Wetlands in Europe: an overview

(10 September 1997)

This file is an abstract of the presentation to be made by Tim Jones, Ramsar's Regional Coordinator for Europe, to the conference "Nature Conservation in a Europe of Unification", Tallinn, Estonia, 11-13 September 1997. We'll have the whole presentation here after the conference workshop participants have had a chance to savor it for a few days. -- Web editor.

Wetland Conservation in Europe - A Question of Priorities

As we move towards the psychological threshold of a new millenium, we have access to more information than ever before about the ecological, hydrological and socio-economic importance of wetlands. But in spite of the information explosion, awareness of the value of conserving and restoring wetlands is still mostly confined to small and specialized audiences. European wetlands of international, national and sub-national importance continue to be lost and damaged 'accidentally' through neglect and ignorance, as much as through deliberate acts.

Unfortunately, the intrinsic characteristics of wetlands mean that they do not fit easily into the neat sector-by-sector approach to land-use planning which is generally followed by European governments and reflected in the structure of official agencies and institutes. Many wetlands are transitional between wholly terrestrial and wholly aquatic ecosystems; others are seasonal in nature. Wetlands depend on a supply of water which may have many 'before and after' uses. Most European wetlands are associated with low-lying coastal zones and riverine flood-plains; the very same areas which have attracted the most intensive agricultural, urban and industrial development.

To conserve wetlands effectively, a complex, interdisciplinary, consultative approach, taking into account whole catchments, is required. Rightly or wrongly, such an approach is often perceived as either too difficult (legally, politically, logistically) or too expensive to implement. As a result, European wetlands, where they still exist, are commonly areas of conflict and overlapping jurisdiction, with disputes between Ministries (and other official bodies), amongst different interest-/user-groups (e.g. farmers, tourists/recreational users, hunters, fishermen, conservationists), between communities (e.g. concerns of local rural people versus concerns of urban dwellers), and even between countries.

Against this highly complicated background, it is imperative that wetland conservation priorities be established at all levels, from Pan-European participation in global or regional agreements (e.g. Bern, Bonn, Ramsar Conventions), to discussions on the management of individual sites.

The 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands provides a global framework for wetland conservation and the 102 member countries have adopted a Strategic Plan for 1997-2002 based on agreed world-wide priorities. Individual countries are encouraged to implement the Strategic Plan at national level through the development of National Wetland Policies (or the inclusion of wetland priorities within National Environment Action Plans and National Biodiversity Strategies).

But how can national priorities be identified? Is it better to invest effort in the establishment of protected areas and site management plans, or in trying to influence policies in key sectors, such as agriculture? Should attention be given to internationally important sites at the expense of wetlands of national or local importance? Should nature conservation be the priority objective in European wetland conservation? What are the alternative priorities? What priority should be given to wetlands in comparison with other ecosystem types such as forests, mountains and grasslands? How do regional priorities vary from one part of Europe to another? Is wetland restoration an expensive luxury, or a necessity which must be paid for? What are the priorities for international cooperation on wetlands in Europe?

The presentation addresses the 'questions of priority' raised above and illustrates, with examples, the diversity of approaches being taken to wetland conservation in Europe. It is concluded that there are no universal 'right' or 'wrong' answers and suggested that the process of developing a National Wetland Policy (or equivalent) can provide the best framework for debate and priority-setting within each country.

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