Wetlands are some of the most productive engines of the planet’s biodiversity: less celebrated than rainforests, perhaps, yet of equal worth. In South America, the giant Pantanal wetland is an ecological melting pot full of caiman, giant anteaters, capybaras, jaguars, giant otters and maned wolves that exceeds the Amazon for the profusion of its wildlife.
The Congo basin in Africa contains at its heart the world’s largest tropic peat swamp, home to unrivalled populations of gorillas and forest elephants. The swampy waters of the Sudd on the Nile and the Okavango wetland in southern Africa are green refuges for wildlife amid desert landscapes. Until its demise through over-abstraction, the Aral Sea in central Asia was the biggest source of fish in the Soviet Union.
An estimated 40 percent of the world’s biodiversity are found in wetlands – from inland lakes, swamps and river floodplains to coastal mangroves, coral reefs, tidal mudflats and salt marshes; and from upland bogs drenched in mountain rains to desert oases fed by ancient underground water.
Many wetlands are of truly global importance. Tens of millions of migrating birds rely on a network of some 7000 wetlands to feed and rest along their intercontinental flyways. But while much is known, the ecological wealth of many wetlands is still being uncovered. Some 200 new species are discovered in freshwater wetlands alone each year.
More than a million threatened species of plants and animals depend on wetlands for their survival. But many are under growing threat. Wetlands and their rich, watery webs of life are being lost three times faster than forests. A third has been dammed, dyked, and drained to extinction in the past half century alone.
Even the most productive are seemingly beyond protection. A cascade of hydroelectric dams holding back water on the Mekong in China is already diminishing the annual flood surge, threatening to end the reverse flow in the Tonle Sap that fills Cambodia’s Great Lake and nurtures the river’s fish stocks. The Pantanal in Brazil is suffering an epidemic of fires, set by farmers in numbers approaching those seen in the Amazon. The Sudd may soon shrivel as engineers cut its link to the Nile and fast-track the river’s water downstream to Egypt. Drains eat away at wetlands, from the swamps of Borneo to the peat bogs of the Scottish Flow Country.
Meanwhile, new threats to wetland biodiversity are emerging. Salt flats, flamingo-rich lakes, wetlands, and grazing pastures high in the Andean mountains of Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru face obliteration as miners tap the underground waters that sustain them to capture the lithium. The water is brought to the surface and spread in giant ponds, where it evaporates to leave behind the light metal, which is needed in unprecedented quantities for the lithium-ion batteries that will soon be powering more than a billion motor vehicles across the planet.
Wetlands International has been working in the region for years, helping indigenous pastoralist communities to manage their fragile environments. But the threats posed by overgrazing are paling into insignificance compared to those from the giant evaporation ponds spreading across the altiplano.
Critical science risks being lost too. The high Andes wetlands are among the most unusual ecosystems on Earth. They contain some of the earliest forms of life anywhere, including stromatolites, microbial mats and mud-like organic deposits called microbialites that may hold clues to the early evolution of life on our planet.
Much of the continuing loss of wetland ecosystems is happening out of sight and out of mind. Government declarations to protect and enhance forests are rarely matched by similar pledges to safeguard wetlands. Negotiations on the new global goals for nature under the Convention on Biological Diversity seek to protect 30 percent of the planet’s surface by 2030. Yet, the critical importance of wetlands remains muted.
As we approach the UN biodiversity summit in Montreal, recognising the importance of wetlands in the new Global Biodiversity Framework means going beyond references to ‘land and sea’. We need to see explicit language about inland waters, or coastal and freshwater ecosystems within the framework. Wetlands and water systems connect land and sea. The health of both these biomes — as well as the sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement — depend on bringing wetlands back into good condition. If the focus is only on protecting and restoring terrestrial and marine ecosystems, wetlands will probably continue to be overlooked or undervalued and hence loss and damage will continue.
Based on science and taking an ambitious and pragmatic perspective, we suggest that countries need to commit to targets globally for at least 300,000 kilometres of rivers, and at least 350 million hectares of inland waters to be under restoration by 2030 to help reverse wetland biodiversity and ecosystem loss. Finally, governments need to prioritise the proper protection of wetlands, including Ramsar sites of international importance, as a major part of the 30 x 30 goal which is at the heart of the vision for a nature-positive future.
At the COP15 UN biodiversity summit, we need to see commitments to ambitious targets and concerted action for the world’s watery ecosystems; the vital interfaces where land and sea meet so productively. This will require governments creating a transformational Global Biodiversity Framework with wetlands at its heart. After that, delegates need to prioritise wetlands in their national policies by upscaling conservation and restoration in their National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans if we are to achieve an equitable, carbon-neutral, nature-positive world.
– Jane Madgwick, CEO, Wetlands International