World DRR day: Step up for wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction

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Today is the International Day for Disaster Reduction, which marks the launch of the new “Sendai Seven” campaign, centred on the seven targets of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Restoring degraded wetlands and improving water management cuts across this action agenda. On behalf of Wetlands International, journalist Fred Pearce is in Dakar today at the launch of the 2016 World Disaster Report by the International Federation of Red Cross, to talk about the Sahel wetlands which support tens of millions of people.

Following a trip to the Inner Niger Delta, he concludes: If we are serious about improving the resilience of communities to natural disasters, we need to defend and then build on the resilience provided by natural ecosystems. Like wetlands.

for quote fred pearce“We are here to discuss improving resilience to natural disasters. I want to talk about the resilience of natural ecosystems, and how they provide communities with social and economic resilience. In particular I want to talk about wetlands and their role in the resilience of the Sahel. Places like the inner Niger delta in Mali, a vast wetland ecosystem under threat from abstractions for irrigation projects and hydroelectric schemes upstream. Or the delta of the River Senegal, which has suffered badly from dams on the river.

The Sahel’s wetlands support tens of millions of people. They are a major source of the region’s rural productivity. They provide fisheries, wet ground for growing crops, and pastures that are vital during the long dry season and when the rains fail. In short, they provide resilience.

Yet over the past half century, they have been drying up or losing their ability to persist during the dry season. This is having serious impacts on those who depend on them for daily survival. Livelihoods have become more precarious. Resilience is being lost. One consequence may be migration out of the region.

Why the decline? Climate change and the big droughts of the 1970s and 1980s are often blamed. But the region has been growing wetter since the early 1990s, while many wetlands remain in decline. Lake Chad is still empty, for instance. The main problem has been efforts to develop the Sahel by damming and diverting the rivers that sustain the wetlands.

This is often counter-productive. For, while the projects of course bring benefits to many, especially in cities, the losers are the inhabitants of the wetlands, who see their productive wet lands turning to desert. Those who suffer most are usually the poorest, who are most directly dependent on natural resources in places like wetlands.

So on the River Senegal, dams and related irrigation schemes are estimated to have resulted in the loss of 90 per cent of the fisheries in the river’s delta. And the disappearance of up to 250,000 hectares of seasonally flooded land. The UN Environment Programme has reported a “severe reduction in natural pasture areas” along the river’s floodplain, resulting in “frequent conflicts between stockbreeders and farmers.”

Humanitarian and development professionals have sometimes been blind to ecological vulnerability. Blind to the fact that maintaining and regenerating natural ecosystems builds ecological resilience for communities in the path of natural disasters, or indeed climate change.

That is why Wetlands International – in collaboration with the Red Cross Climate Centre, CARE, CORDAID and others  – set up Partners for Resilience. To develop projects that integrate ecological resilience into protecting communities from natural disasters. As a journalist, I went to report on this humanitarian ecology for Wetlands International, and wrote a report, Downstream Voices.

I went to the inner Niger delta, which has a natural cycle of productivity that sustains some two million people. At the height of the wet season, an area the size of Belgium turns into a land of lakes full of fishers. Once the waters start to recede, farmers move in to plant rice and millet in the wet mud. And Fulani cattle herders bring their animals to the rich grasses exposed by the retreating water.

But all this is threatened by the decline of the wetland. So Wetlands International is partnering with communities to improve their resilience by finding innovative ways to manage their wetland better. For instance, planting and rehabilitating the flooded forests and bourgou grasses that serve as both fish nurseries and livestock fodder.

I visited Noga village. One of the delta’s main channels flows past the village, but it is now dry for much of the year. And even in the rainy season, it no longer flows onto the village’s farms and grazing lands as it once did.

The villagers decided to change that. With advice from Wetlands International, they dug a small gap in the river bank to allow water to flow once more onto the flat lands, through depressions excavated by the villagers to provide wet pastures, and on to a cascade of fish ponds

In Sobe village, the men showed me an 800-metre irrigation channel they had just dug to their fields. In Kakanga there were new fish ponds.

What struck me most in this remote delta region was that the villagers knew very well about the environmental forces outside the wetland that were shaping their world.

At a meeting of women in Noga village, they told me: “We are getting less rainfall because of a lack of trees in the area. There are big winds here, which mean the sand dunes are invading our fields.” And, most important, they felt, “the water flows in the rivers are becoming weaker. Dams are preventing water coming into the delta.

They knew, but they weren’t passive. With the help of Wetlands, those women had diverted water to create an area of gardens where they now grow vegetables. We ate them for lunch.

These are simple projects with real benefits. But they still need the water.

So that’s my message. If we are serious about improving the resilience of rural communities to natural disasters, we need to defend and then build on the resilience provided by natural ecosystems. Like wetlands.”