)

Wetlands are, by several orders of magnitude, the most valuable ecosystem when it comes to the ecosystem services they provide, according to the World Water Development Report.

But while we know how crucial wetlands are to water availability, quality and flow, preventing drought and fires, buffering storms and building resilience – and we can calculate monetary value of these avoided risks and benefits – they are still not adequately incorporated into development planning. Science and economic logic isn’t changing behaviour. Wetlands continue to be drained, dammed, dumped on or developed over. Short-term economic gains are still being favoured over longer-term resilience outcomes.

So, how can we begin to turn this around?

It may well start with forming a connection with wetlands at an individual level. People of all ages and origins are drawn to water and the natural beauty of wetlands. The next step is to build understanding of how human well-being overall is linked to the wetland condition. The cultural significance of wetlands runs deep in most societies not least because they are productive lands.

If we then look at the bigger picture, we understand that healthy, functioning wetlands are needed to sustain the water and carbon cycles and a range of natural processes on which our planet depends. Rather than the continued loss and destruction of wetlands needed to make way for human development, the reverse is true. Healthy wetlands are needed for sustainable development and for combating climate change. Their loss is impacting the poorest and most vulnerable the most.

It’s time to make wetland recovery a priority. Healthy wetlands can contribute to make a safer, more resilient and prosperous world. With water sources and stores intact, we can recover freshwater supplies and withstand unpredictable rains. Cities will become cooler and wild fires less likely. Crop production and fisheries can recover and diversify as biodiversity and water flows will be restored.

Coastal settlements and cities can be safe from the impacts of storms and sea-level rise. Climate change will slow down as carbon is locked up in wetlands. People’s spirit will be enriched and refreshed by nature that is flourishing once again.

Saving those wetlands which remain in good condition is the highest priority. The last intact peatlands, free-flowing rivers, their floodplains and natural deltas, mangrove forests, tidal flats and marshes are all under threat. Here, we need to enable wetland natural values to be integrated in the local economy, so they will be protected and valued for the future. This is perfectly possible.

But the scale of loss over the last few decades is so great that we also need to plan, design and organise for large scale recovery of wetlands across whole landscapes. This is needed to bring back their functionality and biodiversity which will underpin a healthy, resilient society and economy.

In particular, people living in or near wetlands can stimulate this change, bottom-up and act as stewards for the long-term. Our evidence and experience shows how, with access to knowledge and a little support, people can transform their lives and local environment, and this can enhance livelihoods, building resilience and social cohesion. In turn, local actors can influence others and call for policies and investments to underpin and extend local change.

The global policy environment can enable this change. For example, making wetlands part of countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions will help drive the investment needed to increase the pace and scale of wetland recovery. Leading companies can also catalyse change, for example by adopting a “Building with Nature” design philosophy in water engineering and infrastructure projects.

Wetlands International sets out its ambitions in a ten-year Strategic Intent, including plans for inspiring, mobilising and scaling up action by a wide range of actors to safeguard and restore wetlands. We are proposing global targets for wetland recovery by 2030 and intensifying our collaboration with partners to enable landscape scale programmes.

We need to revive the health and power of wetlands at a pace and scale never seen before. Crucially, we are stepping up our efforts to transform how society sees, values and impacts wetlands.

Will you join us?