The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is an international treaty that provides the framework for the conservation of wetlands. Worldwide there are currently 2,494 Ramsar sites, protecting 256,878,029 hectares. Despite this treaty, wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests.
What are wetlands?
Wetlands are defined as “land areas where the soil is saturated or flooded with water either permanently or seasonally”. There are many types of wetland and they can look very different. Anything from a boggy area in your garden, to a floodplain, to an extensive area of reed-beds – all are classed as a wetland.
Whilst they can look different, a common thread between all wetlands is that they’re a resource with immense economic, cultural, scientific and recreational value. So, let’s dive into some of the reasons why wetlands are so wonderful…
Wetlands provide a habitat for thousands of species of fish, wildlife, and plants, including endangered species. They are so remarkably biodiverse that they’re home to endemic species (species that cannot survive elsewhere on Earth). I’m sure we’re all familiar with flamingos and their striking pink feathers and long legs. Adored by many around the world, they can’t live without wetlands!
40% of the worlds plants and wildlife species live or breed in wetlandsGreenpeace
Wetlands form the essential base of our planet’s food web which supports small animals such as fish, birds and insects. They also provide the perfect environment for migratory birds like ducks, geese, and kingfishers – offering protection and food.
A potent carbon sink
Wetlands are one of the world’s most effective carbon sink (a carbon sink stores carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). They store carbon by holding it in living vegetation, peats, organic soils, and sediments. Peatlands are a wetland, and cover roughly 3% of land on the planet yet store approximately 30% of all land-based carbon. This carbon can be stored for hundreds or even thousands of years!
Carbon sinks are important because they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, resulting in less greenhouse gases that contribute to warming the atmosphere.
Wetlands are nature’s sponges
Wetlands act as a natural flood defence because they are able to slow the speed of floodwater by trapping the water before slowly distributing it across the wetland. By holding large amounts of water over vast areas, wetlands can slow the effects of flooding or even prevent it entirely. Essentially, wetlands act like big sponges.
Research from Swansea University shows that estuary wetlands can reduce flooding levels up to two metres, subsequently saving up to £27 million in avoided flood damage costs per estuary during a large storm.
They’re also nature’s kidney
Referred to as ‘Nature’s Kidney’, wetlands play an important role in filtering pollutants and improving water quality. In a healthy wetland, the diversity of plants and wildlife act as a filtering system; removing sediment, nutrients and pollutants from the water. In South Carolina, USA, a study found that a swamp removed a quantity of pollutants from the area equal to that of a water treatment plant.
Wetlands are culturally significant
For many Indigenous communities, wetlands have profound religious and historical values. The majority of wetland plants and animals have traditional uses for food, medicine, tools, shelter and weapons.
In Western Australia, the Nyul Nyul people grew up with wetlands and consider the areas “part of their identity“. Wetlands have provided the Nyul Nyul people with practical uses like drinking water and habitat for hunting, but also symbolise places of learning and fond family memories.
Considering this cultural significance, it’s vital that Indigenous people who have relied upon and protected wetlands for thousands of years are included in, and put at the centre of, wetland management.
We love visiting them!
Tourists visit wetlands for recreational activities such as kayaking, camping and walking, which boosts the economy. In the USA alone, adults spend $59.5 billion annually fishing, birdwatching, and photographing wildlife.
Wetlands look after our mind and body
An important one not to overlook – wetlands can boost our wellbeing! The high rates of tourism show that their scenic beauty attracts visitors seeking to enjoy the landscape. Studies prove that being in nature improves our physical and mental health, so wetlands really do have healing qualities for humans as well as the planet.
It’s clear that wetlands are supporting humanity in numerous ways, but unfortunately we aren’t returning the favour…
Human exploitation and the climate crisis threaten wetlands. Activities such as draining, burning, vegetation removal, construction, and water extraction are leading to large-scale wetland loss. When wetlands are destroyed or damaged to the point they become unhealthy, all of the fantastic services they provide us with are also lost. This includes carbon dioxide being released back into the atmosphere, species extinction and threats to human welfare through loss of natural flood defences.
Restoring and protecting wetlands to the dynamic, diverse ecosystems they naturally are is a priority for achieving climate justice.
- Every year there’s a World Wetlands Day. Support their mission and visit their website for resources.
- Go peat free at home! The Wildlife Trusts has a free guide to going peat free.
- Support Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and check out their social media for regular content.
- Listen to the WWT ‘Waterlands’ podcast.
- Read more about carbon sinks in the Curious.Archives – check out this article about the ‘carbon thirst’ of the world’s oceans.
- Scottish Wildlife Trust has a list of wetlands you can visit to reconnect with nature. Check them out and consider a visit if you’re local.