Journée mondiale des zones humides -- France

France highlights National Wetlands Plan

"Zones humides, zones utiles - il est urgent de se mobiliser" (Wetlands are useful lands - let's urgently mobilise our efforts for them) was the theme of this year's meeting of the Water Management Agency of the Rhone-Mediterranean-Corsica (RMC) catchment basin in France (Agence de l'eau RMC). The perfectly organised meeting took place on 29 January, as a contribution to World Wetlands Day, in Lyon's state-of-the-art Conference Palace and brought together the impressive number of 650 (!) people, representing many different administrations, elected councillors and mayors, river, water and wetland technicians, managers and scientists, industrials, local stakeholders, farmers, fishermen, hunters, NGOs and user-groups, coming essentially from the extensive catchment basin covering about a fourth of France's territory.

Unlike many other European countries, France can be proud of having a modern Water Law in place already since 1992 (currently under revision, to comply even better with the new EU Water Framework Directive), plus a National Interministerial Action Plan for Wetlands adopted in 1995. Marie-Odile Guth [photo below], former Director for Nature and Landscape and responsible for implementation of the Ramsar Convention at the Ministry for Spatial Planning and the Environment, now the Coordinator of the National Wetlands Plan, provided an opening overview on the different aspects of the National Plan and progress with its work, also highlighting its relevance for the issues covered under the Ramsar Convention.

The National Wetlands Plan focuses on four aspects: wetland inventory, monitoring and valuation, building coherence between different sectoral policies, furthering the restoration, management and legal protection of wetlands, and launching an information and public awareness programme. After the first five years of implementation, in 2000, six national operational centres were created under the Plan, focusing respectively on coastal Atlantic marshes, Mediterranean lagoons, peatbogs, river floodplains, inland wetlands, and temporary marshes and small ponds. These "pôles relais" (relay poles) aim to facilitate exchange of information and know-how and collaboration for sustainable management and conservation on the ground of the main French wetland types.

The Water Management Agency in Lyon is in charge of one of France's six administrative water catchment basins, and is arguably the most active concerning wetlands. The 1992 law defines what wetlands are and stipulates that they need to be taken into account when drawing up general water catchment basin plans (SDAGE - Schémas directeur d'aménagement et de gestion des eaux) and sub-catchment management plans (SAGE - Schémas d'aménagement et de gestion des eaux). A Basin Committee supervises the implementation of the SDAGE for the Rhone-Mediterranean-Corsica catchment. It created a specific intersectoral Technical Commission for Wetlands to direct the implementation of the National Wetlands Plan at basin level. This is done through many grassroots initiatives and activities at local level. Some of them were presented in video form, others through live presentations by local actors and decision makers. A booklet, specifically prepared for this meeting, lists 600 projects to act together for wetlands, all undertaken inside the RMC basin, some of them with implications way beyond e.g. in the Mediterranean region. The project activities are briefly described and grouped according to seven French administrative regions covered by the RMC Basin and the eight wetland types specified in the SDAGE.

Recognizing that political choices need to accompany the technical reflections of the specialists, the Basin Committee prepared a Wetlands Charta for the RMC Basin. The Charta proposes a common approach to conserve wetlands by recognizing their numerous functions and values, including for the maintenance of certain specific economic activities. The Charta is based on five principles: the further work needed towards a better knowledge and inventory of the wetlands and their functions in the Basin, the integration of wetlands into land use planning policies, the orientation of public funds towards wetland conservation projects, the further development of integrated wetland management approaches at local scale, and the creation of an active participatory network regrouping all actors involved with wetland management in the Basin. Many public and private actors have already adhered to this Charta, others were invited to do so during this gathering.

In the discussions between the meeting panels and the participants in the auditorium it became very clear that a participatory approach at local scale involving all stakeholders, leading to consensual results, is essential to achieve lasting solutions, taking into account the needs and aspirations of the different partners. Agricultural practices, farmers' needs and the incentives by the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU have a major influence on the fate of wetlands. The absence of a specialist on EU policies at the meeting was regrettable. The need for more economic valuations of wetland functions, especially compared to the costs of engineering solutions, was stated. Overall, the Water Management Agency is to be congratulated for the well prepared, intense and thought-provoking programme of this memorable event.

-- reported by Dr Tobias Salathé, Ramsar.

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