LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The best way to protect wetlands and the incomes of millions who depend on them is not to shut people out, but to find the right balance between farming and conservation, a report said on Sunday.
Agriculture is regarded as one of the biggest threats to the survival of wetlands, but stopping it is not the answer, the report said. Thinking has now shifted towards meeting local people's needs while safeguarding wildlife, birds and water resources, said the study released on World Wetlands Day.
“Wetlands and agriculture can and must coexist,” Matthew McCartney, a hydrologist with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and a contributor to the report, said in a statement. “We need policies on wetlands that support ecosystems, sustain rich biodiversity, and simultaneously improve the livelihoods of farming communities who depend on wetlands or whose activities directly affect them."
According to the report, written by IWMI and CGIAR researchers, many types of wetlands – especially those in flood plains – are highly suitable for agriculture, and have been farmed and fished for thousands of years. Wetlands include areas of marsh, fen, peatland and shallow water bodies, and can be natural or manmade.
Millions of people rely on them directly for their livelihoods – including 1.5 million in Nigeria's Hadejia-Nguru wetland, more than 1 million in the Sudd wetland of South Sudan, 1 million people near Lake Chilwa in Malawi, and 300,000 in Mali's Inner Niger Delta, which also supports around 2 million cattle and 3 million sheep.
"Ensuring wetlands are used sustainably will ensure that poor people can continue to obtain the benefits that wetlands provide, and is therefore essential for reducing poverty," the report said. But at the same time, wetlands cannot be exploited indiscriminately because they are sensitive ecosystems, it warned.
Wetlands – which account for around 6 percent of the world's land mass – capture and store rainwater, help replenish groundwater, regulate river flows and are important stores of carbon. A "crude estimate" of the global value of wetlands is $70 billion a year, the report said.
But they are under threat. Millions of hectares in Southeast Asia have been drained to grow oil palm and produce biofuels. Water in rivers supplying wetlands has been diverted for irrigation, and they have been polluted by fertilisers and pesticides. Other growing risks include climate change, hydropower development, land degradation and population growth, the report said.
The researchers recommend "wise use" of wetlands – an approach that integrates protection with development – as advocated by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty on wetland conservation.
The report gives examples such as Cambodia, where new laws have been approved to reduce agricultural chemical use and maintain water quality in the Tonle Sap Great Lake area, the country’s largest inland fishery.
In China’s Guizhou Province, local farmers were encouraged to shift from practices that were destroying the Caohai Nature Reserve wetland toward tourism and more sustainable farming methods.
And Uganda has a national wetland policy that recognises the importance of seasonal wetlands for grazing cattle, growing arable crops and domestic water use. It acknowledges that wetland conservation requires a cooperative approach involving all the people and organisations concerned.
“Outright protection of wetlands is incompatible with farming and undermines livelihoods,” McCartney said. "But there are landscape approaches and agricultural practices that can support and sustain healthy wetlands, and vice versa. Working with local communities will help us find the best solutions."