(Adapted from Swaziland's Wetlands website created in 2004.)
What is World Wetlands Day?
2 February each year is World Wetlands Day (WWD). It marks the date of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea. WWD was celebrated for the first time in 1997 and made an encouraging beginning. Each year, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and groups of citizens at all levels of the community have taken advantage of the opportunity to undertake actions aimed at raising public awareness of wetland values and benefits in general and the Ramsar Convention in particular.
The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are presently 138 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1366 wetland sites, totalling 119.6 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. Countries around the world celebrated WWD on February 2nd. Swaziland has not yet ratified the Convention, but the process towards this is ongoing.
From the Mountain to the Sea, wetlands at work for us
This also provides an opportunity to undertake actions aimed at raising public awareness of wetland values and benefits in general and the Ramsar Convention in particular. WWD is a day to learn and discover why wetlands are important for us, why are they endangered and what is being done to conserve them and their resources.
The picture traces wetlands from the mountains to the sea, with beautiful water colours of ten Ramsar sites from all six Ramsar regions, covering a broad range of wetland types, and identifying the multiple goods and services each site provides. Its focus is on their beauty, diversity and utility - storing and purifying freshwater; controlling floods; replenishing groundwater supplies; stabilising the shoreline; protecting against storms; acting as nurseries for freshwater or marine fish; providing us with food, water, a place for recreation and education, a transport medium - wetlands work for us in many ways.
From the Mountains to the Sea; Wetlands at Work for Us is the theme of this year's WWD. Wetlands are present in every country, from the tundra to the tropics, and are among the most productive environments on the planet. Swaziland has mostly wetlands associated with rivers, man-made dams, seepages on hillsides and river sources. It is no accident that river valleys and their floodplains have been the focus of human civilizations for over 6.000 years and that many other wetland systems have been equally critical to the development and survival of human communities. From the highest mountain lakes to the tropical mangroves or coral reefs, wetlands provide invaluable goods and services for biodiversity but also for people. Wetlands are natural flood control systems, replenish groundwater reserves and naturally purify surface water, stabilize shorelines and are a natural protection against storms. They also play a key role in retaining and exporting sediments and nutrients but also in mitigating climate change, and are, of course, reservoirs of biodiversity but also of food and other products, beside their recreational and cultural values.
Wetlands produce an estimated value of nearly US$ 3.4 billion per year, yet they are among the most endangered ecosystems on the planet. The overuse of water and conversion for agricultural purposes are the major threats to wetlands. It is estimated that 50% of the Earth's wetlands were lost during the past century. Water is the back-bone of wetlands and at the same time, the cause of the disaster. Less than 1% of the planet's water resources is freshwater, but global freshwater consumption rose six fold between 1900 and 1995 - more than double the rate of population growth. The consequences are well known: more than 20% of the world population has no access to safe drinking water, while 50% of the world population does not have sanitation. Water is the critical factor for sustainable development and wetlands are its natural source.
The Government of Swaziland has to be lauded for the promulgation of the water Act. This Act seeks to: declare water in Swaziland to be a national resource; establish River Basin Authorities which will help in enhancing public (stakeholder) involvement in water resources management, including the private sector; pollution control and catchment management. These provisions will hopefully go a long way to ensure the protection of water sources. Economic incentives and disincentives (for example, tax deductions for selling or donating wetlands to a qualified organization, cooperative programs, and acquisition (for example, establishing national wildlife refuges) are alternatives that could be considered to ensure continued actions that will protect our scarce wetlands. Beyond that level, a number of regulations can be set up to control activities in wetlands, and some counties and towns have adopted local wetlands protection ordinances or have changed the way development is permitted. There are countries that have significantly reduced losses of coastal and inland wetlands through protective laws. Local Governments can also have non-regulatory programs that help protect wetlands.
What can we do for wetlands?
Since its inception, the Ramsar Convention has been a pioneer in promoting the "wise use concept" for managing wetlands. This concept is an integrated vision of ecosystem management, in the same way that the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, Rio, 1982) developed, some years later, its ecosystem approach. The wise use concept recognizes the necessity to manage wetlands in an integrated way, including not only ecological aspects, but recognizing also the human, social, institutional, economic and cultural aspects of wetlands, in order to use wetlands sustainably for the benefit of mankind in a way compatible with the maintenance of the natural properties of ecosystems. The wise use approach promotes the use of ecosystems' goods and services for human purposes in a way that respects natural equilibrium and allows ecosystems to survive and adapt to change. The ability of wetlands to adapt to changing conditions, and to an accelerating rate of change, will be crucial to communities and wildlife everywhere as the full impact of climate change and other global alterations to our ecosystem lifelines are felt.
At the individual level, how can you make a difference?
- Get involved find out where wetlands exist near your home, try to learn more about them, and support educational efforts.
- Support wetlands and watershed protection initiatives by public agencies and private organizations.
- Participate in the public scoping meeting before the initiation of developmental projects and by reviewing the Environmental impact Assessment documents at the public review stage and submit your comments.
- Encourage neighbours, developers, and state and local governments to protect the function and value of wetlands in your watershed.
- Rather than draining or filling wetlands, seek compatible uses involving minimal wetland alteration, such as waterfowl production, grass harvesting, wild rice production, and selective harvesting of wetland plants.
- Select upland rather than wetlands sites for development projects and avoid wetland alteration or degradation during project construction.
- Maintain wetlands and adjacent buffer strips as open spaces.
- Learn more about wetland restoration activities in your area; seek and support opportunities to restore degraded wetlands.