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Why water security is about healthy wetlands

Published on:
  • Climate and disaster risks
  • Water supply and sanitation

Against a backdrop of devastating droughts worldwide, World Water Week is underway in Stockholm. The theme is Seeing the Unseen: The Value of Water.

Let’s talk about the value of water. How water is impacted, what’s at stake, and what can be done about it.

The world’s freshwater is under unprecedented pressure from fast-rising temperatures and intensifying and changing consumption patterns. Water – and wetlands – are not just victims of the climate and nature crises, they are central to solving them.

However, action to mitigate and adapt to climate change can have serious implications for surface and ground water systems and the people and biodiversity which depend on them. Changes in energy usage and types of energy production (replacing fossil fuels with hydro-power or biofuels, for example) affect water usage and impact agricultural production. The resulting conflicts in allocation of water — and between the water, energy and food sectors— create major challenges to the sustainable management of wetlands. Particularly the transboundary ones, where a very large proportion of the world’s population lives.

We must address the connection between water, climate, energy, ecosystems, and food. We need to boost efficient use of resources by moving to a clean and circular economy, achieve climate neutrality, reverse biodiversity loss, cut pollution and provide a fair, healthy and environmental-friendly food system. Water is a key element in all of this.

When we’re looking at how to address climate change and the impacts on food security in particular, we need to remind ourselves that we’re doing this against a backdrop of severe ecosystem and land degradation. This degradation is caused by poor land and water management. So when we talk about water resilience and food security, we need to look at the entire ecological area involved: the landscape.

Landscape-scale wetland conservation and restoration offers a critical but often undervalued solution. Directly or indirectly, wetlands provide almost all of the world’s freshwater. They underpin the resilience of our water and food systems making them critically important nature-based solutions to meeting both climate and biodiversity goals. More than one billion people depend on wetlands for a living, and 40% of the world’s species call wetlands home. Yet wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests, with over one-third of wetland ecosystems lost since 1970.

The Global Land Outlook, published by the UN convention to combat desertification, mentions wetlands more than 100 times. It warns that the conversion of wetlands and forests disrupts the water cycle and hydrological functions, and states that sustaining the capacity of wetlands to absorb and store carbon is key to a climate-resilient future.

The knock-on effects of undervaluing water and wetlands are severe. In situations where water is taken away, and where wetlands are degraded and drained, you often see a proportionate decrease in the productivity and livelihoods of the poorest and most vulnerable, which brings about the rise of human insecurity. Improved water management and governance is a path towards peaceful, healthy and prosperous lives.

If we are serious about transforming landscapes to create resilient water and food systems, we need to restore wetlands at a very large scale. If we neglect wetlands, and thereby undermine the resilience of landscapes, the risks are severe, especially for the poorest and the most vulnerable who are most at risk as a result of degradation.

Conservation and restoration of wetlands across the Sahelian region in Africa is showing how rivers, lakes, deltas, ponds, floodplains and swamps can serve as ‘blue lifelines’ by supporting agriculture, food security and livelihoods, combatting land degradation and reducing disaster risks – especially in times of drought. This in turn helps reduce political instability: important in a region where armed strife is common.

The SaWeL project, funded by the Swiss Government (SDC) and implemented by a broad consortium of environmental and development partners, through which many thousands of farmers, including women, are now a part of this approach in the central rift valley lake region of Ethiopia and the Sourou and Wegnia regions of Mali.

Our experience shows that local communities and governments need to be at the forefront of on-the-ground interventions in order to guarantee sustainable change.

In practical terms, a better understanding about landscapes, knowledge sharing, and getting people excited about wetlands is how we solve the water, climate, energy, ecosystems, and food crises. We also need coherent policy at a national level. This requires new ways of thinking, including placing a much greater value on the role of wetland conservation and restoration in contributing to food security. We must integrate wetlands into economic, climate and agricultural policy – whilst not neglecting wetlands’ incredible biodiversity and cultural values.

Water security is about healthy wetlands: the connectors between land and ocean, between green and blue, where nature and water come together. In the same way partnerships across sectors need to come together to ensure the safeguarding and restoration of wetlands. With this approach, we can truly harness the power of wetlands, not just during World Water Week but at the water-focused climate COP27 in Egypt, and at next year’s historic UN Water Conference too.

Picture Credits : Andrea Ferrario