Still waters run deep
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CTA. 2002. Still waters run deep. Spore 100. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/47601
Internet URL: http://spore.cta.int/images/stories/pdf/old/spore100.pdf
Wetlands are highly productive areas, offering a home to many plant and animal species and being a major storeroom for the world s water, oxygen and carbon dioxide. Among the competing claims of production, profit and preservation, what is the...
Wetlands are highly productive areas, offering a home to many plant and animal species and being a major storeroom for the world s water, oxygen and carbon dioxide. Among the competing claims of production, profit and preservation, what is the right balance? Every country in the world has its wetlands. The Okavango in Botswana and the Sudd swamps in southern Sudan are large well-known examples, as are the areas alongside the edges of the Niger Delta. There are equally important wetlands on the islands of the Caribbean and the Pacific. There are those of Vella Lavella in the Solomon Islands and the Sepik river system in Papua New Guinea. And on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago there are no less than 11 distinct wetlands. Worldwide, at least 570 million hectares are considered wetlands, about one-twentieth of the world s land surface. What is a wetland? Estuaries, lagoons, swamps, marshes, peat lands, seasonal flood plains in river basins are all part of the definition. It covers areas where excess water dominates the environment and determines the flora and fauna. The water table is usually just below, equal to or just above the land surface and the water can be static, flowing, tidal, brackish, fresh or salt. During the 20th century the world lost half its wetlands and the pace is not slowing down. Most of them fell victim to drainage and conversion to irrigated agriculture, to pollution or to overexploitation of resources, including fish, timber and water. By the 1970s, the world had started to see the need to act. On 2 February 1971 World Wetlands Day ever since an intergovernmental treaty on the conservation of wetlands was signed in Ramsar, Iran, and it is now popularly known as the Ramsar Convention. At present there are 132 contracting parties to the Convention, with 1,178 wetland sites, covering a total of 102 million hectares. It was the first global treaty of its kind on the conservation and wise use of the world s natural resources. In the early days its focus was largely on conservation, primarily to save the habitats of water birds. In recent years, wise use has gained importance too, even to the extent of embracing cultural aspects. The next meeting of the Ramsar Conference of the Parties, to be held in Spain in November 2002, is on the theme of Wetlands: water, life and culture . Nature s treasure trove In most ACP countries, wetlands are highly productive and are cultivated seasonally without the need for fallowing or fertiliser use. After the wet season, receding flood crops such as sorghum can be cultivated. In the dry season the areas are used for grazing by pastoralists and finally, during the floods, the soil fertility is restored and the area is used again for fishing. When the floods recede, the fish are restricted to creeks and rivers and with crop cultivation the cycle starts all over again. But there is more that makes wetlands a country s wholesaler of nature. Of the commercial fish species caught at sea, most have their spawning grounds in wetlands. The wetlands are also the cradle of rice cultivation, the nests and pit stops for millions of migratory birds, the home of shrimps, and the nurseries for medicinal plants, mangroves and construction materials such as timber and thatching reeds. In the Diawling wetlands in Mauritania, Sporobolus robustus, a perennial grass, is used for making mats and materials for fishing, Acacia nilotica delivers the tannins for traditional leather tanning and Oryza barthii, wild rice, provides food. These species were on the brink of extinction following the construction of the Diama dam upstream on the Senegal river in 1986. The construction of sluices and embankments in the mid-1990s restored freshwater levels and the species already are returning. Proper sustainable management of wetlands, however, is more complex than simply keeping feet wet. The Nariva swamps in Trinidad are a prohibited area, but in the 1980s farmers drained and occupied hundreds of hectares for rice cultivation, much to the dislike of the Pointe-A-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust and despite its Ramsar Convention status. Incompatible interests in the use of wetlands resources are not only a reason for conflict, they also disrupt the fragile balance that characterises wetlands. Convert or conserve Most wetlands are inhabited by a variety of users, who need to be part and parcel of any plan for sustainable management. Wetlands are multifaceted in nature and in use. In the past two decades, the conviction has grown that the multi-purpose use of wetlands seems the most sensible way forward for sustainable use. Land and water rights of the inhabitants and other stakeholders, not to mention health issues, need to be sorted out and arranged at government level. Local knowledge, which is often dispersed among the various users, and scientific knowledge need to be integrated. The first examples of this multi-stakeholder, multi-use approach are beginning to bear fruits. In Zambia s Kafue Flats, the first partnership agreements, arranging water rights, have been signed between commercial sugarcane farmers, local communities and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). In Ethiopia s Illubabor zone a wetlands management programme executed by the Wetland Action consortium and the British University of Huddersfield has pinpointed the need to include all stakeholders in wetland management planning. Their conclusion, one that can be shared across the world, is that a multi-use approach which balances conservation with development is a viable way of maintaining a broad range of socio-economic benefits whilst allowing hydrological and ecological functions to work as nature intended. [caption to illustration] Looking for Paradise Lost