Ramsar and the World Water Congress, Melbourne, March 2000


[Dr Bill Phillips, until recently Deputy Secretary General of the Convention on Wetlands, now returned to Environment Australia, represented the Convention at the World Water Congress, Melbourne, Australia, and briefed the participants on the upcoming World Water Forum in the Hague, 17-22 March.  Here is the text accompanying his PowerPoint presentation for the meeting.]

wwc1.jpg (28286 bytes)Thank you, and good morning.

It’s great to be here, back in my home country, presenting to you this paper on behalf of the Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Mr Delmar Blasco.

Until three weeks ago I was his deputy, and over the previous 2.5 years I was responsible for the policy and technical programme of the Convention at the global level, while also coordinating the work of our regional team.

[Photo: Bill Phillips, former Ramsar Deputy Secretary General, and Stephen Hunter, Chair of the Ramsar Standing Committee, both now with Environment Australia, looking determined in Melbourne, March 2000.]

During this period the Convention has continued as ever to be a vibrant, hands-on, action-oriented intergovernmental treaty which now boasts 119 signatories.

It has grown in stature and recognition – and to those who know it well – the Ramsar Convention is now recognized as a vital element of our response to the freshwater crisis. I hope that by the end of this presentation you will see why I say that.

The title of the paper is as shown here [slide] – you have a copy but I do not plan to follow the text closely.

Firstly, let’s refresh our memories about wetlands, and in particular some of their recognized functions and values.

These include [slide]

  • water storage and flood protection
  • groundwater recharge/discharge
  • cleansing functions such as the retention of nutrients, sediments and pollutants
  • local climatic effects
  • transportation
  • focal points of economic activity/development

and [slide] of course there is biodiversity conservation – and productivity, especially fish.

Not a bad list for things we used to call "wastelands".

And, as we have heard repeatedly in this meeting, these attributes make wetlands truly "natural assets", things worth protecting – a vital point of the so-called natural infrastructure of our waterways.

Indeed, some say they are like the oil in your car, or the wings on a plane – remove them, and bingo – the car stops, the plane won’t fly.

In the same way, as we have seen time and time again, take the wetlands out of your river, and water quality falls, flood peaks get higher, you catch fewer fish, the system degrades.

I see nods around the room – So, why then do you suppose we are still allowing this?!! – That wonderful euphemism for destruction: "reclamation".

wwc2.jpg (16972 bytes)And of course [slide], there is also the less obvious, but equally insidious use of methods to dispose of our wastes – a slow death – but the result is the same. [several slides]. As a colleague of mine like to tell meetings, "We really seem to be the stupid parasite – intent on destroying our host".

[Photo: Dr Bill Phillips elocuting in Melbourne, March 2000.]

So let us take stock at this point [slide]. How much wetland remains? Depending upon who you believe, somewhere between 5.7 and 9.7 million square kilometres or 6-10% of the Earth’s surface area.

The general view out there is that this represents about half what we once had!! Not such a good report card for planet Earth.

Some argue that wetlands represent such a small percentage of our surface area, they are small players in the water equation. Of course, this is a nonsense, once we look closely at the functions and services which a typical wetland provides, compared to most other ecosystem types.

So what has been the global response to this ongoing destruction of wetlands?

One has been the Ramsar Convention [slide], the oldest of the intergovernmental environmental treaties. For those of you who don’t know, Ramsar is a place, not an acronym! [slide]. In February 1971, 18 countries signed the treaty. Today we celebrate 2 February as World Wetlands Day.

The mission of the Convention is [slide]: "the conservation and wise use of wetlands by national action and international cooperation as a means to achieving sustainable development throughout the world".

A myth that we want to put to rest is the one that pigeonholes the Ramsar Convention as "the waterbird convention". Yes, that was a strong part of its early emphasis, but the visionary architects of the text of the treaty also gave prominence to sustainable or wise use of wetlands, and the protection of them for their hydrological and ecological values. They also foresaw international conflict emerging over water resources. These other parts of the Ramsar Convention have now emerged as its highest priorities – coincident, it seems, with the emergence of the freshwater crisis.

Some say that Ramsar has evolved from waterbirds to watersheds.

But this paper is not meant to be an advertisement for Ramsar. So let’s return to the global water crisis and in particular the meeting in The Hague next week, when the world leaders will attempt to agree a vision for water in the year 2025.

Just over two years ago, the Global Water Partnership held a workshop in Sweden which brought together about 150 experts from the various water sections – irrigation/drainage, water supply/sanitation, and the environment in particular. I was part of the group in the so-called Environment Window, along with Stephen Lintner and Janusz Kindler. For two days we sat in a room trying to draw up a list of priority actions, from the perspective of the environment sector, which would help further the development and implementation of IWRM.

We did it, and this was then put on the table with those lists from our colleagues in the other sections – and an effort was made to formulate a cross-sectoral list of priorities.

I mention this because that exercise was an early part of the thinking and preparations for the Hague meeting next week, and I want to make some observations about it.

First, at the conclusion of the meeting, we – being the environment sector – were basically told to go away and get ourselves better organized.

And, it’s true, by comparison with the others, we were a disjunct and uncoordinated group, and the result was that our messages were diluted in the process of formulating overall conclusions from the meeting. An important lesson!

Secondly, I came away from that meeting with a "shopping list" of priorities, areas where the assembled wisdom had said we, the environment sector, did not possess authoritative advice, guidelines, or directions.

That became the blueprint of the programme for the 7th Ramsar Conference of the Parties in San José in May 1999, where the assembled governments adopted a string of policy and technical guidelines.

We have since put these together to form the Ramsar ‘toolkit’ [slide].

This is in large part the ‘toolkit’ that the GWP meeting in Stockholm said the environment sector needed to have in order to be a serious player in IWRM. It’s not totally comprehensive, but it is in the pipeline, if you’ll excuse the expression.

This ‘toolkit’ is being printed as we speak, a series of nine handbooks, such as this one [slide of the river basins handbook].

So next week, the Ramsar Secretary General will go to the Hague to sell this ‘toolkit’ to the assembled leaders, and to try and have it recognized as an important element of the global response to the freshwater crisis.

In particular [slide], he will stress the value of conserving and restoring wetlands as an immediate, tangible and appropriate action for the governments of the world to take in responding to the water crisis.

However, my fear is that this will not be the case, and in so doing the world leaders will continue to sanction the destruction of our precious wetlands.

Of course, if this is the case, then we have ourselves to blame for not being better organized sooner and for not communicating our messages more clearly.

This has to be our highest priority – communication, education, and raising public awareness. Our elected leaders will then have no choice but to act to protect and reinstate wetlands.

Before concluding – and related to this issue of communication – I would like to refer to a new magazine, recently launched, which aims to give a platform for raising the level of our dialogue and communication regarding the environmental side of the water issue. [slide]

It is the World Water Watch and the paper presented here is an extract from a larger paper contained in the first issue. I had hoped to be able to distribute them here, but the postal service had other ideas – I will attempt to have a copy sent to each of you in the near future.

In conclusion, I want to return to an issue which to me sits at the heart of our response to the water crisis. And that is, how to treat (if that is the word!) the so-called ‘environment’ in the management of water.

The very clear message coming through from the preparatory discussions for the Hague next week is that we should consider the environment as just another consumptive user – a sector that has to negotiate its access to water alongside irrigation/drainage, supply/sanitation, hydropower, etc.

I reject this position in the strongest possible terms. If we do not come away from the Hague with a clear recognition that the ‘environment’ is the supply side of this equation, the natural infrastructure which makes clean, productive water available for the consumptive sectors – and therefore deserves pre-eminence – then I content that we will have progressed little toward achieving sustainability in water management.

The old paradigms, which got us where we are today, will persist.

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