Opening address to the West and Central African Parliamentarians' meeting on wetlands, Benin, 2003


First meeting of West and Central African Members of Parliament about wetlands and the Ramsar Convention

sponsored by the Government of Benin, the Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and the Network for Environment and Sustainable Development in Africa (NESDA)

27-28 November 2003

Opening address by Peter Bridgewater, Secretary General of the Convention on Wetlands

Hon Représentant du Président de l'Assemblée Nationale, Représentant du Ministre de l'Environment et de Urbanisme de la République du Bénin, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends and Colleagues.

It is a really great pleasure for me to be in Bénin, for the first time, and indeed in this part of Africa. The richness of your biological and cultural diversity is legendary, and thus it is really wonderful to see this meeting being held here, with such a high-level attendance!

Firstly I must pay tribute to the former Senior Advisor for Africa, Anada Tiéga, for conceiving of this meeting, and to his successor, Abou Bamba, for actually carrying it out! And I want also to thank Nassima Aghanim and Marcel Baglo, the local organiser, for their help in making sure the meeting has happened smoothly. And finally the Swedish Government for providing the bulk of the funding needed to make this exercise happen!

You will have plenty of time to hear in detail and discuss the power and potential of our Convention in the next days. But I want to make just a few introductory remarks, if for nothing else but to show the direction I see the Convention developing, with the support of the Contracting Parties. And I do so knowing that in two years time we will have just concluded our first Conference of the Parties on this continent, in Kampala, Uganda. This meeting is even timelier, therefore, as we lead up to that event.

Firstly I think we should see Ramsar as A CONVENTION FROM THE PAST, FOR THE FUTURE.


The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat, more generally abbreviated now as the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971), or even more simply the Ramsar Convention, was one of the first international rights documents on the environment. Adopted in 1971, in Ramsar (Iran), the Convention first came into force on the 21st of December of 1975. As of November 2003, it has 138 Contracting Parties, with three more in an advanced stage of the accession process, and more in the early stages.

Although initially the Convention had, as its main objective, the conservation of waterfowl through the preservation of their feeding and breeding habitats, this priority has slowly shifted to a wider focus on wetlands as a special ecosystem. This shift is partly because of the adoption of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS, Bonn) in 1983, and partly because of increasing global concern about the availability and purity of the world's water supplies. The Ramsar Convention has thus progressively evolved toward a more generic management of wetlands. Even the wetland types actively considered by the Convention have become more extensive, including ecosystems ranging from peatlands, to swamps, to marine coastal ecosystems up to a depth of 6m, and even the ice fields, from melting glaciers.

The Ramsar Convention is currently one of a group of international agreements engaged in biodiversity conservation and use, and especially in promoting integrated management of ecosystems. The Convention delivers its results through three pillars: Listed sites, the wise use of wetlands, and international cooperation. While emphasis is often placed on the listed sites, the importance of the other two pillars is now paramount, especially as we move to new strategies for seeing wetlands as key to poverty alleviation.

Because of its establishment before the Stockholm global meeting on the environment, Ramsar has never been formally part of the UN system. However, UNESCO is the legal depositary of documents of adhesion of all Contracting Parties. By agreement of all Contracting Parties the World Conservation Union (IUCN) provides financial and human resource services for the secretariat, in consultation with the Secretary General, as well as the Secretariat's headquarters space.

In recent years, and particularly after the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 2002), it has become clear that water is one of the most important resources of the planet, yet also one of the most under pressure. There is thus a necessity for a more coordinated global management of water resources - and the Ramsar Convention appears as the most relevant existing international agreement to deal with this new and increasing responsibility.

The Secretariat, working with bi- and multilateral funding agencies, aims to provide support for capacity building in developing countries. While Contracting Parties are the "owners" of the Convention in every sense, Ramsar is unusual in that historically the scientific community and the key NGOs of WWF, Birdlife International and Wetlands International, as well as the IUCN, all played a central role in the creation and early development of the Convention. Even today they are regarded as key partners in areas of capacity building and the provision of objective advice on the prosecution of the Convention.

Contracting Parties are obliged to designate one wetland of international importance as part of the process of adhesion, although many Contracting Parties list rather more. They also agree to try to ensure in their national management and development plans an equilibrium between human development and conservation of wetlands - and more broadly, of water as a natural resource; in other words, sustainable development.

This is why the Ramsar Convention recognizes and promotes economic and cultural values of wetlands, either through direct exploitation (fisheries, hunting, pharmaceutical use of some plant species, extraction of mineral water or of salt in coastal ecosystems, etc.) or indirect exploitation (through the use of water for energy generation, for example). Finally, the Ramsar Convention recognizes the importance of the Ecosystem Approach adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity - and we work very closely with that Convention to deliver globally important outcomes for wetland biodiversity.

In 2002 UN Secretary General Kofi Annan identified a set of five key issues as needing special focus at the WSSD in August 2002. These issues were known as WEHAB, for Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture and Biodiversity. Wetlands actually "open and close" this set of key issues, and logically have a great importance in each and every one of these five issues. So, what is important about the key WEHAB issues? Some statistics:

  • Four out of every 10 people currently live in river basins experiencing water scarcity. By 2025 nearly 50% of the worlds population will face water scarcity;
  • Over-pumping by farmers of groundwater exceeds natural recharge rates by at least 160 billion cubic metres a year;
  • Water losses in irrigated agriculture account for 25 - 40% of the water used;
  • At any one time half the world's hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from water borne diseases;
  • More than 50% of the worlds wetlands have been drained, and populations of inland water and wetland species have declined by 50% between 1970 and 1999;
  • Roughly one-third of the world coral reef systems have been destroyed or highly degraded.

These statistics underline the interlinkages between all elements of WEHAB. And although the traditional view of the Ramsar Convention is that it is about keeping places for migratory waterfowl, it is now seriously addressing all of the issues. Ramsar thus has a clear responsibility to help deliver positive outcomes globally, and is now centre stage in the suite of mechanisms for global environmental governance involving water and biodiversity.

For all of these reasons the Secretariats of the Ramsar Convention and the UNFCCC and UNCCD are developing joint programmes and activities, as endorsed by the Parties to the three conventions. This is one area where the development of synergies at all levels from national to global is key to helping manage the most serious issue of this century. And it is where you can help take this message to government.

The last CoP, held in Valencia in 2002, was a critical meeting for the Convention, as it sought to realise its role in the challenges ahead. In effect, the Convention changed gear and moved to a new paradigm, where wetlands were seen as part of the interlinked issues including the production, protection and purification of water sources for the world. And so, the designation of new wetlands of international importance is made especially relevant only if part of a better wetland management strategy for the whole of the country's wetland resources.

In a world with such a paradigm shift, the task for wetland managers will be not only to manage carefully their wetlands, but also to ensure that the surrounding land or seascape is managed appropriately - which means managing people as part of the management of water and biodiversity.

Certainly the Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention, and I am sure the Contracting Parties themselves, are ready for this challenge!!

Finally, let me emphasise again the importance in bringing you all together, and close by wishing us all a very productive two days!

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

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