Ramsar address to the UNEP Governing Council, February 2005


23rd Session of the UNEP Governing Council
21-25 February, Nairobi, Kenya

Address by the Secretary General of the Convention on Wetlands
Peter Bridgewater
22 February 2005

Mr Chairman

On February 2 the world celebrated World Wetlands Day, with ever more enthusiasm from local communities all around the globe.

And in one month the world will celebrate World Water Day.

It will also celebrate the start of a decade of reflection and action on water, appropriately in the year which this governing council talks about the issue, and when a month later the Commission on Sustainable Development, CSD13, will come up with concrete global policies for water, sanitation and human settlement.

The Ramsar Convention is now quite an aged structure in the global environmental governance mechanisms, preceding this august organisation by three years. And for many years of its existence the Convention was seen as, and was, much more concerned with wetlands as places for ensuring the continued existence of migratory waterfowl. But aged does not mean lacking in energy, simply energy with perhaps a little more wisdom!

From 1996 the Contracting Parties to the Convention have taken a keener interest in the role of wetlands in the water issue. And this, as the executive director mentioned yesterday morning, is a two way process, with wetlands needing water, but also playing a key role in the water cycle. Wetlands, often in a mosaic with associated ecosystems, such as forests and grasslands, are crucial in protecting, producing and purifying water supplies on which human well-being depends. And while we often think about wetlands as permanent features in a landscape, the ephemeral wetlands in arid zones are key elements in ecological functioning and biodiversity maintinanence.

The Netherlands Government and the FAO held very recently a fascinating conference on water, food, and ecosystems, which dramatised the linkage between agriculture, its interaction with natural systems, and the role of water in all of these systems. Truly we now understand that human security depends on food security, which depends on environmental security. We will not have a future in which we as a species can promote security for ourselves, unless we are also promoting security for the ecosystems which deliver the services we need.

And for water, that means well-functioning wetlands and associated ecosystems. In effect this is a characterisation of Integrated Water Management, something enshrined now in the parlance of the global water dialogues, but yet still too little put into action. But the Ramsar Convention is unique in being the only convention dealing not only with alpine lakes, but also mangroves, sea grass beds, and coral reefs. So it's really 'IWRM meets ICZM' - and this is where we are hoping to work more closely with, for example, the GPA [UNEP Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities] to give effect to what the Contracting Parties to the Convention would like to achieve.

It is impossible, given the awesome events of December 26, not to mention what the Convention's role might be in post tsunami restoration work or coastal and near marine ecosystems. We already have materials and advice on restoration and rehabilitation. What the tsunami has shown though is the real need for proactive work on prevention, using ecological engineering based on solid scientific understanding. While we hope such an event will not recur, we can and must use the lessons offered by the disaster to help in our work on adaptation and mitigation against disasters generally and, perhaps especially, changes to the environment caused by climate change.

When the Ramsar Convention meets with all the Contracting Parties (now standing at 144 and increasing quite rapidly) next in November, it will be close to here - in Kampala, Uganda, a country that has an excellent record for wetland conservation and management. This Ramsar COP will be not only a first for Africa, but also a first for the way in which the Convention will talk about wetlands, not simply for birds, or even for biodiversity alone, but for supporting life, sustaining livelihoods, as the slogan goes.

Mr Chairman, we will be taking part with interest in the events of CSD13, as we are taking part here for these days. It is only by interlinking our human efforts in environmental governance - still rather too fragmented and uncoordinated- that we can mimic the complexity and connectedness of nature. And here the role of UNEP as a key force for synergy is critical - but it also means more coordination at national level to deliver the best outcomes. We are ready to work with UNEP in building a good environmental programme for water, as suggested in the draft decision.

So far I have not mentioned the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals]. Yet of course the work of Convention is helping to achieve Goal 7, and in some ways many of the other goals as well. Yet the MDGs are not some stand-alone mechanism, they must be integrated with broader environmental agenda - exactly what we are trying to achieve.

In the end, though, Mr Chairman, we hope that through better coordination and better conversations within government, and between government and civil society, delegates to these various meetings, as well civil society generally, will be able to answer well the question we are now posing a key slogan for the convention processes -What will YOU do for water today.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

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2,186 Total surface area of designated sites (hectares): 208,674,247

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