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Over a third of natural wetlands lost globally since 1970

October 25, 2018
dubai wetland

Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary in the UAE – a network of highly biodiverse salt flats, lagoons, intertidal mud flats and mangrove swamps below the Dubai skyscrapers. Image: Francesca Negrini | Ramsar

Over a third of natural wetlands have been lost globally since 1970, a rate of decline which is three times that of global forest loss over the same period. Wetlands are important habitats for wildlife, and provide a number of important ecosystem services to humans, including food security, flood protection and climate change mitigation. However, wetlands are being lost due to human development across the world, putting a quarter of the plants and animals which depend on them at risk of extinction.

These are some of the key findings of the new Global Wetland Outlook report, published by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an international treaty on wetland conservation. The report – the first global wetland inventory of its kind – has been published to coincide with the 13th Ramsar Convention of Parties, held this week in the United Arab Emirates.

Covering around 12.1 million km2 globally – an area almost as large as Greenland – wetlands are often highly biodiverse ecosystems, and can variously include lakes, rivers, swamps, marshes, peatlands and mangrove. Wetlands play a major role in the water cycle by storing, regulating and releasing water flows, and can also provide natural flood protection. However, widespread land use change and water regulation has reduced connectivity between many river systems and floodplain wetlands, according to the new report. Many other global wetlands have been drained to provide land for agriculture and urban development.

kuwait wetland

Mubarak Al-Kabeer Reserve – a Ramsar site in Kuwait where shallow salt marshes and small lagoons provide a key habitat for migratory birds. Image: Abdualreda Alramzi | Ramsar

Wetlands also play important roles in nutrient and carbon cycles. They can help regulate aquatic nutrient levels as plant growth and sedimentation acts as a natural ‘filter system’ – a process which can also store pollutants such as trace metals. Similarly, wetlands are important ‘sinks’ for carbon. Despite occupying only 3% of the land surface, peatlands store twice as much carbon as the world’s forests, according to the report.

Despite their value to humans and non-humans alike – the report suggests that wetland ecosystem services far exceed those from terrestrial environments – wetlands continue to be damaged and destroyed across the world. Based on available data, the report estimates that between 1970 and 2015, the global area of inland and marine/coastal wetlands both declined by approximately 35%.

Human-made wetlands – largely rice paddy and reservoirs – almost doubled in area over this period, now forming 12% of wetlands, the report estimates. However, these increases have not compensated for natural wetland loss, nor do they generally provide the same habitat for biodiversity. Since 1970, 81% of inland wetland species populations and 36% of coastal and marine species have declined, and 25% of wetland species are at risk of extinction globally.

iraq wetland

Gathering reeds in the Hawizeh Marsh Ramsar Site in Iraq – the last significant area of the Mesopotamian marshlands complex largely drained in the 1990s. Image: Ramsar

The report argues that this ongoing loss of wetlands is caused by policy and decision-makers underestimating their value. They recommend expanding the network of Ramsar Sites (which currently number over 2,300) and other wetland protected areas globally, alongside strengthening legal and policy arrangements for wetland protection.

One key task is to improve national wetland inventories – through remote sensing, ecological field monitoring, citizen science and the consultation of local and indigenous people – to better understand the extent and value of global wetlands, and the threats they face. Such work can provide the basis to better governance and public participation in wetland conservation, the report suggests.

belarus wetland

Yelnia reserve in Belarus – a patchwork landscape of raised bogs and transition mires which provides important flood protection and nutrient filtration services. Image: Vershitskaya Irina | Ramsar

Martha Rojas Urrego, Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention says, “The loss of wetlands continues today, with direct and measurable negative impacts on nature and people. The purpose of the Global Wetland Outlook is to increase understanding of the value of wetlands and provide recommendations to ensure that wetlands are conserved, wisely used and their benefits recognized and valued by all.

The Ramsar Convention plays a unique role in championing this change. As the only international treaty focused on wetlands, it provides a platform of 170 Contracting Parties working together for wetland conservation and wise use, and to develop the best available data, advice and policy recommendations to realize the benefits of fully functional wetlands to nature and society.”

south korea wetland

A flock of oystercatchers on Seocheon Tidal Flat in South Korea. This open tidal flat is directly linked to the ocean, and provides habitat for migratory birds and spawning and nursery ground for fish. Image: Seochon-gun county | Ramsar

The report suggests that the UN Sustainable Development Goals provide an important policy framework through which wetland conservation might be better valued and addressed.

Rojas Urrego explains, “In the context of climate change, increasing water demands and increased risks of floods and droughts, wetlands are more critical than ever to achieve sustainable development. In fact, wetlands contribute directly or indirectly to 75 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicators.

Of critical importance is the Convention’s leadership role in reporting on wetland extent as a co-custodian with the United Nations Environment Programme of SDG indicator 6.6.1. The Convention provides a platform like no other to foster collaboration and partnership to achieve other international policy objectives including the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction to promote co-benefits and scale up the needed action to conserve and wisely use wetlands.”


Read the The Global Wetland Outlook – Status and Trends 2018 report online.

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands 2018

Ramsar website

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