International Conference "Naturschutz [inter]national" Vienna, Austria, 15 May 1997

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"The potential of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands"

by Delmar Blasco, Secretary General of the Convention

The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971), the oldest of the modern global environment-related treaties, reached the landmark of 100 Contracting Parties a month ago. Now the 101st Contracting Party has joined, the Republic of Korea, and the Ramsar secretariat (or "Bureau") has been informed that Congo and Nicaragua are finalizing their accession procedures.

The Contracting Parties have designated so far 872 sites for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, thus enhancing the possibility of effective conservation and sustainable use to over 62.5 million hectares of wetland around the globe, an area larger than Kenya or France. There are many good examples of how the listing under Ramsar has helped to maintain the ecological integrity of important wetlands, or has been instrumental in obtaining funding from external support agencies for projects related to the conservation and sustainable use of Ramsar sites.

In this country, a Contracting Party since 1983, the listing of the Donau-March Auen as a wetland of international importance under the Convention had a great weight in the discussions in the 1980s about the Hainburg dam on the Danube; since then, the Donau-March Auen has been placed, with the approval of the Federal Government and the provincial government of Lower Austria, on the special record of Ramsar sites requiring priority attention (the so-called Montreux Record). This led to the organization by the Ramsar secretariat of a technical mission (called in the jargon of the Convention the "Management Guidance Procedure") to the River March section of the site in 1991. The mission recommended that a "wise use" plan be developed for the whole of this large area, and this is currently being carried out, with the financial help of the European Commission, by the NGO Distelverein. The Ramsar secretariat will await with interest the results of this work, and hopes to organize a follow up mission when the EC project is complete. The secretariat is particularly pleased about the recent decision to establish a national park on the Donau Auen.

The secretariat has also followed closely the development of the national park at another Austrian Ramsar site, Neusiedlersee in Burgenland. A member of the Ramsar Bureau staff was until recently a member of the Scientific Council of the park, which is an excellent cross-frontier Ramsar site with Hungary and one at which exemplary transfrontier cooperation is developing.

Austria has established an effective National Ramsar Committee, under the leadership of the provincial governments, with Steiermark playing a particularly active role. This has meant that nearly all Austrian provinces have now declared at least one Ramsar site - the nine Austrian sites are in Lower Austria, Carinthia, Steiermark (including a joint site in the provinces of Steiermark and Carinthia), Burgenland, Vorarlberg, Salzburg, Upper Austria and Vienna. A national scientific inventory of potential Ramsar sites is in preparation, and further sites are being considered for listing.

With the recent accession of Botswana as a Contracting Party, the Ramsar List has gained one of its most remarkable sites: the Okavango Delta. It is measured at approximately 6,864,000 hectares, which places it ahead of Canada's Queen Maud Gulf (6,278,200 ha) as the world's largest Ramsar site. The Okavango Delta System is hydrologically unique, the largest inland delta in sub-Saharan Africa after the inner delta of the Niger. Since it lies in a semi-arid area, 97% of the annual inflow of between 7,000 and 15,000 million cubic meters is lost to evapotranspiration and seepage, and only 3% of the water is discharged from the delta. Socio-economically, the site supports the traditional lifestyles of many local communities and a burgeoning tourist industry. Its inclusion in the Ramsar List opens the way for increased international assistance and support.

These positive developments come at a time when the Contracting Parties, the Convention's bodies and the NGO partners have begun to implement the Ramsar Strategic Plan 1997-2002 approved at the last Conference of the Parties, held in Brisbane, Australia, in March 1996. The adoption of the Plan is very relevant because:

  1. The Plan includes a clear Mission Statement - "The Convention's mission is the conservation and wise use of wetlands by national action and international cooperation as a means to achieve sustainable development throughout the world". The concept of "wise use" embodied in the text of the Convention is understood as "sustainable use", defined by the Conference of the Parties as "sustainable utilization for the benefit of mankind in a way compatible with the maintenance of the natural properties of the ecosystem". The acknowledgement that Ramsar's mission is to contribute to achieving sustainable development places the treaty squarely within the context of Agenda 21 and the post-Rio frame of mind, with conservation and development being perceived as the two sides of the same coin. If one side is altered, the coin loses its value.
  2. With the Strategic Plan, for the first time the Conference of the Parties has adopted a clear path for the implementation of the Convention. As with most international treaties, the text of the Convention is very general in relation to its goals and the ways and means to achieve them. The Strategic Plan has now translated those general goals into eight practical objectives, in turn expressed in 29 operational objectives and 126 concrete actions.
  3. The Strategic Plan balanced out, by giving them equal importance, the basic functions and concerns of the Convention: i) to achieve the wise use of all wetlands in each country; ii) to raise awareness of wetland values and functions at all levels; iii) to reinforce the capacity of institutions in each country to implement the Convention; iv) to make effective use of the mechanism provided by the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance; and v) to mobilize international cooperation related to wetlands.

The Strategic Plan does not add, of course, new elements to the Convention, but it develops three of its basic tenets into a much more modern and holistic approach to wetland conservation and wise use:

Inclusion of sites in the Ramsar List: The Strategic Plan encourages countries to make a much more active use of this mechanism under the Convention, by considering listing all wetlands that meet one or more of the Ramsar Criteria, and especially those types of wetlands that are currently underrepresented in the Ramsar List, such as peatlands, coral reefs and mangroves. (To many people, it continues to be a surprise that Ramsar deals not only with inland wetlands but also with marine wetlands lying within "marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters".) The Ramsar Criteria have been expanded at the last Conference of the Parties to include what might be the most significant group in wetland biodiversity: fish. And the Convention's subsidiary expert body, the Scientific and Technical Review Panel, at its meeting last month, requested the secretariat to prepare a draft to make the Ramsar Criteria, and in particular the guidelines for applying them, more descriptive and all-embracing. Contracting Parties are also encouraged to use the Ramsar List to provide initial protection for sites which for various reasons are not, and most likely will not be, included under the protected areas system of the countries concerned.

The Strategic Plan puts a renewed emphasis on the need to maintain the ecological character of listed sites by ensuring that the essential data about them are collected and updated regularly, and by establishing appropriate management plans. Well-designed management plans that have been developed through a true participatory process of all stakeholders constitute the key to the long-term conservation and sustainable use of Ramsar sites and other wetlands. The Conference of the Parties has approved guidelines for the preparation of such plans, and at present we are going through a process of reviewing the relevance of the guidelines, with a view to bringing them up for further discussion and possible improvement at the next Conference of the Parties in 1999.

Wise use of wetlands: General Objective 2 of the Strategic Plan seeks "to achieve the wise use of wetlands by implementing and further developing the Ramsar Wise Use Guidelines" that were adopted by the Conference of the Parties in 1990. The main tool suggested by the Guidelines is the development of National Wetland Policies, or equivalent plans, and the full integration of wetland issues into all national planning concerning land and water use. A renewed emphasis is placed on the need to consider each wetland site within the broader context of catchment area and coastal zone planning.

Canada and Uganda were the first Contracting Parties to have developed comprehensive wetland policies. Other countries that have now done so include China and Costa Rica. Here in Austria, at the last meeting of the National Ramsar Committee, the outline of a National Wetland Policy was developed, and similar strategic planning is taking place in several other countries, such as Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia and Spain.

The importance of undertaking effective environmental impact assessments of all projects that could affect wetlands is also fully recognized, again, not only in relation to particular sites but within the context of Integrated Environmental Management and Strategic Environmental Assessments.

International cooperation: The Strategic Plan urges the Convention to play a much more active catalytic role in working with the development assistance community in ensuring a sufficient flow of resources, in relation to wetlands conservation and wise use, towards developing countries and countries whose economies are in transition. To this end, the Ramsar secretariat maintains active contacts with the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility, and the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD. A good number of bilateral external support agencies are paying increasing attention to wetland issues in their policies.

Cooperation on transfrontier wetlands and wetland species also receives considerable emphasis. Here in Austria, there is close transfrontier collaboration on specific wetland issues - with the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic on the Danube, with Hungary on Neusiedlersee. The Bodensee, where Austria has a Ramsar site, is shared with Switzerland and Germany. The possibility of the twinning of Austrian and African sites was discussed at the last meeting of the National Ramsar Committee, where the Ramsar secretariat presented a paper containing with a number of suggestions.

The need for greater synergy among the environment-related conventions and agencies, in particular those that have emerged from the Rio Conference on Environment and Development, is also addressed in the Ramsar Strategic Plan. The Ramsar secretariat has signed memoranda of cooperation with the secretariats of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, and it intends to establish close working relations with the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, since in arid lands wetlands represent a crucial element for biodiversity and human survival.

The last Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a decision inviting Ramsar "to cooperate as a lead partner in the implementation of activities under the Convention related to wetlands" and, in particular, requested "the Executive Secretary to seek inputs from the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance in the preparation of documentation concerning the status and trends of inland water ecosystems for the consideration of the [CBD] Conference of the Parties at its fourth meeting".

The Ramsar Conference of the Parties in Brisbane last year also broke new ground by adopting a resolution on Ramsar and water and a recommendation on toxic chemicals in wetlands. In my view, the resolution on Ramsar and water is of high significance, because for the first time the Conference of the Parties is addressing the question of "the important hydrological functions of wetlands, including groundwater recharge, water quality improvement and flood alleviation, and the inextricable link between wetlands and water resources". As I said in my opening statement to the Brisbane Conference, only three percent of the world's water is fresh water, and a considerable amount of it is retained in the ice caps and glaciers. Lakes and rivers account for only 0.014 percent of all water, and even less is represented by ground water. And yet most biodiversity on our planet, including our amazing human adventure, depends upon that tiny amount of this essential component of life. Fresh, high quality water is already critically scarce in many places, and looks set to become scarce in many other locations. Water may well be the critical environment and development issue of the 21st century."

The recommendation on toxic chemicals also constitutes in my view a ground-breaking decision, since it recognizes that wetlands are also affected by the overall development pattern being followed on the planet, and requests Contracting Parties to provide information in their reports to the next Conference in 1999 "on their efforts to remedy and to prevent pollution impacts affecting Ramsar sites and other wetlands".

Also for the first time, the Brisbane Conference of the Parties had as part of its programme a Technical Session devoted to community participation. As a result, the Conference adopted a recommendation calling upon Contracting Parties to make specific efforts to encourage active and informed participation of local and indigenous people in wetland management. The recommendation also instructs the Convention secretariat, in cooperation with NGOs, to evaluate the benefits derived from community involvement and to prepare guidelines to facilitate that involvement, for consideration at the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties. Under the leadership of IUCN - The World Conservation Union, four NGOs are implementing a project towards that end. At this stage, the project is identifying experiences of community involvement, in all regions, including Western Europe, that could help to develop useful guidelines in this area. Financial and intellectual contributions to this project will be most welcome.

Following discussions at the Brisbane Conference, the Convention continues working in the new area of economic valuation of wetland resources. A book on this issue, as well as a brochure with key concepts for decision-makers, are being published in English, French and Spanish. The secretariat would be very pleased if resources could be found to publish these materials in German as well.

The Ramsar Small Grants Fund was set up in 1990 to provide assistance to developing countries, and now countries with economies in transition as well, for small projects for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and preparation for joining the Convention. Through 1996 over 60 projects have been allocated such funding, but for 1997 the Bureau has received over 100 proposals for evaluation, and has only some SFR 900,000 for disbursement. Austria has provided regular voluntary contributions for the Small Grants Fund over the years, and I hope that that will continue and perhaps increase.

The next Conference of the Parties to the Ramsar Convention will be held in San José, Costa Rica, on 10-18 May 1999. The overall theme of the Conference will be "People and Wetlands - The Vital Link". This will be the first time that the Ramsar COP will be held in a developing country. The Costa Rican authorities and NGOs are already working on the preparation of the meeting, and they will welcome the support of other Contracting Parties. In a few days we will have ready for distribution a poster announcing the Conference with a very attractive logo designed in Costa Rica which incorporates archaeological Indian motifs.

In summary, the Ramsar Convention has taken an important step forward, on the occasion of its 25th Anniversary in 1996, towards becoming a more useful tool to Contracting Parties, local communities and NGOs for working for wetland conservation and wise use, and for encouraging and facilitating international cooperation.

In many respects this country has played a leadership role within the Convention. We look forward to the continued active involvement of the Austrian provincial authorities and NGOs, through the National Ramsar Committee, to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of wetland resources in Austria and around the world.

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