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Innovative solutions needed for wetlands in crisis

Bruno Portier, FAO
2 February 2021

This article was originally published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

The bleaching of coral reefs. The destruction of rainforests. The scourge of plastics in our oceans. These threats are familiar to the many people who care about our planet and the future of humanity.

The loss of our wetlands is perhaps less well known, but it poses an equally grave danger to us all.

From the Okavango Delta in Africa and the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal to small marshes and estuaries, wetlands are some of the richest and most productive places on Earth. Where land meets water, a nutrient-rich ecosystem thrives, providing food and fresh water to animals and people. An incredible 40 percent of the world’s species live and breed in wetlands, including fish and migratory birds.

Wetlands are an essential part of the water cycle, filtering pollutants and holding significant volumes of the world’s available fresh water. Healthy wetlands help lessen the impacts of floods and drought, while storing vast quantities of carbon beneath their surface.

At the same time, wetlands are a source of food and income to local communities, supporting the livelihoods of some 1 billion people around the planet.

As such, wetlands have a significant role to play in contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 15 (life on land).

Yet over the last 300 years, over 85 percent of the world’s wetlands have been lost due to agricultural expansion, water supply projects, climate change and unsustainable use of resources. Today, our remaining wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests, according to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat.

We need to act faster still to stop this happening.

Solutions in the Sahel

Every year, millions of waterbirds migrate from Europe to Africa, heading for the Sahelian Wetlands. This disconnected cluster of major wetlands between the Sahara to the north and the savanna to the south stretches west to east across the continent and provides food and livelihoods for millions of people.

Over the years, the birds encounter a changing landscape due to wetland loss and degradation. The changes are taking a toll. It is estimated that the Sahelian Wetlands’ waterbird population declined by 40 percent between 1960 and 2000.

The people who live and work around these wetlands are also affected. With waterbird numbers declining, some rural communities can no longer depend on certain species as a valuable source of food and income. At the same time, the loss of these fragile ecosystems has other negative repercussions for communities, threatening pastures, fisheries, fresh water reserves, biodiversity and wildlife tourism.

Innovative approaches are needed to protect wetlands and their waterbird populations, while taking into account the daily needs of the people who share these habitats.

Countries taking action

Five countries in the region (Chad, Egypt, Mali, Senegal and Sudan) are working with international organizations and local populations to do just this.

With funding support from France and the European Union and coordination from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the RESSOURCE project is working to find long-term sustainable solutions that preserve and restore wetlands and improve community livelihoods.

Among its innovations, the project is providing technical support to evaluate the harvesting and sustainable commercialisation of white water-lily (Nymphaea lotus) seeds in the Senegal River Delta. Well known for its beauty, the water-lily also produces seeds that are rich in nutrients. Growing lily seeds can be up to ten times more profitable than growing rice, does not require conversion of wetlands into agriculture, and contributes to the food and financial needs of local communities. Currently in its early stages, the initiative involves local cooperatives of women, rice farmers and restaurant owners.

The RESSOURCE project is also supporting the transfer of skills to local communities and national administrations responsible for natural resources, ensuring the autonomy of partner countries to monitor and sustainably manage of wetlands and their waterbird populations. Among its capacity-building activities, the project provides training in waterbird census techniques and wetland management and supports regional expertise by integrating educational modules on waterbird identification and monitoring techniques into African universities.

Finally, the project is designing and supporting the implementation of community-based wetland management plans, for example in the Trois Marigot Community Reserve in Senegal and the Khor Abu Habil floodplains in Sudan. These management plans integrate waterbird conservation with sustainable community use, while strengthening wetland protection by lobbying for their designation as internationally important sites under the Ramsar Convention.

Conservation and the sustainable use of the natural resources can be compatible.

As we celebrate World Wetlands Day on 2 February and enter the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the international community should give these disappearing natural resources the urgent attention they deserve. Wetlands must be preserved to ensure a brighter future for people and waterbirds.

This article was written by Bruno Portier, FAO Forestry Officer. The RESSOURCE project is co-funded by the French Facility for Global Environment (FFEM) and the European Union through the Sustainable Wildlife Management Programme, an initiative of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS).


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