Healthy wetlands mean healthy people and sustainable livelihoods

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What is it about?

Healthy wetlands mean healthy people. In contrast, wetlands degraded through human activities – especially those that reduce water quality and availability – often have reduced capacity to deliver ecosystem services, which can directly and indirectly affect human health with impacts such as the loss of food production and local livelihoods. Degraded wetlands can also result in the emergence of infectious diseases and the resurgence of water-related diseases, again compromising human health, and they may reduce the availability of wetland plants and animals that have medicinal values of particular importance to indigenous people and local communities.

What the Convention does

Through two Resolutions adopted in 2008 on Wetlands and human health and Wetlands and poverty reduction, the Convention provides the vital links for understanding the relationships between healthy wetlands and healthy people. Additionally, in 2011 as Ramsar and the Contracting Parties prepare for the COP11 meeting in July, 2012, there is a new Draft Resolution covering wetlands and human health. Draft Resolution SC43-25 covers “Wetlands and health: taking an ecosystem approach.”  The Ramsar Standing Committee is reviewing this document 31 Oct - 4 Nov, 2011, for consideration by Convention Parties at COP11.

What needs to be done next?

There is now a clear need for the wetland sector in all countries to engage with colleagues in the health sector so that they too understand the need for healthy wetlands and will support both the wise use of existing wetlands and the restoration of those that are degraded as a means to keep people healthy.

Ramsar is continuing to address key challenges related to the implementation of the Changwon Declaration which requests the Convention to work with development sectors, including mining and other extractive industries, infrastructure development, water and sanitation, energy, agriculture, transport and others that can have direct or indirect effects on wetlands. These effects in some case may lead to negative impacts on wetland ecosystem services, including those that support human health and well-being. Managers and decision-makers in such development sectors need to be more aware of this and take all possible measures to avoid these negative impacts.

Ramsar Contracting Parties are expected to harmonize policies in different sectors, so that initiatives aimed at achieving human and economic development do not inadvertently lead to the degradation of wetlands, thus “undermining the ability of wetlands to provide vital services”.

It is also time for the Ramsar Contracting Parties, especially the Ramsar Administrative Authorities, to seriously engage in dialog and partnership with key players and decision makers dealing with “extractive industries” and “urban development” to make sure that wetland management issues are taken into account in land use planning at local and national levels.

Wise use of wetlands for sustainable clean water supply, food security and human health

Some wetlands play an important role in purifying water by ‘locking up’ pollutants in their sediments, soils and vegetation. In particular, high levels of nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrates, commonly associated with agricultural runoff and sewage effluent, can be significantly reduced by wetlands. This may prevent those same nutrients from reaching toxic levels in groundwater used for drinking purposes.

“Urban Development, Biodiversity and Wetland
Management Case Study:
East Kolkata Wetlands, India” [PDF] 
by Ritesh Kumar of Wetlands International

Wise use of the purification capacity that exists in some wetlands, such as in the Indian city of Kolkata (Calcutta), is important for human health, sustainable livelihoods, and effective wetland management. Kolkata has pioneered a system of sewage disposal that is both efficient and environmentally friendly.

The 8,000-hectare East Kolkata Wetlands Ramsar Site, a patchwork of tree-fringed canals, vegetable plots, rice paddies and fish ponds – and the 20,000 people that work in them –transform one-third of the city’s sewage and most of its domestic refuse into a rich harvest of fish and fresh vegetables every day.

Understanding the relationships between healthy wetlands and healthy people

Intact, healthy wetlands deliver ecosystem services for the benefit of people: food security; water security; “insurance” through the formation of natural buffers to storm damage; as well as spiritual, recreational and educational value. For many communities, hunger, malnutrition, and a lack of access to clean water are among the root causes of poor health and that health and well-being are closely linked to people’s livelihoods and to the basis for reducing poverty and vulnerability to poverty.

Ensuring healthy wetlands and populations

You may refer to Draft Resolution SC43-25 which covers “Wetlands and health: taking an ecosystem approach

Photo: Nathalie Rizzotti, Ramsar

.”  In this Draft Resolution, Article 10 stresses "the key role of wetlands in determining human health and well-being, since they are the source of hydration, safe water and/or nutrition; the sites of exposure to pollution, toxicants, infectious diseases, and/or physical hazards; the settings for mental health and psychosocial well-being, including as places where people derive their livelihoods and have their lives enriched, so enabling them to cope and help others; and sites from which medicinal products can be derived." It also recognises "the close specific linkages between wetland ecosystems and human livelihoods, and improved lifestyles (including potential for physical exercise, stress relief, improved mental health and resistance to illness), in particular for indigenous and local communities; and recognises that anthropogenic modification of wetland functions can result in poor health outcomes."

Annex 2 provides “Key Messages for policy-makers and wetland managers”, derived from the 2011 Ramsar Technical Report No. 6/World Health Organization Report on "Healthy wetlands, healthy people: A review of wetlands and human health interactions." Of these key messages, articles 4, 6, 7 and 8 show how wetlands, human health and sustainable livelihoods are linked:

4. The benefits of wetland ecosystems for human health can be approached in at least three inter-related ways: by recognising the human needs that are met by water in its setting; by recognising the health products that come from wetland ecosystems; and by valuing wetlands in a full sense, in a way that allows individuals within wetland ecosystems to sustainably improve their socio-economic conditions.

6. Wetlands, through the services they provide, contribute to human health through the provision of food security: ensuring food availability, buying power, or social capital to access food with cash or through barter, sufficient nutrients from the available food, and a resource of genetic material contained within wetland organisms.

7. Addressing wetland management as if people’s lives, and their livelihoods, depended upon it will undoubtedly contribute to human health.

8. Humans can be exposed to health risks in wetland ecosystems: toxic materials, water-borne or vector borne diseases. While steps can be taken to ameliorate these risks, the risks can increase (sometimes dramatically) if disruption occurs to ecosystems and the services they provide.

Read the full Draft Resolution here.

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Number of » Contracting Parties: 168 Sites designated for the
» List of Wetlands of
International Importance
2,186 Total surface area of designated sites (hectares): 208,674,247

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