World Wetlands Day 2004 -- Greece -- MedWet

05/02/2004

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World Wetlands Day 2004: MedWet celebration event

Athens, 2 February 2004

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

Dr Nick Davidson, Deputy Secretary General, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to World Wetlands Day 2004!

First, it is pleasure to thank my colleagues here in the MedWet Coordination Unit for arranging this celebration and its opportunity to hear of the work of the Convention, the MedWet Initiative and Greece in working to safeguard our vital wetland resources.

Why do we celebrate the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day? On this day in 1971, 33 years ago, the text of the Convention on Wetlands was agreed by the representatives of eighteen countries in the city of Ramsar in Iran. This was a milestone in developing global action for the environment. The Convention was the first of the global multilateral environmental agreements, and it remains the only one to focus on an ecosystem - wetlands - and how to safeguard the functioning of wetlands so that they can continue to sustain life and provide their goods and services to support biodiversity and people's livelihoods.

Since that day in 1971, the Convention has grown and developed into a powerful tool for global environmental management, under which its 138 Contracting Parties commit to delivering the Convention through three 'pillars' of action: the wise use of all wetlands, designating and managing Wetlands of International Importance ("Ramsar Sites"), and international cooperation. Our Parties have designated 1,328 Ramsar Sites, which together cover almost 112 million hectares - and by the end of today that number and areas will have significantly increased - to over 119 million hectares!

While I am speaking here today on behalf of the Secretary General, in many other countries, right around the world, from New Zealand to Peru, WWD will be celebrated by an amazing array of events, many of which use the day just a starting point for further activities. It is indeed a global day of action for wetlands!

This year, amongst the many events, we are focusing on Greece, Mali and México because of the particular significance of the events in these countries. Yesterday, our Senior Advisor for Africa joined Mali in celebrating World Wetlands Day with the designation of the second largest Ramsar site in the world, covering over 4 million hectares. A few hours after we are meeting here today, the Secretary General is celebrating with Mexico their designation of 34 new Ramsar sites, from montane wetlands to coastal systems - a worthy recognition of the theme of this year's World Wetlands Day: "From the mountains to the sea - wetlands at work for us".

And here in Athens the important role of the MedWet Initiative and Greece's activities in the conservation and wise use of wetlands is being showcased.

Spyros Kouvelis will later be speaking in more detail about the role and work of the MedWet Initiative, but I want to take this moment to stress what an important initiative MedWet is for the Convention. It is a very special demonstration of how the "international cooperation" pillar of the Convention can be implemented to support and deliver shared action on regional implementation. Its activities link countries spanning three Ramsar regions, and its achievements have already been, and continue to be, impressive. MedWet, with its involvement of not only all the countries of the Mediterranean Basin, but also the MedWet Centres and the many other environmental organizations and NGOs concerned with our shared challenges for wetlands, both coastal and inland, leads the way as a model for regional initiatives under the Convention. The MedWet Coordination Unit, established with the strong support of our last Conference of Parties in Valencia in 2002, is working on behalf of all concerned to further strengthen and develop collaboration, capacity and implementation of wetland conservation and wise use throughout the Mediterranean Basin.

I want also to particularly take this opportunity to congratulate and warmly thank the government of Greece for its support for this celebration today, its continuing support to the Initiative and its hosting of the Coordination Unit here in this beautiful building. This support has been pivotal in securing a strong mechanism for fully implementing the Initiative, and for ensuring that the future work under the Initiative has a sound basis.

This World Wetlands Day, as we look back on 33 years of achievement under the Convention and look forward to many more such years, seems the perfect moment to sketch out a vision of the future for the Ramsar Convention. Thirty-three years ago, Ramsar was the first global environmental convention, focusing on a critical ecosystem and its biodiversity, developed from shared concerns about destruction of wetlands and the impact on migratory waterbirds.

But the founding fathers of the Convention were exceptionally far-sighted. So much so that, even though words like "biodiversity" and "sustainable development" were not yet in general use, the Convention was written to cover fully the ideas embodied by those terms. This has allowed the Convention to grow and mature, and to continue to move with the times to respond to the needs of our changing world. There have been many successes, but the challenges we all face remain great with so many pressures and demands on wetlands and the water on which they depend.

The world is poised to cope with the increasingly pressing issue of ensuring enough freshwater for all - which also means ensuring enough water for wetlands and other critical ecosystems. The Ramsar Convention, especially at COP8, has increasingly recognized that wetlands not only play a vital role in the hydrological cycle, but that to secure their conservation and wise use it is essential that they be managed in the wider context of basin-scale and water resource management. The challenge is to find ways of securing appropriate allocation of water to wetlands in the face of increasing water demand and diminishing water supply through over-abstraction and the effects of prolonged and increasing droughts and desertification in many parts of the world, including here in the Mediterranean.

When our Contracting Parties meet next in Kampala, Uganda, at COP9 in November 2005, they will have before them further guidance on these issues. We believe that the Ramsar Convention can and should become recognised as a water convention - for we are already a convention that deals with protection, production and natural purification of freshwater - as well as the near-shore marine environments. It is, of course, very appropriate that this will be the first Conference of the Parties meeting to be held in Africa - the continent where these issues press as urgently as anywhere. And MedWet has a key role to play here, with the issues of water management and supply being high on the agenda throughout the Mediterranean Basin.

There is much discussion around the world on the need for a new focus, a new institutional framework, a paradigm shift, to deal with the water issue - and yet it seems we already have many of the pieces in place to deal with this most critical of issues, without trying to reinvent new processes. In recent years, and particularly after the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, 2002, it has become clear that water is one of the most important resources of the planet, yet also one of the most under pressure. There is thus a necessity for a more co-ordinated global management of water resources - and the Ramsar Convention appears as the most relevant existing international agreement to deal with this new and increasing responsibility.

Yet we are still seen too often as a convention dealing only with wetlands as a means of ensuring waterbird conservation. While that was once true, and it is still true that the issue of species conservation remains a key one for the Convention, we have also moved to become a convention addressing some of the key environmental issues of this century:

  • Provision of water as a means to alleviate poverty;
  • Reducing the loss of biological diversity;
  • Enhancing food and water security;
  • Promoting integrated ways of managing environmental systems.

Of course we are not going to solve these issues alone, and so we also place great store in creating more comprehensive environmental governance. Linkage and synergy with other conventions is key - we are doing well in this regard with the CBD, and in the critical area of climate change and its effects we are working increasingly closely with the UNFCCC. An expert Working Group of our Scientific and Technical Review Panel produced a technical report for Ramsar COP8 on "Climate change and wetlands: impacts, adaptation and mitigation".

That report:

  • identified that a wetland ecosystems are amongst those recognized as particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change;
  • highlighted the fundamental importance of maintaining hydrological regimes as a key adaptation option; and
  • focused on opportunities for managing especially forested wetlands, peatlands and coastal wetlands, to mitigate climate change impacts.

COP8 also recognized the potential for conflicting challenges for governments in meeting their commitments to implementing UNFCCC through revegetation and forest management, afforestation and reforestation, and their commitments to the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. COP8 urged Parties to ensure that their climate change implementation does not lead to serious damage to the ecological character of their wetlands. Here is where synergy really means more than cooperation between secretariats -- it means coordinated efforts at the national level.

In effect, at COP8 our Convention changed gear and moved to a new paradigm - one in which wetlands are seen as a vital component of the interlinked issues including the production, protection and purification and use of water sources for the world. This means, of course, taking better notice of climate change, as the heart of global change.

So on this WWD let us recall the successes - and setbacks and continuing challenges - of the past 33 years; learn the lessons; and take the Convention, including through our MedWet Initiative, to new levels of activity and success, from local, to national, to global actions for 2004 and beyond!

Thank you!

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