Ramsar keynote address to Quebec 2000, Millennium Wetland Event


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Millennium Wetland Event, Quebec, 7 August 2000

Opening plenary presentation on the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

by Dr Nick Davidson, Deputy Secretary General

It is now becoming increasingly understood that wetlands and their biodiversity are vital for life. The role of wetlands is critical to poverty alleviation, particularly through their provision of water and food security. For example, wetlands provide many vital goods and services to humankind. Wetlands play a key role the water cycle such as though ground water recharge, they purify water for drinking, their fish and many other natural resources provide food for many people, they perform essential roles in flood defence and storm protection, and their many unique biota form a substantial element of the world’s biodiversity.

The vital link between wetlands and people is pivotal to continuing the sustainable utilisation of wetlands. This works in multiple ways. First, of course, many people are directly the beneficiaries of successful sustainable utilisation of wetlands, through their continued access to their water, food and other products and services. The full involvement of local communities and indigenous peoples in the management of their wetlands, empowered through their long history and culture of close association with wetlands, is essential to achieve this. These peoples and many others have responsibility for the decision-making that fundamentally affects wetlands at local, national, regional and global scales. The must develop of policies and strategies for wetlands in the context of the often hard resolution of the many other conflicting demands for, and pressures on, water and land-use. We are all aware that many wetlands have been destroyed or degraded over the last centuries, and such pressure continues from many sources. As demand for water – for human consumption, for agriculture, for industry and power generation - increases, the pressures on wetlands and the water supply on which they depend is set to become even more critical in this millenium. Both maintaining the ecological functions of existing wetlands, and restoring the functions of degraded wetlands, can contribute much to alleviating this pressure. But the critical values of wetlands, both in meeting human needs and in the support and maintenance of biological diversity, continues often to receive scant attention in the global water debate.

Yet maintaining and sustaining wetlands should be seen as a "win-win" for all concerned. For those, including governments, committed to maintaining biodiversity, since many species are dependent on wetlands for their continued survival; and for the same governments trying to balance an increasingly over-exploited water supply with the many human demands for it, since wetlands can greatly contribute to sound water resource management.

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Nick Davidson delivers a keynote address at the Québec 2000 Millennium Wetland Event, 7 August 2000. (Photo: D. Peck/Ramsar)

But there is one group of people I have yet to mention who are vital for a well-informed decision-making process on wetlands. This is all of you gathered here for this exciting Millennium Wetlands Event – the wetland researchers, scientists and managers. Your work in seeking to understand the many facets of the way in which wetlands function and how best to manage them for the benefit of all species, including humans, is critical to sound decision-making. That so many of you have travelled from so many countries all over the world to share your state of the art knowledge on wetlands is vivid witness to the importance you place on wetlands.

Critical, however, is the main challenge to all of you here: to not just meet and discuss amongst yourselves all this latest understanding about wetlands, but also to make this knowledge readily accessible to those who really urgently need to use it in making their decisions, so as to ensure that wetland issues are fully taken into account in those decisions.

A key route for bringing your wealth of knowledge and information to the attention of decision-makers is through the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The Ramsar Convention is the oldest of the global environment-based intergovernmental conventions, signed at Ramsar, Iran on 2nd February 1971. It is also the only global convention devoted to a particular ecosystem – wetlands – an ecosystem of interest to all attending this meeting.

The Convention covers a very broad range of wetlands: both permanently and temporarily wet systems, from coral reefs and shallow marine waters, coasts and estuaries to inland systems – rivers, lakes, marshes, grasslands, forested wetlands, peatlands and karst and caves – and both natural and human-made wetlands. Ecosystems that cover at least 12 million square kilometres of the earth’s surface. I say "at least 12 million" because our knowledge of the most basic information on the size and distribution of wetlands globally remains woefully incomplete. Redressing this is a fundamental challenge for all of us.

Contracting Parties to the Convention, of which there are now 122 including our host country, Canada, commit themselves to "the conservation and wise use of wetlands by national action and international cooperation as a means of achieving sustainable development throughout the world." I should explain that "wise use" is a term that predated, and is now regarded as synonymous with, sustainable utilisation.

Contracting Parties deliver this commitment through three "pillars" of action: the wise use of all wetlands; the designation and management of wetlands of international importance (of which there are currently 1031 covering around 78 million hectares, with more to come); and international co-operation. This last pillar recognises that wetland conservation is a very international issue. This includes such matters as transboundary wetlands themselves, the need to manage wetlands in the context of river basin or catchment management scale, and the migratory species such as waterbirds that depend on international networks of wetlands. Importantly it also includes the sharing between countries of good practice knowledge and information on wetland wise use, through information exchange, training and capacity building, notably in supporting capacity-building in developing countries.

The Ramsar Convention is very much a practical Convention striving to deliver on-the-ground wetland conservation. To assist the Contracting Parties in their delivery of the Convention a substantial body of good practice guidance on different aspects of wetland wise use has been prepared over the last 30 years. We have recently brought this together as the "Ramsar toolkit" set of nine Wise Use Handbooks, a major new tool designed to increase the accessibility of the wealth of information on wetland wise use to those managing and deciding about the management of wetlands.

But the work does not stop there. The Convention’s Scientific and Technical Review Panel (the STRP) is now preparing a further range of guidelines for the next meeting of our Contracting Parties in 2002. This includes guidance on many important topics that will be discussed in this Millenium Event during the coming week: wetland inventory and assessment, including ecological change indicators, rapid assessment and early warning techniques; identification and designation of important peatlands, wet grasslands, coral reefs and mangroves; wetland restoration; economic valuation and incentive measures; river basin management; water allocations and management; wetland management planning; local participatory management; invasive species; wetlands and climate change; and more.

So as to ensure access to the best possible knowledge on these topics, the Convention works closely with four international partner organisations (IUCN, Worldwide Fund for Nature, BirdLife International and Wetlands International), and three of the organisations responsible for putting together the impressive programme of this Event: Society of Wetland Scientists, International Peat Society and International Mires Conservation Group. STRP representatives of these organisations, and several other STRP members, are here at the event, and I would encourage all of you to help ensure that the outcomes of your wide-ranging discussions on wetlands this week are made available to the STRP to aid its work.

Today I will briefly give two examples of current further Ramsar-linked initiatives for particular comment. One is the Global Action Plan for Peatlands (GAPP), which will be discussed by many of you this week. Peatlands are recognised by the Convention as being under-represented in the actions of its Parties. The GAPP, being developed by a wide partnership of peatland organisations, will help to assist contracting Parties in redressing this. A draft GAPP was endorsed by the last Ramsar Conference of Parties, who requested that a revised plan be prepared for consideration at the next Conference in 2002. The latest consultation draft is now available and I would encourage all of you with interest in peatlands to review it and provide comments on it so that Contracting Parties can receive the best possible guidance on how to manage their peatlands for the future.

The second, the River Basin Initiative, is an important example of the increasing collaboration between the Ramsar Convention and the other environment-related conventions established through the 1992 Rio process. The River Basin Initiative is just one element of the implementation of our new Joint Work Plan with the Convention on Biological Diversity, which recognises the mutual benefit to countries of joint action on wetlands between the two Conventions. The Initiative is designed to take forward and extend the current Ramsar guidelines on integrating wetlands into river basin management, through establishing a knowledge network and wide access to good practice case studies of different aspects of river basin management. To achieve this will need partnership and input from many organisations and initiatives, and I encourage all of you involved in river basin management to learn more of the Initiative (information again is available on the Ramsar exhibit) and tell us how you could contribute.

These two examples and many others I do not have time to list today illustrate a key feature of the modus operandi of the Ramsar Convention and its Contracting Parties – a feature essental for the effectiveness of wetlands wise use – that of partnerships. Partnerships between Conventions, governments, non-governmental organisations, wetland managers and scientists of many discplines. In other words, including all of you at this Event.

The Ramsar Convention is most pleased to support the Millennium Wetlands Event and to help contribute to the participation in the Event by a number of delegates. We warmly congratulate the Event’s organisers for their immense and most successful efforts in putting together such an impressive range of symposia and discussions, and for finding ways of making this such an international meeting. We encourage all of you to take the opportunity to meet during the week with the various Ramsar representatives attending the Event. These include members of the Ramsar Bureau staff; the Chair, Jorge Jiménez, and other members of our Scientific and Technical Review Panel; the Vice-Chair, Paul Mafabi, and other members of our Standing Committee, and many others who contribute to the work of the Convention.

As we move into this new millennium there is no doubt that water and wetlands will increase in significance as a global issue. The Millennium Wetland Event is therefore a most timely meeting, and the discussions during the coming days will make a most significant contribution to ensuring that the vital, but sometimes overlooked, importance of wetlands in maintaining the health of our environment is firmly on the global agenda for the start of the next thousand years. Make your shared knowledge here this week work hard towards this goal.

Thank you, and have a most stimulating and enjoyable week.

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