Ramsar in Europe: an overview by the Secretary General
Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran 1971)
3rd Pan-European Regional Meeting
Riga, Latvia, 3-6 June 1998
Address delivered to the opening plenary session, 3 June 1998
Statement on the status of and prospects for the Convention on Wetlands
by Delmar Blasco, Secretary General
1. The Convention on Wetlands is making good progress. At the time of the last meeting of the Conference of the Parties, in March 1996, the Convention had 92 Contracting Parties and 777 sites included in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, covering some 53 million hectares. At present, only two years later, the treaty has 110 Contracting Parties and 920 sites on the List, covering more than 68 million hectares. (A number of other sites have been designated by Contracting Parties but not yet formally added to the List, pending submission of the required Ramsar Information Sheet and/or map).
2. The secretariat is also aware that a good number of Contracting Parties in all regions have entered the process of preparing national wetland policies or equivalent instruments, and/or management plans for Ramsar sites, in response to the obligation under the Convention to "formulate and implement their planning so as to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the List, and as far as possible the wise use of wetlands in their territories" (Article 3.1). In many cases, wetland conservation and sustainable use issues have been incorporated into the national biodiversity strategies that many countries have initiated in response to their obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
3. The secretariat is also very pleased to note that in most European countries, in particular, there have been important advances in the implementation of the Convention. In addition, many countries in the region have made important voluntary contributions in cash and in kind to facilitate the implementation of the Convention in Europe and other regions, and we are most grateful to them. We look forward to receiving the National Reports by next September so as to be able to have a more detailed picture of the progress made and the challenges still lying ahead.
4. As you are aware, the Convention provides a useful tool for Pan-European cooperation. With the recent accessions of Georgia, Luxembourg, Monaco, and Ukraine, we are coming close to universal membership in this region, and I very much hope that there will be more bilateral and multilateral initiatives under the Convention, in particular in relation to shared wetlands and aquatic ecosystems. Perhaps the time has come for Europe to become a single region under possible new arrangements of the Ramsar regions.
5. It is also my earnest hope that the Ramsar Bureau will be able to increase its cooperation with key European processes and institutions, such as the Pan-European Biological and Landscape Diversity Strategy, and the European Commission.
6. On the basis of the Strategic Plan 1997-2002 and the relevant resolutions and recommendations adopted at Ramsar COP6 in 1996, the secretariat has pursued an active policy of bringing the Convention into the mainstream of the post Rio-1992 process. Chapter 18 of Agenda 21 is devoted to "the protection of water resources, water quality and aquatic ecosystems", and under the proposed activities for all States includes the "conservation and protection of wetlands (owing to their ecological and habitat importance for many species), taking into account social and economic factors" (Chapter 18, programme area C, activity E-iii). The Ramsar Convention is particularly well suited to contribute to the implementation of this recommended activity under Agenda 21. Thus, the secretariat has actively participated in the process leading to the 6th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development last April, when strategic approaches to freshwater management were one of the two main issues for analysis. As a result of its deliberations, the Commission urged governments, inter alia, to address the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands as one of the "numerous gaps in the path towards integrated water resources development management, protection and use" (paragraph 10 of the decision on this matter), and encouraged governments, while formulating integrated water resources management policies and programmes, to implement relevant conventions in force, including the Convention on Wetlands (paragraph 14 of the same decision).
7. The Ramsar Convention has become together with its NGO partners an active player in the Global Water Partnership animated by the World Bank and Swedish Sida. The Partnership has agreed to open a window on environment and ecosystems to complement the other windows dealing with water supply and sanitation, irrigation and hydropower. Through this window, Ramsar and its partners will be able to submit projects for funding dealing with integrated aquatic ecosystem management.
8. Also in the framework of the Rio process, Ramsar has developed very close working relations with the Convention on Biological Diversity. Those who were present at CBD COP4 in Bratislava last month will have witnessed the overwhelming support given by Contracting Parties to the Joint Work Plan between the two Conventions put forward by the Ramsar Bureau. The Joint Plan was endorsed by the Conference, both for actions under the inland waters area and under the plan for the implementation of the Jakarta Mandate on coastal and marine biodiversity. CBD COP4 also provided additional guidance to the Global Environment Facility and to the Contracting Parties in relation to its inland waters programme that would give wetland-related projects a higher priority for funding under the GEF.
9. The secretariat has now embarked upon an attempt to develop the same type of synergy with the Convention to Combat Desertification, with the intention of, if possible, signing a Memorandum of Cooperation between the two secretariats at the time of Desertification COP2, to be held at the end of November in Dakar.
10. Cooperation with the new UNEP that is emerging under the leadership of Dr. Klaus Töpfer will also constitute a priority for the secretariat in the near future, especially now that the Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council, held a few days ago in Nairobi, has agreed that UNEPs rôle in coordinating the work of environment-related conventions and freshwater resources should be two of the five areas of concentration in a reformed UNEP.
11. The publication in three languages of Ramsars guide for policymakers and planners on the Economic Valuation of Wetlands has been an "editorial success", to the extent that the English version of the guide has already had to be reprinted. I hope that we will continue our work in this important area, which at present is being advanced in the countries of the Southern Africa Development Community through a joint project with the IUCN office in Harare.
12. Another area in which we have made significant progress is that of communications. In spite of very limited human resources, the secretariat has been able to make important inroads in the field of electronic communications, with a Web site and e-mail lists that have been repeatedly praised for their usefulness. The Ramsar Newsletter has also been reformulated, in terms of content, periodicity and presentation, and the basic information about the Convention has been redrafted, presented in a different format, including a new graphic identity, and distributed in thousands of copies in the three official languages. A Russian version language of the info pack is also available and soon we will have Arabic and Chinese versions at our disposal. Contracting Parties have been encouraged to translate the Ramsar information package into their main national languages, and financial assistance has been offered for this purpose to those countries that may need it. The celebration of World Wetlands Day on 2 February, for only the second time this year, has indicated that there is considerable scope to use the date as a major tool for advancing our cause.
13. As you will be aware, in 1998 we also have a "premier" with the signature in Paris at the end of January of the so-called Danone Project, by which, for the first time, a major company in the business sector is providing financial resources towards the implementation of an environment-related treaty. We very much hope that this experience will have a catalytic effect for involving the private sector in Ramsar implementation, both internationally and at the country level.
14. Involving a number of countries in the European region, but also in Africa and the Middle East, the Mediterranean Wetlands Initiative has continued to advance, and the newly established Mediterranean Wetlands Committee met for the first time in Thessaloniki, Greece, in March this year with the presence of 21 Mediterranean countries, NGOs and international institutions. We very much hope that the second meeting will be hosted by Spain, in Valencia, in February 1999.
15. Most of the above-mentioned issues will be considered in some form or another by the next Conference of the Parties in Costa Rica in May 1999. Other important issues, such as the proposals from the Scientific and Technical Review Panel for revised Ramsar Criteria for the identification of wetlands of international importance, a revised definition of ecological character and change in ecological character, all the issues that will be dealt with in the five Technical Sessions during the Conference, and questions of modus operandi, such as the Ramsar regionalization system, will be considered in detail during this meeting. Thus, I do not need to dwell on them now.
16. There is one issue, though, that I would like to touch upon before closing my remarks: the Conventions budget. As you know, the secretariat requested considerable increases in the budget at the last two meetings of the Conference of the Parties in 1993 and 1996. Those increases were necessary to have a core secretariat that would be able to serve the Convention in an effective manner. I am very grateful to the Contracting Parties for having agreed to those increases, and in particular to those countries that have been more drastically affected in their dues. I am also happy to report that the secretariat has been able to perform its duties in an effective manner and stay within the budget. In the last two years not only we have been able to end the fiscal year with a surplus, but also we have been able to build up the reserve fund established by COP6 to the required level.
17. Thus, providing that no unexpected developments occur between now and the Conference, it is my intention to request from the Parties only a minimum increment in the budget, just to cover the increase in the cost of living in Switzerland, which should be no more than 2%.
18. Yet there are three issues related to financial resources to which I would like to invite the Contracting Parties to give serious consideration:
a) the need to include in the core budget of the Convention the cost incurred by the secretariat in preparing and servicing the triennial meetings of the Conference of the Parties. These costs are calculated at the level of SFR 500,000, which, spread over a three year period, would represent an increase of around SFR 170,000 per year. This is common practice in the other conventions and would relieve the secretariat from the burden of having to negotiate this contribution from the host country of the Conference, or with other donors when the host country is not in a position to provide these resources;
b) the significant increase in the secretariats output that could be obtained if we were able to hire, as proposed on the occasion of the Brisbane Conference, a "Development Assistance Officer" who would work with the multilateral and bilateral development assistance agencies to generate more resources for wetland-related projects. This would represent an increase in the budget of some SFR 250,000 per year; and
c) the need to establish a system of more firm and significant commitments for voluntary contributions to the Ramsar Small Grants Fund, since the present system of occasional and irregular contributions is far from being satisfactory.
19. We live in a civilisation projected to the future. Change, rapid change, is a significant, if not the most significant, characteristic of our time. The Ramsar Convention is living with the times: it is changing. Yet, after almost 30 years of existence, there may now be a need not only to change practice but also to introduce some changes to the treaty itself, to make it more relevant to the new situation that wetland issues are immersed in, in terms of both the approach to issues and the actors that have emerged on the international scene. A protocol on water under the Convention, for example, as a possible avenue has already been recommended at the Ramsar meeting held in Pretoria in February of this year. Amending the Convention could appear to be a complex, and maybe risky task; but not taking risks might also be a very risky strategy for the future of the Convention.
20. The challenges continue to be many, but I am firmly persuaded that the Convention on Wetlands is in an particularly good moment of its evolution to face those challenges with high chances of success.