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Dossier: Losing crucial wetlands

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in Water
Bolivian Wetlands Bolivian Wetlands Shutterstock
01 Apr
Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for millions of people, but they’re being lost at an increasing rate

The Llanos de Moxos wetlands in Bolivia contain an entrancing collection of natural treasures. Among the thousands of animal and plant species that call the wetlands home are the giant otter, Bolivian pink river dolphin, giant armadillo, jaguar, tapir and black caiman.

Last year, this astonishing natural wonder, which covers some 6.9 million hectares – the area of the Netherlands and Belgium combined – was designated the world’s largest Ramsar site, a convention ensuring wise use of wetlands around the world. The move should reinforce efforts to safeguard the wider Amazon Basin from an increase in land use for agriculture and cattle ranching, and bolster efforts to preserve the critically endangered blue-throated macaw, the last 300 of which can be found in the wetlands.



‘Wetlands are just magical places,’ says Dr Dave Tickner, WWF-UK’s chief freshwater adviser. ‘They are inspiring, dynamic, home to the most remarkable displays of biodiversity.’

But the positive outcome in Bolivia sits awkwardly with the wider, worrying picture of the state of the world’s wetlands. According to Wetlands International (WI), the rate of loss and deterioration of wetlands is accelerating in every region of the planet, and this pressure is intensifying alongside rising populations and demand for agricultural land and water. And that’s before climate change is factored in.

‘If you look at the authoritative surveys on the health of our wetlands, it isn’t good news,’ says Tickner. WWF’s Living Planet Report measures the health of freshwater wetlands by calculating their populations of vertebrate species and has consistently shown, according to Tickner, ‘that freshwater wetlands are declining faster than either the health of the oceans or tropical forests. Since the 1970s, there has been a 70 per cent decline in tropical wetland species.’

shutterstock 144464032 optA great egret among cypress trees on Lake Martin, Louisiana

There are some positives: there has been a small improvement in the health of temperate wetlands – the revival of otters is a key symbol of this – although as Tickner points out, we’re starting from a low baseline. ‘We messed up a lot of temperate wetlands well before the 1970s,’ he says.

Wetlands are on the front line of global development, Tickner argues. According to WWF, half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1990 – converted or destroyed for commercial development, drainage schemes and the extraction of minerals and peat. Many of those that remain have been damaged by siltation, agricultural pesticide and fertiliser run-off, industrial pollutants, and the construction of dams and dikes.



Wetlands are ubiquitous, partly because they come with a fairly broad range of definitions. They’re found in arid and polar regions, and at high altitudes. They can be freshwater, brackish or saline, inland or coastal, seasonal or permanent, natural or man-made. They include lakes, swamps, marshes, rice fields, floodplains, river deltas, peat bogs and flooded forests. In all, WI estimates that wetlands cover an area a third larger than the USA.

The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment gave wetlands a value of US$15trillion in 1997. A study of the role of coastal wetlands in reducing the severity of impacts from hurricanes in the USA found that they provided storm protection services with an estimated annual value of US$23.2billion (see Restoring the Gulf Coast). ‘Wetlands are one of the key tools in mitigating climate change across the planet,’ says Pieter van Eijk, head of climate adaptation at WI, pointing to their use as buffers that protect coastal areas from sea-level rise and extreme weather events.

Even so, wetlands tend to be undervalued. A WWF report, The Economic Value of the World’s Wetlands, points out that ‘few people realise the range of products derived from freshwater habitats like wetlands: food such as fish, rice and cranberries; medicinal plants; peat for fuel and gardens; poles for building materials; and grasses and reeds for making mats and baskets and thatching houses’.

Throughout history, humans have gathered around wetlands and these areas have played an important part in human development. Consequently, they are of significant religious, historical and archaeological value to many cultures around the world. ‘Wetlands directly support the livelihoods and well-being of millions of people,’ says Dr Matthew McCartney, principle researcher and hydrologist at the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI). ‘In many developing countries, large numbers of people are dependent on wetland agriculture for their livelihoods.’



Wetlands are just as important for biodiversity. Many wetlands offer secure staging posts along the invisible highways in the sky that birds follow on their epic migrations. Yet these avian pit stops can be the scene of some of the greatest environmental damage.

The world’s longest dyke – 33 kilometres long – is found not in the Netherlands but at Saemangeum, on the southwestern coast of the Korean peninsula. Separating the Yellow Sea from what was once the Saemangeum estuary, it’s the foundation for a proposed super-city. Its creation devastated the wetlands that were once a crucial feeding ground for shorebirds on their 24,000-kilometre migration between Asia, Alaska and Russia, and supported some 20,000 people.

RTXAWEI HIGH REP optThe 33-kilometre dyke at Saemangeum in Gunsan, South Korea. The dyke forms part of a 400-square-kilometre land-reclamation project that has been blamed for destroying a vast tidal wetland

Since the sea wall was closed in 2006, the number of shorebirds counted during the northward migration has crashed from 300,000 to 4,000. Within three years of the closure, most of the shellfish beds and other sea-floor living organisms had died, says Nial Moores, of Birds Korea. Without sufficient food, many shorebird species declined. Moores notes that ‘the data shows that most of the birds didn’t relocate to other sites. Rather, many of the birds died and their populations declined’. The great knot, once the most numerous shorebird in East Asia, is now classified as vulnerable. The critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper used Saemangeum as its major site for its southward migration, but its global numbers are now down to just 300.

The South Korean government plans to create a protected wetlands around part of Saemangeum, but Moores questions whether this can ever replace what he describes as ‘the super system’ that has been lost. ‘The general attitude towards conservation of the Yellow Sea is dismally poor,’ he says. ‘If that attitude continues, then whatever is created will be extremely low in conservation value and completely tokenistic.’

Asian wetlands are under unprecedented threat, Moores fears. ‘The pressure on biodiversity and wetlands in this part of the world is huge,’ he says. ‘The problem is worse than people outside of the region can possibly imagine. We’re seeing the kind of changes that took place over centuries in Europe, and over a couple of centuries in America, take place in a few decades in Asia. There is reclamation of wetlands going on along the Chinese coast that will make Saemangeum look minor.’



Wetlands are also rich sources for in-demand commodities, such as palm oil and pulpwood. Peatlands – wetlands with a waterlogged organic soil layer – are particularly targeted. These peatlands include vast permafrost areas of Russia and Canada, the Everglades in the USA, and the high mountain peatlands of the Andes (Paramós) and Himalaya. When peatlands are drained for cultivation, they become net carbon emitters instead of active carbon stores, and, according to Marcel Silvius, head of climate-smart land-use at WI, this practice causes six per cent of all global carbon emissions.

The clearance of peatlands for planting also increases the risk of forest fires, such as those that take place annually in Southeast Asia and in Russia, which release huge amounts of CO2. In June 2012, forest fires in Sumatra caused the most significant atmospheric haze for more than a decade and sparked a political spat between Indonesia and Singapore.

The drainage of tropical wetlands is intimately connected with the logging industry. ‘You have this magical forest of trees growing on wetlands – 50 metres high,’ says Silvius. ‘You first get logging of the high-value trees, then illegal logging of whatever’s left. Once the forest is gone, the land is converted to oil palm and pulpwood. We’re seeing huge peatland forests with extremely high biodiversity value being lost for a few decades of oil palm revenues. The people who depended on the wetlands for their livelihoods and their culture lose everything.’

Peat comprises 90 per cent water, ten per cent soil, so one of the most alarming consequences of peat drainage is land subsidence. ‘Companies cut ditches to enter the peat swamps by boat and float the logs out,’ says Silvius, ‘These act as drainage ditches. To plant wheat, corn, oil palms or pulpwood trees such as acacia, the peat needs to be drained and so the process of peat drainage is intensified and degradation begins.’

Bacteria and fungi then break down the carbon in the peat and turn it into CO2 and methane. That converts the substance of the peat into a gas and the remainder starts to subside. ‘In the tropics, peat subsides at about four centimetres a year, so within half a century, very large landscapes on Sumatra and Borneo will become flooded as the peat drops below water level,’ says Silvius. ‘It’s a huge catastrophe that’s in preparation. Some provinces will lose 40 per cent of their landmass.’



All is far from lost, however, Silvius argues, pointing to the ‘hundreds of forest species’ that can be harvested sustainably to keep wetlands alive. WI is involved in pilot projects that exploit alternatives in Kalimantan. These include the hardwood meranti tree, whose nuts produce an oil used in chocolate and cosmetics processing; and jelutung, a rubber tree native to Southeast Asia that, unlike its more popular African cousin, doesn’t require drained land to thrive.

Similarly, the potential for income creation from fish in such wetlands is enormous, Silvius argues. ‘By restoring the jungle, you stop the subsidence of the peat, you save carbon,’ says Silvius. ‘It’s not that we just want to restore the biodiversity of wetlands – which we do – but we recognise there’s a need to provide an income for local people.’

This approach is supported by IWMI, which published a report in February, Wetlands and People, that argued that environmentalists need to work with people rather than dogmatically trying to keep wetlands in pristine isolation. IWMI’s McCartney works on a project in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta that’s exploring integrated rice and fish production that can reduce the degradation of mangroves and mitigate food insecurity and poverty. ‘The idea is that people in a developing country will only protect wetlands if they value and profit from them,’ he says. ‘For sustainability, it’s essential that local people are involved in wetland planning and decision making and have clear rights to use wetlands.’

 103364586 HIGH REP optA pulpwood concession located in the Kerumutan peat swamp forest in the province of Riau in Sumatra await boat transport


Equally, wetlands, while vulnerable to climate change, can also be harnessed to mitigate its impacts. The Sahel is typically thought of as a drought-prone region without any significant wetlands. In reality, it holds a series of large wetland systems and floodplains that are crucial for the survival of local communities.

‘The Niger River comes from the Guinean highlands to central Mali, where the land is very flat,’ says van Eijk. When the river floods, it creates an inland delta of three million hectares where the water can be three metres deep and that is inhabited by 1.5 million people. ‘Over hundreds of years, people have developed and adapted a way of life that depends on the wetlands. Farmers graze their cattle, others follow the fish.’

Yet the delta now faces challenges from both climate change – in terms of heavier and less predictable rainfall, as well as increased evaporation as temperatures rise – and upstream abstraction of water from the river for irrigation.

The forests that the delta supports are referred to locally as ‘natural banks’ – they provide food and water, as well as shelter from storms. WI and other agencies are working to restore these flood forests. ‘It can be as simple as planting a few trees per hectare to create shade and substantially change a microclimate,’ says van Eijk. ‘Implementing climate change projects isn’t so much about money.’ Yet wetlands also face emerging threats, such as from the exploitation of Arctic tar sands, the viscous mix of oil and sand that lies underneath the boreal forests of the Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River regions of northern Alberta, Canada. This undulating landscape is characterised by depressions that host wildlife-rich peat swamps.

‘Mining for tar sands tears up the whole landscape,’ says Ward Hagemeijer, WI’s corporate relations manager. Hydrological functions change forever, habitats for biodiversity disappear and carbon stored in the landscape is lost.

The land is drained and trees felled to give access to machinery. The peaty top layer is stockpiled, with a view to re-applying it, mostly after the mining operations have finished. ‘But that can take decades, so not a lot will be left,’ says Hagemeijer. ‘The way it currently works, they can’t put back the functioning landscape that was there before. It changes the way it looks and the way it works, from a depression with wetlands to a slightly hilly landscape with park-like forests. To a layman, it probably looks nice but it’s completely different.

‘In our experience the oil companies meet the different regulations in the different countries they work in,’ he continues. ‘It’s more difficult to get them to do things over and above regulation, even if that’s obviously the better solution.’



Yet while the commodities industries affect wetlands in ways that can easily be documented, Tickner believes that more subtle impacts can be even more devastating. ‘Sediment run-off and fertilisers can be pretty invisible,’ says Tickner. ‘Over-extraction of water is equally invisible. You do get shock stories about rivers running red, or even catching fire, but there’s seldom one big impact that really hurts a wetland. They tend to die the death of 1,000 cuts.’

According to the UN’s 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, freshwater ecosystems are in the most trouble. The major pressures, says Tickner, come from dams and other water infrastructure. ‘There has been an increase in dams affecting fish migration and river flows,’ he says. ‘More and more water is being sucked out for agriculture, from Spain to India, Pakistan,

the USA and Australia.’ Tickner points to WWF’s efforts in China to mitigate the damage caused by the vast dam projects along the Yangtze as evidence that there’s still hope, even in those countries with the fiercest reputation for manhandling their wetlands. China’s Hubei province is described in guidebooks as ‘The Land of the Thousand Lakes’ and, says Tickner, ‘if you look at historical maps, there are lakes all over the place, some of them seasonal, some permanent, all connected to the Yangtze.’

Since the 1970s, however, many of these lakes have been drained to accommodate agriculture or cut off from the Yangzte, and their numbers, says Tickner, ‘declined horribly. The local communities had historically used the lake for drinking water, but had been reduced to buying bottled water.’ At the start of this century, WWF – with funding from HSBC – sought ways to reconnect some of the lakes to the river and flush water through them to improve water quality and enhance biodiversity.

The project deployed soft engineering techniques such as planting reed beds and opening sluice gates. The water, once only fit for watering plants, became potable. ‘The Chinese authorities liked what they saw so much they replicated it elsewhere,’ says Tickner. ‘Now 50 lakes have been beneficially reconnected to the river.’

Such experiences – and the sheer value that wetlands offer humans – give Tickner cause for optimism. ‘I’ve worked on wetland issues for 20 years and have never met anybody who wanted to damage a wetland,’ he says. ‘It isn’t something that people generally set out to do. Quite often, the effects simply come from people trying to make a living.

‘We’re facing more systemic issues – population growth, climate change that makes rainfall patterns and river runoff a little less predicable, and a big expansion of energy production,’ he continues. ‘Quite often, it’s water that’s needed to drive or manage all these factors, so there isn’t anything malicious going on – but there is a need to do things more thoughtfully.’



The fortunes of wetlands would be improved, Silvius suggests, if more governments recognised their long-term value. ‘Different governments have different attitudes,’ he says. ‘The Malaysian government still denies the issue – you can put reputable scientists in front of them and they don’t want to hear about subsidence and other issues. Yet the Indonesian president has taken some daring steps and announced a moratorium on exploiting peat. The Russian government has placed a high priority on restoring peatlands, but in the EU, awareness is very low.’

‘There’s a lot of ignorance among governments,’ agrees van Eijk. ‘It’s difficult to put an economic value on the services that wetlands provide, so governments often go for infrastructure solutions [to water-related issues]. Yet the natural-based solutions are much cheaper than the ones that rely on engineering.’

Moores believes that the key – as with so many global issues – is judicious long-term thinking where governments hold their nerve. ‘Public attitudes [in Asia] have improved over the past 25 years, people are much more aware,’ he says. ‘The optimism could come if companies and governments in Europe and elsewhere in the West adopt a consistent application of the Millennium Development Goals, if they begin to make decisions that relate to global impacts rather than short-term goals.’

Tickner reiterates the power that wetlands have to entrance us, but, he adds, ‘in the light of development in many parts of the world, just simply saying they are wonderful places isn’t enough to protect them. We have to look at the more utilitarian argument as well – food, materials, their ability to protect us from flooding.

‘There are huge challenges, and it will be increasingly difficult to rescue some rivers and wetlands around the world,’ he concludes. ‘But most of my colleagues are optimistic – we see farmers making better profits from less water and fewer pesticides. Large parts of the world are waking up to the fact that we can’t keep exploiting wetlands.’



Hurricane Katrina killed 1,800 people and caused damage worth US$100billion when it swept through New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico in 2005. Nine years on, visitors to the region will find new islets of spartina grass appearing, the first steps in the restoration of the Louisiana Gulf Coast wetlands. Historically, these swamps formed the frontline against extreme weather; their degradation due to development left them unable to stop the storm surge and was the key factor in the devastation wreaked by Katrina.

The US Army Corps of Engineers has all but completed a 560-kilometre network of larger and more resilient levees – with an eye-watering price tag of US$15billion. But according to the US National Wildlife Federation, these man-made levees will only work if they’re bolstered by the regeneration of the wetlands. ‘Their problem is the same as that in Indonesia,’ says Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International. ‘The peatlands around New Orleans were drained, the land subsided and the dykes and levees that were built were insufficient to deal with the flooding.’

Last autumn, Louisiana officials filed a lawsuit against a number of large energy companies, demanding that they pay for decades of damage to fragile coastal wetlands. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority argued that ‘this protective buffer took 6,000 years to form. It has been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime.’

The filing added that ‘what remains of these coastal lands is so seriously diseased that if nothing is done, it will slip into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of this century, if not sooner’.

 RTR2MRWU REP 2 optA fisherman tries to paddle his boat through a small stream amid the partially dried up Honghu Lake in China’s Hubei province. A 2010 study calculated that the value of the lake’s ‘ecosystem services’ was about £275million


The key international protocol protecting wetlands is known as the Ramsar Convention, after the Iranian city on the Caspian Sea in which the treaty was signed in 1971. Since then, 168 countries have signed up to its charter, and the designation of the Llanos de Moxos last year suggests that it still holds some sway in international circles.

The convention was established in response to concern over the increasing rate at which large stretches of marshland and other wetlands in Europe were being reclaimed or otherwise destroyed. It doesn’t seek to preserve wetlands from all human development, but instead advocates what it calls their ‘wise use’ and sets out technical guidance on how to implement its guidelines.

The UK has the most Ramsar designated sites – 169 – including Chesil Beach in Dorset, the Humber estuary and the Caithness and Sutherland peatlands. Bolivia has the greatest area designated as Ramsar land (14.8 million hectares), followed by Canada (13 million hectares) and Chad (12.4 million hectares).

‘Awareness of the importance of wetlands is growing,’ says Dr Matthew McCartney of the International Water Management Institute. ‘It’s true that wetland degradation still continues at a rapid pace, but my impression is that things are slowly changing.’



Belarus, widely criticised for human rights abuses and still directly affected by the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, doesn’t enjoy many positive headlines. But its pioneering efforts to restore its peatlands have been widely praised by scientists and environmentalists.

Before a large-scale drainage programme began in the 1950s, Belarus – then part of the Soviet Union – held 2.9 million hectares of peatlands, equivalent to 14.2 per cent of its landmass. By 1990, that area had shrunk by 70 per cent, as two million hectares were drained for agriculture, leaving a network of degraded peat extraction sites, abandoned drained areas and degraded agricultural land. According to the UN Development Programme, peat fires in the region aided the dispersion of radioactive compounds released during the Chernobyl disaster.

The impetus for change came from APB, a leading nature conservation NGO in Belarus and a BirdLife Partner organisation, which wanted to restore the wetlands to protect the aquatic warbler. By 2013, more than 50,000 hectares had been re-wetted – stopping some 50,000 tonnes of CO2 being released as the peat was no longer degrading.

‘Belarus is a hotspot for peatlands,’ says Dr Wendelin Wichtmann, a senior researcher at the Michael Succow Foundation in Germany who has worked on restoration projects in Belarus. Wichtmann believes that wetland protection must show farmers that there are alternatives to peat. ‘Several thousand hectares have already been re-wetted but aren’t used productively. To reintroduce peatland doesn’t help too much if you can’t harvest the biomass that it produces.’

A pilot project has sought to plant and harvest common reed, canary grass and sedges, which could replace peat as a fuel source. According to Wichtmann, the replacement of peat fuel by biomass from wet peatlands in Belarus would require an area of 680,000 hectares, which, he points out, would be ‘only half of the peatland that has been drained for agriculture’.

This story was published in the April 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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