Critical food shortages and growing demand for bio-fuels and hydro-electricity due to high fossil fuel prices rank among the greatest threats today to the preservation of precious wetlands worldwide as farmers and developers look for new areas for agriculture, energy crop plantations and hydro dams.
However, resisting pressures to convert wetlands is vital to avoid destroying ecosystems that provide a suite of services essential to humanity, including safe, steady local water supplies, preserving biodiversity and the large-scale capture and storage of climate warming greenhouse gases, according 700 leading world experts concluding a week-long meeting in Cuiaba, Brazil.
The experts issued the Cuiaba Declaration (appended) July 25, the final day of the 8th INTECOL International Wetlands Conference, convened on the northern edge of the world's largest tropical wetland, the Pantanal.
Wetlands include marshes, tidal marshes, peat bogs, swamps, river deltas, mangroves, tundra, lagoons and river floodplains. Among other services, they trap and store carbon in submerged organic matter, sustain biodiversity, and produce renewable natural resources, such as fish, natural pasture, timber, and wildlife. The statement stresses the rising value of wetlands in an increasingly urbanized world, especially such services as water storage and purification, and recreation.
Wetlands are under assault, however, due to agriculture, grazing, aquaculture, dams, waste disposal, invasive species and other problems caused by human activity.
"It is time to recognize the incalculable value of wetlands to all species – ours included," says conference co-chair Paulo Teixeira, Co-ordinator of the Cuiaba-based Pantanal Regional Environmental Programme, a joint effort of the United Nations University and Brazil's Federal University of Mato Grasso (UFMT), which hosted the event.
"If we don't plan and invest properly now, the cost to recreate artificially the services wetlands provide will dwarf the cost of preserving and protecting them in the first place."
In their statement, conference delegates from 28 nations lament "inadequate national development policies, lack of implementation of existing laws, and the lack of long-term land use planning that negatively affect wetlands on public and private property."
They also call for help establishing such basic information tools as a mapped inventory of wetlands based on universally-accepted definitions, which as yet do not exist. They call on the 158 nations that are party to the Ramsar Convention to help remedy these and other yawning information gaps.
They warn against creating energy and food croplands at the expense of natural vegetation and of carelessly allowing agriculture to encroach on wetlands, which causes damage through sediment, fertilizer and pesticide pollution.
Development in and around wetlands must be preceded by "sound cost-benefit analyses, including environmental and social parameters," the statement says, adding that "mitigation of many negative side-effects is not possible" once the damage is done.
A recent study shows a large wetland in arid northern Nigeria yielded an economic benefit in fish, firewood, cattle grazing lands and natural crop irrigation 30 times greater than the yield of water being diverted from the wetland into a costly irrigation project.
And, at US$15 000 per hectare per year, the economic value of flood mitigation and other services provided by wetlands is greater than any other ecosystem – seven times that of the next most valuable, tropical rainforests.
The statement notes accelerating rates of biodiversity loss, saying "freshwater biodiversity is declining faster than terrestrial or marine biodiversity, and wetland species are especially prone to decline and extinction."
The rich biodiversity of wetlands mitigates the spread of disease from animal to human. The statement says that with warmer world temperatures water-borne diseases will expand into new areas.
Of particular concern as well: the expected damage to wetlands due to climate change – and the exacerbation of climate change if wetlands continue to deteriorate and release potentially massive stores of greenhouse gases, both carbon and more potent methane.
In some parts of the world, the loss of wetlands could also displace huge populations that rely on wetlands for subsistence. According to South African research, an estimated 1 to 2 million rural poor in that country alone could be displaced as wetlands dry up, placing further strain on urban centres to create accommodation and employment.
"A modern wetland policy based on sound scientific knowledge and able to reconcile economic development with environmental protection and social welfare is required in all countries," the statement says.
"Some countries have high standards for wetland management, restoration, and protection; however, many others are far behind. Joint efforts across political boundaries are needed to combine all our efforts to stop and reverse the loss and degradation of wetlands. Sound policies and activities are needed now."
The Ramsar Convention, which regulates global wetland management and protection, requires nation signatories to establish and implement a specific wetland policy, to prepare a wetland inventory, and to maintain the ecological character of all wetlands.
"We call attention to the fact that many signatories have not yet fulfilled theses requirement and ask for immediate action from the respective governments," the statement says. "We encourage non-member states to join the convention and strengthen the global effort needed to sustainably manage wetlands."
Cuiabá Declaration on Wetlands (draft for adoption by the final Plenary Session, July 25)
The State of Wetlands and their Role in a World of Global Climate Change
This Declaration is directed to governments, international and national organizations, and decision makers, and calls attention to the ecological and legal state of wetlands and their importance for humans and biodiversity worldwide under the special consideration of global climate change scenarios.
1. Wetlands are situated at the interface between land on the one side and marine or fresh water ecosystems on the other. They cover a considerable part of the globe's surface and comprise different ecosystems that are permanently or periodically wet, such as mangroves, tidal marshes, peat bogs, swamps, river floodplains, riparian zones, salt lakes, and others. Some of them are highly productive systems that are widely used by humans. Wetlands support people and biodiversity and they are part of our common future under global climate change.
2. The current lack of basic knowledge regarding the global extent of wetlands is unacceptable. Effective techniques for achieving a global wetlands inventory have been demonstrated. Systematically acquired spaceborne optical and microwave remote sensing data sets are essential to identify and characterize wetlands within the framework of the Ramsar Convention and for various other purposes.
3. Wetlands suffer a number of impacts from human activities, mainly from agriculture, including grazing, aquaculture, water regulation and infrastructure, waste disposal and invasive species. Peat bogs suffer from large scale peat extraction, river floodplains are affected by the construction of dams for hydropower generation and by lateral dikes that modify the water regime and the flux of dissolved and solid materials, and also disrupt the linkages along rivers and between rivers and their floodplains.
4. Freshwater biodiversity is declining faster than terrestrial or marine biodiversity, and wetland species are especially prone to decline and extinction.
5. Rising energy prices are leading to the large-scale cultivation of plants for bio-fuels. In addition to the problems of rising food prices, the increasing demand for bio-fuels will stimulate an expansion of energy-crop plantations at the cost of areas covered by natural vegetation. We call attention to the danger of direct negative impacts on wetlands by land reclamation and drainage, and to the indirect impacts caused increased inputs of sediments, fertilizers, and pesticides from surrounding croplands. Rising energy prices also stimulate the use of hydroelectric power. We call attention to the heavy impact of large and small hydroelectric power plants on riverine wetlands and the loss of benefits for the local population. Wise social policy decisions require sound cost-benefit analyses that include environmental and social parameters in order to adapt these mega-projects to economically, ecologically and socially acceptable standards before construction is started, because mitigation of many negative side-effects is not possible.
6. Many wetlands also provide habitation and sustenance for many people. There are numerous wetland stressors that seriously affect the many important ecosystem services provided by wetlands, such as the storage and purification of water, recharge of subterranean aquifers, buffering of water discharge, maintenance of landscape heterogeneity and biodiversity, carbon storage, and production of renewable natural resources such as fishes, natural pasture, timber, wildlife, and others.
7. Global climate change scenarios for the next century project a global temperature increase of 2-6o C, a rise in sea level of 20-40 cm, and considerable changes in the total amount and/or seasonal distribution of rainfall. The change from snow fall to rain fall and accelerated melting of glaciers in parts of some continents will reduce the water retention capacity in winter and modify the discharge patterns of streams and rivers. There will be an increase of extreme climate events, such as large storms, severe droughts and floods. These changes will affect with varying strength the different eco-regions of the globe and will put at risk the important services which wetlands provide for humans and biodiversity. They also will increase the risk in some areas of spreading disease vectors affecting human health.
8. Intact wetlands can buffer the impacts of global climate change through the water cycle and maintenance of biodiversity, and reduce negative economic, social and ecological effects.
9. Wetland conservation and restoration is a necessary means to reduced greenhouse gas emission. The importance of wetlands in the global carbon cycle needs to be better assessed and integrated into global climate models and political efforts to negotiate carbon trading.
10. Large-scale wetland destruction is continuing as a consequence of inadequate national development policies, lack of implementation of existing laws, and the lack of long-term land use planning that negatively affect wetlands on public and private property. Future changes in global climate will seriously exacerbate the current situation.
11. Worldwide, human population is increasingly concentrated in urban areas. Local and regional wetlands have an exceptionally high value for water storage, water purification and recreation, but they are also under increased threat by land reclamation and pollution.
12. A modern wetland policy based on sound scientific knowledge and able to reconcile economic development with environmental protection and social welfare is required in all countries. This policy should acknowledge the value of wetlands and their ecosystem services, as well as their importance for global biodiversity. Some countries have high standards for wetland management, restoration, and protection; however, many others are far behind.
13. There are 158 countries that are signatories to the Ramsar Convention that regulates the worldwide management and protection of wetlands. The convention requires that the signatories establish and implement a specific wetland policy, to prepare a national wetland inventory, and to maintain the ecological character of all wetlands through wise use.
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