Well managed wetlands ensure extreme weather events don’t become disasters

10 February 2017

“Healthy wetlands, resilient communities” was the title of the high level round table discussion that brought together speakers from governments, civil society, humanitarian and development agencies to share their perspectives on how wetlands contribute to sustainable development by reducing the risk of disasters. The event attended by over 140 participants took place in Geneva on 2 February on the occasion of World Wetlands Day 2017, under the umbrella theme Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction.

The frequency of disasters worldwide has more than doubled in just 35 years and 90% are water- related.  Due to climate change more extreme weather is predicted in the future, while every year we lose more of the world’s wetlands.  Latest figures suggest 64% have been destroyed or degraded in the last century.

“The 169 governments who have signed the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands have demonstrated their commitment to develop policies for the sustainable management of wetlands. It is an important platform of political commitment which needs to be replicated,” said Martha Rojas-Urrego, Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. “Other agreements such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change provide opportunities for countries to integrate wetlands conservation and restoration as part of their mitigation efforts and national action plans for climate change reduction. Wetlands store twice as much carbon than forests. This might help to get synergies, better investment and bring awareness for the conservation of wetlands, she added.

Geneva Round Table WWD2017

Well-managed wetlands make communities resilient and help to minimize the damage from hazards.

“Wetlands are regulators of water and this could explain why disasters are rising as wetlands are lost,” said Jane Madgwick, Chief Executive Officer at Wetlands International. “These events are not really natural disasters, but disasters caused by the destruction of our surrounding environment, She added.

The Philippines experiences natural hazards on a regular basis. Ambassador Maria Teresa Almojuela, of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Philippines in Geneva described how a mangrove plantation protected the coastal community of Palompon during the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan storm surge disaster. She mentioned that in the aftermath of the disaster, the government of the Philippines brought together different arms of government to embed disaster risk reduction in its environmental policy.

In the event of extreme weather natural ecosystems such as wetlands and built infrastructure are essential to protect communities and help them bounce back from disasters.

“Land use is an important factor in Japan, even more as infrastructures do not always offer the required protection from disasters,” said Naohisa Okuda, the Director of the Biodiversity Policy Division of the Nature Conservation Bureau at the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (MOEJ). He stated that in 2011, following the devastating effects of the Tsunami that led to 13’000 deaths, the government of Japan developed a national plan which included an ecosystems-based approach to managing disasters.

“Wetlands provide an incredible setting for reducing risks from natural hazards. Too many times, infrastructure would be built in a wetland area, only to realise that the particular wetland was also providing water and protection against disasters,” said Inger Andersen, the Director General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN. She illustrated this point with an example from Senegal, where the construction of the Diama Dam on the Senegal River estuary left thousands of farmers without a livelihood, as 1,000,000 hectares of wetlands and cultivable lands were immediately lost. The government of Senegal, upon realization of the importance of this wetland, joined efforts with other organizations which led to its restoration and protection as a Ramsar Site.

Well managed wetlands can prevent natural hazards from turning into disasters. This requires preparing the community by raising awareness and communicating about the risks and vulnerabilities that occur when wetlands are degraded.

“The health of the community is linked to the health of its environment. It is important to empower communities and build their resilience through an integrated environmental management approach which involves both upstream and downstream communities, “said Garry Conille, the Under Secretary General of the Programmes and Operations at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

In order to harness the capacity of wetlands to minimize and reduce disasters and build community resilience collective efforts and actions from the public and private sectors are crucial as well as multi-stakeholder partnerships.

“Breaking down barriers between groups of policymakers is exactly the kind of approach advocated by UNISDR, which sees it as the key to success. Partnerships have to be created and all players have to be engaged to reduce disaster risk, including the private sector,” said Kirsi Madi, Director of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

The outcomes of the Roundtable discussion will be shared as a contribution to the 2017 Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, which will be held on 22-26 May in Cancun, Mexico.