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Wetlands: an answer to the climate crisis

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  • Climate and disaster risks

In September 2022, a third of Pakistan was under water as melting glaciers and record monsoon rains coursed down the River Indus. Today millions of people are trying to rebuild their lives. It is a stark example of how climate change is impacting ever more people with ever more frequency. This was a major talking point at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, where developing nations centre-staged their demands for compensation for the loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change. 

Rightly so, but underpinning this is the story about what puts people at risk from floods, droughts and other hydrological calamities.  It is about the mismanagement of water across our landscapes.  One of the worst flood disaster zones in Pakistan in recent weeks has been around Lake Manchar, one of South Asia’s largest freshwater lakes.  It burst its banks, flooding dozens of villages, in large part because decades of waste dumping and silt accumulation had wrecked its natural capacity to store high flows from the nearby Indus. 

The loss and degradation of wetlands is a root cause of droughts, wildfires and floods   

Meanwhile in China, climate change contributed to an intense drought.  But part of the reason for water shortages was past degradation of the Poyang Lake, the largest freshwater lake in China.  This natural water store on the floodplain of the Yangtze River should have continued to release water downstream even as the rains failed.  But its storage capacity has been reduced by sand mining and drainage.  So during the drought, it soon emptied.   

Lakes, peatlands, river floodplains, deltas and many small wetlands in farmlands are precious natural assets in our landscapes.  They are hydrological buffers that limit floods, maintain water supplies in droughts, manages the nutrients in soil, replenish underground water reserves and sustain freshwater biodiversity.  They also hold huge amounts of carbon – often many times more than rainforests. Peatlands, for example, cover only 3% of the earth’s land surface but store 30% of all land-based carbon. 

Healthy wetlands are fundamental for climate and economic resilience, reducing both climate change and its impacts.  And yet climate negotiators have until now paid them scant regard.  The world’s wet places remain Cinderella ecosystems when they should be front and centre in our efforts both to hold carbon and water in the ground and to defend people, land, and livelihoods against scientifically predicted extreme weather events due to climate change.   

Across the world, vital water connectivity has been broken in almost every landscape, as wetlands have been diminished and fragmented. Broken by what I call the four Ds: Dams on rivers; Dykes that cut those rivers off from their natural floodplain wetlands; Drains that empty these wetlands, usually for intensive agriculture; and Deforestation that destroys soils and fills lakes with silt.  

The impacts can be extreme. The Pantanal — the world’s largest wetland, shared by Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay – has in the past two years been consumed by fires burning a third of the area, set by farmers but spreading through drained grasslands and destroying low-impact ranching systems that are in harmony with nature and seasonal floods. There can be few more vivid signs of how badly we have degraded our landscapes than a wetland ravaged by fire.  

Nowhere is safe. One summer night last year, raging floods coming out of the Eifel Mountains on the border between Germany and Belgium drowned more than 200 people, mostly along the swollen River Kyll. It was Europe’s worst flood disaster in decades. Climate change got the blame. Fair enough: the rains were exceptional.  But the torrents became lethal partly because many small wetlands in the mountains had been drained.  These natural sponges would once have helped water infiltrate the soils and held back the floods.  Without them, homes drowned instead.  

We need to keep landscapes wet  

A third of the world’s wetlands have been lost in the past half century – a rate three times faster than forests.  Yet somehow their value for people and climate has largely escaped the attention of the international community.  Last year’s climate conference in Glasgow saw a plethora of pledges to protect and restore the world’s forests in the name of mitigating climate change.  But no commitments were made on wetlands and improving water retention in our landscapes. 

This is odd when the world is experiencing the ravages of climate change primarily through its impact on water.  And when we have obvious ways to make our landscapes and societies more water-resilient — by improving water retention in our landscapes by protecting and restoring our wetlands.  

Solutions already exist. Our work on safeguarding and restoring wetlands across Africa, from the Sahel to the Rift Valley, supports agriculture, food, and freshwater security, combatting land degradation and reducing disaster risks.  

Wetlands must be central to climate action 

Wetlands worldwide urgently need recognition as vital natural assets, massive carbon pools, and water stores, that are needed in better condition as a basis for maintaining food systems, restoring degraded lands, and buffering us from the impacts of extreme weather events.  

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