The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands: not just for the birds
(posted to the Ramsar Forum, 13 November 2002)
WWF Opinion Editorial 13 November 2002
original story: http://www.panda.org/news_facts/newsroom/opinions/news.cfm?uNewsID=4423
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands: not just for the birds
By Jamie Pittock*
Freshwater is perhaps the most important resource on Earth. Despite this, few global agreements on freshwater exist and the oldest and most effective of them - the Ramsar Convention - is often sidelined. The upcoming 8th Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP8) is crucial to the convention's evolution as an instrument for the sustainable use and conservation of freshwater ecosystems.
The world's freshwater - perhaps the most important resource on Earth - is under great pressure. Despite this, few international agreements on freshwater exist. And sadly, the oldest and most effective is often sidelined.
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is the only environmental treaty for a particular ecosystem and the first global intergovernmental treaty to combine conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. Signed in 1971, it originally focused on the conservation and wise use of wetlands primarily to protect waterbird habitat. However, its basic tenets have broadened over the years to recognize wetlands, including coastal wetlands such as mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass beds, as ecosystems that are extremely important for both biodiversity conservation and the well-being of human communities.
Its ability to evolve is perhaps why the convention has been remarkably ahead of its time. Before the concepts of sustainable development and conservation partnerships became popular ahead of this year's World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the Ramsar Convention was already actively engaging government, non-government, and multilateral agencies as well as local and indigenous peoples in partnerships. This approach, together with the convention's simplicity, is behind its success in cementing cross-boundary agreements on wetland use and management.
At present, the convention has 133 nations as members, all of which have committed to promote the conservation and sustainable use of freshwater ecosystems through national action and international cooperation. These member nations have together designated an impressive eight per cent of the world's wetlands - covering 105.8 million hectares, an area almost the size of Egypt - for inclusion in the convention's List of Wetlands of International Importance. These listings, commonly called Ramsar sites, not only recognize the world's most important wetlands, but are also an effective tool to help countries further their sustainable development goals, balance conservation needs, and address poverty alleviation.
One key achievement of the convention has been to heighten awareness of the importance of wetlands. Swamps, marshes, bogs, and many other wetlands have traditionally been viewed as undesirable and accordingly been drained or dammed. However over the last few decades, the value of wetland ecosystems as sources of water, food, and other resources, as well as highly efficient water treatment works, has been more and more recognized. This shift in perception is in large part due to the efforts of the Ramsar Convention.
Public recognition of the value of Ramsar sites and their protection status under an international agreement have been important aids to wetlands conservation. One example of this is South Africa's Greater St. Lucia Ramsar site. Following government engagement of the Ramsar Convention's advisory mission in 1992, a project to mine heavy metals from sand dunes in this site was stopped in 1996 and the South African Government instead undertook a programme to encourage economic growth through sustainable ecotourism in the area.
The convention also serves as an umbrella for projects in wetlands that help poverty alleviation. The 'Working for Water' and 'Working for Wetlands' programmes in South Africa, for example, have trained and employed thousands of disadvantaged people to restore the health of wetlands and their capacity to deliver reliable supplies of clean water.
But despite its successes and continued relevance, the Ramsar Convention continues to be sidelined or under-utilized by some governments.
For example, at the last Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP7) held in 1999, some 55 nations made pledges that should have resulted in nearly 400 new Ramsar sites being designated by this month, in time for the next conference, COP8, which will be held from 18-26 November. However, only 27 per cent of nations have met their pledges. In addition, there continues to be a gross under-representation of coral, mangrove, seagrass, and peatland wetland sites.
There is also an alarming increase in the number of incidents in which parts of Ramsar sites are being destroyed. Examples include destruction of a site in Germany for an airport runway extension and in Georgia for an oil terminal, and proposed destruction of a site in Iceland for construction of a hydroelectric dam.
Also alarming is Spain's approach to wetlands management - particularly as Spain is host nation for COP8. The country's controversial National Hydrological Plan proposes an inter-basin water transfer and the construction of more than 100 new dams that would inflict massive damage on the country's wetlands. In WWF's view, this plan is inconsistent with the obligations of a Contracting Party, and ignores economically, socially, and environmentally better alternatives for water supply.
COP8 will be crucial to the Ramsar Convention's continuing growth and evolution. Coming soon after the WSSD, at which a number of decisions were made on freshwater issues, COP8 must respond swiftly and prudently to reinforce and demonstrate the central role of the convention in addressing poverty eradication, food and water security, sanitation, and biodiversity conservation.
The COP8 agenda has a number of strategic issues which, if dealt with appropriately, could allow the Ramsar Convention to be the first of the global, intergovernmental environment treaties to act in response to WSSD outputs. These issues include proposed resolutions on the allocation and management of water for maintaining the ecological function of wetlands, the application of the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams by the Ramsar Convention, and guidelines for sustainable groundwater use that is compatible with wetlands conservation.
The Ramsar member nations must also redouble their efforts to systematically conserve wetlands. This includes the designation of more Ramsar sites to conserve more than 250 million hectares by 2010. These designations must be strategic, and must include mountain wetlands as well as coastal and marine habitats. In addition, further attention is required to better manage wetlands and to guard against the careless destruction of Ramsar sites.
The convention's meagre budget of US$2.1 million is another issue that must be addressed. This budget is - at best - just 20 per cent of that of comparable treaties, severely limiting the support available to member nations, particularly developing countries. The lack of funds is not helped by the Ramsar Convention predating the United Nations system that has incorporated subsequent global environmental agreements, and thus being excluded from receiving direct funding from bodies like the Global Environment Facility. WWF is calling on member nations to adopt a significant budget increase at COP8.
Wetlands are essential to the health of the world's freshwater ecosystems and to our own freshwater supplies. But the situation is critical. Half the world's wetlands have been destroyed in the last 100 years. Some 1.5 billion people lack ready access to drinking water and if current consumption patterns continue, at least 3.5 billion people - 48 per cent of the world's projected population - will live in water-short river basins in 2025.
The 133 member nations of the Ramsar Convention must act promptly to better manage wetlands, especially in light of the recent decisions taken in Johannesburg. COP8 provides a timely opportunity to take measures that will ensure the sustainable use and conservation of freshwater ecosystems - for both people and nature.
*Jamie Pittock is Director of WWF International's Living Waters Programme
Notes for editors
Ramsar Convention COP8
The Eighth Conference of the Convention of Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands takes place from November 18-26 in Valencia, Spain, with a theme of "Wetlands: water, life and culture". WWF will work to promote the Ramsar Convention as an effective tool for protection and management of wetlands, with attention also focused on Spain's proposed Hydrological Plan that entails some 118 dams and damage to vital ecosystems.
Signed in 1971 in the city of Ramsar, Iran, the Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are currently (November 2002) 133 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1201 wetland sites, totalling 105.8 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.
Wetlands are defined to include rivers, lakes, swamps, and marine areas less than six metres in depth. Member countries of the treaty are obliged to do three things:
· Manage all wetlands sustainably, promoting the wise use of all wetlands within their territory.
· Consult with other Parties about the implementation of the Convention, especially with regard to trans-frontier wetlands, shared water systems, shared species, and development projects affecting wetlands.
· Designate wetlands that meet the criteria for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance for conservation.
For further information on the Ramsar Convention, visit www.ramsar.org
WWF's work on freshwater
WWF's Living Waters Programme is a global response to the world's fast-degrading freshwater. WWF is working regionally, nationally, and locally to address threats to freshwater and avert a growing crisis. WWF aims to keep water flowing fresh by:
· increasing wetland conservation areas and improving their management and uses
· managing rivers better by recognising the vital interdependence of land, water, and ecosystems
· promoting more efficient use of water by industry and agriculture
For further information on WWF's Living Waters Programme, visit
For further information:
Tel: +41 22 364 9556
Fax: +41 22 364 8307
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