OPINION: Why the Convention on Wetlands matters more than ever

by Martha Rojas Urrego | @martharojasu1 | Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
Thursday, 4 March 2021 10:32 GMT

An Iraqi Marsh Arab paddles his boat as he collects reeds at the Chebayesh marsh in Dhi Qar province, Iraq April 14, 2019. Picture taken April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

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The word's wetlands store more than twice the amount of carbon dioxide than forests. So why don't they get more protection?

Martha Rojas Urrego is Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

At the G7’s virtual summit last month, leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations sought to look beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, vowing to defeat the virus and “build back better” by investing in low-carbon economic development.

It is smart policy that should be pursued. But the kind of projects they have in mind--wind turbines, solar panels, and electric transportation--requires a magnitude of capital that isn’t readily available in most low and middle-income countries, particularly after the pandemic’s financial toll.

What if there was a cost-effective alternative, capable of stimulating growth, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing the risk of future pandemics--in rich and poor countries alike?

Large-scale wetland protection is probably the closest we can get to such a panacea. Yet, the international community is underutilizing one of its best tools for simultaneously achieving sustainable development, carbon emission cuts, biodiversity protection, and gender equality.

The UN’s Convention on Wetlands was adopted 50 years ago, primarily to protect waterfowl habitat through sustainable use. As scientific understanding of the ecosystems grew, however, so too did the treaty’s mission and it was expanded to include subterranean hydrological systems. 

Today, the world’s wetlands store more than twice the amount of carbon dioxide than all its forests combined. But, unlike rainforests, their conservation is largely absent from the Paris Climate Change Agreement’s Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs), squandering a valuable motivation for countries to protect them and avoid emissions.

Carbon storage, as has been suggested, is only one of the environmental services wetlands provide. The ecosystems are also essential to water security, as a buffer against sea level rise and storm surges, and for maintaining biodiversity that scientists say helps protect human populations from zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. 

Wetland destruction, most of which occurred in the past century, has inflicted incalculable damage on indigenous and local communities near rivers, swamps and coastal areas. But, in terms of economic value, economists estimate wetlands provide at least $47 trillion worth of environmental services per year and support one billion jobs globally, most of which are held by women.

The Convention on Wetlands has made important progress over the last half-century, gaining 171 signatories and protection for 2,416 major wetlands of international importance. But if the international community hopes to realize its full potential, we will need to start reimagining wetland conservation.

First, Convention on Wetlands designations should not be seen as ends to themselves; but rather the start of a process where they are integrated into local, regional, and national management frameworks and sectoral planning. Historically, the most successful efforts have been the ones that work seamlessly with other initiatives on the ground.

Second, wetland conservation should emphasize data collection and work with the broader scientific community. Mexico’s partnership with GEF and the World Bank on a project that assesses the value of wetlands to climate change adaptation along the Gulf of Mexico is a good example of such an approach.

Finally, the dynamic ecology of wetlands makes the Convention on Wetlands a valuable bridge to other UN conventions and processes, for example, between Sustainable Development Goals #6 (clean water and sanitation), #14 (life below water) and #15 (life on land). Furthermore, so-called “blue carbon” initiatives, which value the emissions storage capabilities of coastal ecosystems, much like REDD does with forests, gives the wetland treaty obvious relevance to the UNFCCC.

Only a little more than 10 percent of the world’s wetlands remain; they are our most endangered ecosystem, and we can’t build back better without them. The time has come to give wetlands the protections and ensure the wise use they deserve: Our lives could depend on it.