World Wetlands Day 2008


World Wetlands Day 2008

Wetlands and human health - an introduction

The Convention's suggested theme for World Wetlands Day, 2 February 2008, is Healthy Wetlands, Healthy People, and this will also be the theme for Ramsar's 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in October-November 2008 in the Republic of Korea.

As we approach World Wetlands Day, we have taken an opportunity to introduce to the Ramsar community, and the people you reach out to, a few key topics that exemplify both the direct, positive effects on human health of maintaining healthy wetlands - such as the provision of food, clean water, pharmaceutical products, etc. - and the direct negative effects of mismanaging wetlands that result in the impairment of our health and even the loss of life - such as through the effects of water-related diseases, burning peatlands, floods, and water pollution.

We aim to emphasise that the strong relationship between healthy functioning wetland ecosystems and human health underlines the importance of management strategies that support both the health of wetland ecosystems and the health of humans. And that the costs of poor management can be high - wetland-related diseases, for example, claim the lives of more than 3 million people every year and bring suffering to many more.

Our WWD poster will illustrate all of the key topics we have identified, and the accompanying thematic sheets will give a few 'soundbites' of information on each of the topics as they relate specifically to wetlands.

We have done no more than skim the surface of these topics. There is so much more we could say on these issues and there are other topics we could have considered - but WWD is also a 'warm-up' for the Ramsar community, as a preparation for a more in-depth look at wetlands and human health being carried out right now by Ramsar's Scientific and Technical Review Panel. Their report will prepare the Convention for its consideration of wetlands and human health at COP10, and if it is completed in time, may also provide useful background for all of us for World Wetlands Day.

WWD materials for 2008

As in the past, the Ramsar Secretariat will be distributing materials (in English, French, and Spanish) that we hope will be helpful to you in your WWD activities. The basic mailing will include -- in hardcopy - the poster mentioned above and a sticker, as well as a CD-ROM containing high-res PDF versions of the thematic fact sheets (which are keyed to the poster and meant to be displayed with it),of the poster itself, and of a surprise giveaway for the children, suitable for printing but not for editing them. A second CD is also being prepared with the original designer files for those who wish to customize the materials or translate them into local languages, but that will be sent only on special request - and such a request should come to us as soon as possible.

The mailing is planned for early October 2007, and you can ensure that you receive the materials promptly by contacting Valerie Higgins at the Secretariat ( - don't forget to provide your postal address and to specify which of the three language versions you would like.

Background on the topics to be covered

Wetland food

Adequate, good quality food is a prerequisite for healthy people, and wetlands are key contributors, supplying us with, for example, fish (including shellfish), and plants (including fruits, seeds, as well as the vegetative parts). One billion people rely on fish as their main or sole source of protein and many more consume fish regularly. In terms of cultivated wetland plants, rice is the most important at a global level, providing 20% of the world's dietary energy supply. Other wetland plants, such as seaweeds, although not harvested on the same scale as fish, are still an important source of food for local use and for international markets. Indirectly, wetland plants often play a vital role as a food for livestock on which the health of billions of people depend.

Well managed, our wetlands will continue to provide food to keep us healthy - but there are many human actions that negatively affect the capacity of wetlands to continue to provide for us. Pollution, excessive water abstraction, poor sanitation, overharvesting and, of course, wetland destruction, all reduce or destroy the capacity of wetlands to provide food for human consumption.

Clean water

We've been saying it for years - inland wetlands (rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes, etc.) perform a vital function in filtering and purifying freshwater, rendering it 'clean' for human consumption. And never has it been a more valuable service for human populations than today when over one billion people lack access to clean water supplies. But wetlands can only provide us with clean water if we keep them healthy through effective management. What happens when we destroy our wetlands is obvious - we lose this source of clean water, as well as all the other ecosystem services they provide. And what happens to our clean water supply when we add too many human by-products to wetlands? . . . Find out more in our section on pollution.

Water pollution

Despite the capacity of freshwater wetlands in purifying water, they do have their limits. They can only deal with so much agricultural runoff, so much inflow from domestic and industrial wastes. And of course the human species is capable of adding much more - toxic chemicals (such as PCBs, DDT and dioxins), antibiotics from animal husbandry, untreated human sewage, pesticides that act as 'endocrine disrupters' . . . and more. We can, and do, readily move beyond the purifying powers of wetlands so that these sources of freshwater, and the food they supply, are rendered unfit for consumption and a danger to human health.

Of particular concern are the 2.6 billion people today who lack access to adequate sanitation. Poor sanitation adds to the microbial contamination of drinking water provided by wetlands - and then to sickness and sometimes loss of life.

Wetlands act as filters or traps for many pathogens - when the passage of water through wetlands is long enough, pathogens lose their viability or are consumed by other organisms. Human-made wetlands are being constructed in urban and rural areas to perform just this function and thus prevent untreated sewage reaching natural wetlands that are used as an immediate source of drinking water.

Water-related diseases

In many parts of the world, human health is closely linked to water-related diseases. Malaria, because mosquitoes breed in wetlands, and diarrheal infections (including cholera) because of sewage contamination are globally the worst in terms of their severity of impact, accounting for 1.3 and 1.8 million deaths respectively in 2002, and affecting the health of many, many more. Fatalities are almost entirely in children under 5 years of age. Diarrheal diseases affect both African and south Asian countries, whereas malaria's impact is largely in Africa but also significant in many parts of Asia and the Americas.

While malaria and diarrheal diseases are the two worst in terms of human impact, we might add to this the debilitating effects of other wetland-related diseases such as schistosomiases, Japanese encephalitis, filariases, onchocerciasis and others.

Diarrheal diseases can be controlled through provision of clean water, good sanitation practices and hygiene education. Poorly treated human sewage contains pathogens that are a key cause of diarrheal infections - and wetlands (both inland and coastal) can be an important transport mechanism for such pathogens where sanitation is poor.

Controlling malaria was one of the driving forces for wetland destruction in the past, especially in Europe, but this has led to the loss of vital ecosystem services such as water and food and is not considered an option today. Solutions that are working, at least in some areas, range from the use of fish that consume the mosquito larvae and bacterial larvicides that kill them without affecting other organisms, to better design, management, and regulation of dams and irrigation schemes and water drainage systems that can reduce breeding sites.


Floods and storms have affected human lives since the beginning of civilization, but all types of floods - riverine and coastal floods and storms, sudden snow melts, floods after intense rainfall - have become more destructive in recent decades, because increasingly human infrastructure is being built in flood-prone areas, and they are likely to be even more pronounced in the future. This we are all aware of from the international media, from statisticians, and perhaps from our own personal experiences.

The direct and immediate impacts on human health include loss of life, injuries, and, within a very short period of time, the lack of clean water and destruction of sewage systems, which result in another set of threats to human health - diarrhea, cholera, and other life-threatening, water-related ailments. Receding floods in some countries also provide the perfect environment for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Finally, there are the longer term effects on mental health, such as anxiety and depression that often follow a major flooding event.

While we cannot easily prevent major floods, we can ensure that we benefit from the flood protection services that wetlands supply free of charge. Rivers, lakes and marshes slow down and retain floodwaters but only if we do not build our urban centres on natural floodplains and are more thoughtful about the broader implications of channellising our rivers and draining our marshes.

Burning peatlands

Controlled burning has been used effectively in peatland management in various parts of the world, but events in recent years in southeast Asia have highlighted the fact that extensive and uncontrolled burning can have serious direct effects on human health. For example, the largely deliberate burning for land-clearing in 1997-1998 in southeast Asian peatlands affected around 70 million people with around 12 million people requiring health care for respiratory problems. Significant burning events since then have continued to affect the health of large numbers of people.

In the longer term, peatland burning and drainage activities have led to massive increases in the emissions of greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change, and these activities have often destroyed local livelihoods as well.

Water availability

If water is extracted more rapidly than it is naturally replenished, wetland ecosystems will, in extreme cases, collapse, with a complete loss of ecosystem services. The effect of such extreme cases is costly in terms of human health. A well-documented example is the Aral Sea where water abstraction for irrigating crops reduced a vibrant wetland to dust - causing loss of livelihoods in the short term and, in the longer term, seriously impairing the health of communities that lived around the sea through the health effects of dust storms, erosion, and poor water quality for drinking and other purposes.

While this may be an extreme example, there are many cases where a dramatic reduction in water availability results in significant negative effects on human health. In Lake Chad, a lake shared by Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger, climate change, the demand for irrigation water upstream, and poor management decisions in the basin have reduced the size of the lake by 90% over the past 40 years. The net effect on the 20 million people, mainly fishers and farmers, who rely directly on the lake is rising levels of malnutrition, in turn leading to a much increased vulnerability to diseases. A major project is underway to reverse this situation.

Wetland medicines

Many wetland plants and a number of animal species have been used in traditional medicines for millennia and this continues today. They are also used in homeopathic medicines, an ever-growing industry in the developed world, and have a role in the development and production of modern medicines. Over-collection, destructive harvesting techniques, and habitat loss and alteration all challenge the capacity of wetland species to continue to fulfill these roles.

Mental well-being

The world's population is becoming concentrated in urban areas, particularly along coasts, and our urban populations are becoming more and more physically inactive. The World Health Organisation estimates that depression and depression-related illness will become the greatest source of ill-health by 2020, and the effects on health of physical inactivity in urban populations is becoming ever more costly in terms of medical treatment. We use urban green spaces, including rivers, lakes and reservoirs, for recreation, for education, and for relaxation. The value of green spaces in improving the mental and physical health of urban populations is gaining greater recognition and current studies indicate measurable physical and psychological benefits from regular contact with urban green spaces. Urban wetlands have a key role to play here.

Additional sources

For those of you who wish to know more now about wetlands and human health as you prepare for World Wetlands Day, we provide two links below to some of the most fruitful sources of information.

1. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, especially those chapters dealing with human health. Begin here:

2. World Water Development Report 2:

evian2.jpg (2371 bytes)danone.jpg (2960 bytes) Since its inception, the production and distribution of materials for World Wetlands Day have been financially supported by the Evian Project funded by the Danone Group.

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