Wetlands and Urbanization

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What is it about?

The establishment of towns, cities and urban centres has depended on wetlands since the dawn of civilisation – they have traditionally provided vital resources for human society, including natural hazard protection, food, transport and drinking water. Today the majority of people live in urban areas, and there is an increasing shift from rural communities to urban settlements, especially in less developed countries.

Many human activities now threaten urban wetland ecosystems, with a loss of habitat and species, pollution of water, reduction in water resources, and contributions to climate change. These impacts alter wetland ecosystems within city boundaries and for considerable distances both upstream and downstream.

What the Convention does

Following a recent Ramsar Resolution on Wetlands and urbanization, the Convention is engaging with a range of key organisations such as UN-HABITAT and the Convention on Biological Diversity to develop guidance on the sustainable management of wetlands in urban and peri-urban areas.

What needs to be done next?

The Convention will continue to develop guidance in collaboration with other key actors in urban environments and disseminate it as widely as possible to a range of audiences, including urban planners and managers, emphasizing that their perspective of wetlands must change and that wetlands should be considered as a key provider of solutions in urban areas.

Urban riverfront in China.
Photo: iStockPhoto

Local communities can establish wetland education and visitor facilities on urban and peri-urban wetlands, and particularly Ramsar Sites in such locations, as a means of increasing urban community public awareness about wetland ecosystems and their value.

Local governments and elected officials, including the mayors of cities, particularly those that have hosted meetings of the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention and that have urban and peri-urban wetlands, can connect with the Convention on Biodiversity initiative on cities and biodiversity.

Municipalities can plan for wetland conservation and wise use, and can assess the direct and indirect environmental impacts of urbanization on wetlands both within their boundaries and beyond. City managers need to preserve or increase ecological functionality of urban and peri-urban wetlands and protect them from the negative impacts of the increasing urban consumption of wetland products and the derogation of ecosystem services.

World Water Week 2011: Water in an Urbanizing World

World Water Week takes place each year in Stockholm, Sweden, and has become the annual focal point for the globe’s water issues. The theme for the August, 2011 meeting was “Water in and Urbanising World.” Many of the sessions demonstrated the need for integrated planning for water management and urbanization. This approach extended across several topics including food production, flood management, disaster risk reduction, human health and energy production.

With the assistance of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Ramsar hosted a 40th anniversary side meeting featuring presentations from IWMI, IUCN, Conservation International and the Global Water Partnership. The presentations were followed by an open plenary discussion. Several issues were highlighted in both the presentations and the subsequent discussions, including the importance of:

  • Considering wetlands as natural water management infrastructure which can provide solutions to problems associated with urbanization such as sanitation, flood risk management and water resource provision;
  • Pursuing multifunctional outcomes and considering wetland ecosystem services which will improve the well-being of many different parts of society;
  • Ensuring that fully integrated water resource management is a priority so that the implications of decisions on wetlands and water do not impact society or biodiversity negatively.

Ramsar Resolution X.27, Wetlands and Urbanization

At Ramsar COP10, the Contracting Parties adopted Resolution X.27 Wetlands and Urbanization [PDF]. This resolution notes that “urban wetlands” are those wetlands lying within the boundaries of cities, towns and other conurbations and that “peri-urban wetlands” are those wetlands located adjacent to an urban area between the suburbs and rural areas, and recognises that wetlands in urban and peri-urban environments can deliver many important ecosystem services to people, such as wastewater treatment.

Urbanization and wetlands as seen in Central Park, New York City.
Photo: iStockPhoto

The resolution further notes the important role that urban and peri-urban wetlands can play in communication, education, participation and awareness for urban communities about wetlands, as well as the value of establishing education and visitor centres in such places; and that urban and peri-urban wetlands perform important functions in the improvement of neighbouring community environments, and provide safety nets for the communities living in these areas, both through the buffering effect of wetlands in riverine and coastal areas and through the role of wetlands in reducing impacts associated with climate variability.

Ramsar is concerned that many wetlands in urban and peri-urban environments are, or are becoming, degraded through encroachment of surrounding populations, pollution, poorly managed waste and infilling or other developments, and that these activities have diminished both the ecosystem services that urban wetlands can provide and the recognition of their value and importance by both decision-makers and urban communities.

What other resources are there for Wetlands and Urbanization Information?

Ramsar and UN Habitat collaborated through an expert workshop to identify a range of cross-cutting issues relating to wetlands, biodiversity and urbanization. The outcomes of the workshop are published here [PDF].

Members of Ramsar’s Scientific and Technical Review Panel contributed to the production of a UN Habitat report on “Supporting Local Action for Biodiversity: The Role of National Governments”. The report includes many case studies of best practice including several wetland-related examples and is published here.

Ramsar has been working with the ICLEI (an international association of local governments) in order to improve understanding of wetland issues in urban environments. ICLEI have produced extensive guidance for enhancing biodiversity in cities. This can be accessed here.

Please see the report “Urban Development, Biodiversity and Wetland Management Case Study: East Kolkata Wetlands, India” [PDF] by Ritesh Kumar of Wetlands International (Ritesh Kumar is a member of the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel.)

Urban Wetlands in Northern Spain, Ramsar article from 2009.

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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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