Blog: Wetlands are our ‘life insurance’ yet we continue to neglect them

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Europe’s record breaking summer of high temperatures, heat waves and droughts exposed the vulnerability of our agricultural systems, forestry management, energy mix and economies to these phenomena, which scientists have long predicted but which as societies we have prepared ourselves for poorly.

The Rhine, the Loire, the Po, but also the Yangtze and Parana… so many previously powerful rivers that this summer became mere ghosts slipping through beds of sediment cracked by the sun.

At the same time, reports are gathering attesting to the accelerated collapse of biodiversity, the living fabric of the planet. The number of vertebrate populations on the planet has decreased by 69% since 1970. Freshwater species have collapsed, declining by 83%,1 an indication of the massive destruction of wetlands.

These climate and biodiversity crises are intimately linked, feeding each other. They are two sides of a systemic crisis that has its roots in our erroneous relationship with the living world. A relationship “against Nature”, against the millions of species of which we are an integral part, dependent and interdependent.

It is in this context that an unprecedented series of international events dedicated to nature and climate is unfolding in the space of only a few weeks: the Conferences of the Parties (COP) of the intergovernmental treaties on wetlands2, climate3, trade in species4 and finally biodiversity5.

These events are a unique opportunity to take a step back, question our current international and national commitments, ambition and the connections between all these treaties… and find a better way forward.

An urgent transition, but hampered by too much resistance

There is no shortage of reasons for concern as these international meetings approach. The rate at which wetlands are disappearing around the world is not slowing down despite repeated commitments made by governments.

A recent UNEP report6 on climate change shows that the international community’s progress is “woefully inadequate” in charting a credible course towards achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement. On biodiversity, after the obvious failure of the Aïchi targets, which were supposed to commit to the recovery of biodiversity during the decade 2011-2020, the new framework that is taking shape for the current decade looks too unambitious and still sorely lacks a mechanism for holding states accountable.

Inventing a new way of sharing water by placing life at the centre

Water grabbing in the plains of mega-basins or in the mountains to produce artificial snow is the “swan song” of agricultural or tourist actors who refuse to adapt to the inevitable. These are the impossible trade-offs required – between crop irrigation, hydroelectric production, cooling of nuclear power plants, domestic or industrial uses – when faced with water that is too scarce to satisfy the various needs to which our production and consumption models have accustomed us.

We urgently need to accept the obvious, reconsider our relationship with water and with living beings and change our behaviours that deeply affect the great water cycle. Faced with growing needs and water availability that is less and less predictable and controllable, we must reinvent the way we use and distribute it, ensuring we leave enough for nature to thrive. No longer should we consider nature an adjustment variable of our production systems, but as their foundation, as the basis of our lives and our economies.

Wetlands, providers of solutions to growing societal challenges

Wetlands, long perceived as unsafe and insalubrious, are the most destroyed ecosystem on the planet, declining three times faster than forests. But as they disappear, they are proving to be the ecosystem that contributes most to humanity. More than a billion people depend directly on them for their existence and many more benefit from their extraordinary powers.

They are the “kidneys of nature”, purifying the water we pollute. Gigantic sponges, they capture increasingly irregular and often massive levels of rainfall, attenuate peak floods, recharge the water tables and support the flow of rivers during longer and more intense droughts. Hydrologists agree that the most effective and sustainable way to store water and make it available for a variety of uses is to ensure that groundwater and wetlands are fully functional and interconnected.

At a time when societal challenges – food security, climate change, water supply, human health… – have never been more intense, there is an urgent need for massive wetland protection and restoration. These are highly effective, low-cost solutions with numerous associated benefits. Nature-based solutions are our life insurance.

Authors: Tour du Valat, IUCN French Committee and Ramsar France

 This text is endorsed by:

Francis Hallé, botanist; Erik Orsenna, writer, member of the Académie française, president of the Initiative for the Future of Great Rivers; Françoise Nyssen, publisher and former minister; Allain Bougrain Dubourg, President of the LPO; Jean-Paul Capitani, publisher; Vincent Munier, photographer; Charlélie Couture, artist; Emma Haziza, hydrologist; Jérôme Bignon, President of Ramsar France; Maud Lelièvre, President of the French Committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature; André Hoffmann, Fondation Tour du Valat; Maja Hoffmann, Fondation LUMA Arles; Vera Michalski-Hoffmann, Fondation Tour du Valat; Frédérique Tuffnell, vice-president of Ramsar France; Wolfgang Cramer, biologist CNRS, Mediterranean Institute of Biodiversity and Ecology; Patrick Duncan, biologist, CNRS; Marc-André Selosse, biologist; Rémi Luglia, President of the Société ‘nationale de Protection de la Nature; Véronique Andrieux, Director General, WWF France; Charlotte Meunier, President of Réserves Naturelles de France; Didier Babin, President of the French Committee of the Man and Biosphere Programme; Didier Réault, President of Rivages de France; Jean Jalbert, Director General of the Tour du Valat; Jean-Marie Gilardeau, President of the Forum des Marais Atlantiques; Luc Barbier, vice-president of CEN Hauts de France; Laurent Gode, secretary of Ramsar France; Olivier Hubert, administrator of Ramsar France; Geneviève Magnon, president of the Atlantic Marshes Study Group; Michel Métais, president of the Roche association, Michel Métais, President of the Rochefort-Ocean Development Council; Alain Salvi, Director General of the Federation of Conservatories of Natural Spaces; Stéphan Arnassant, head of the Biodiversity and Natural Heritage Unit at the Camargue Regional Nature Park; Mediterranean Alliance for Wetlands (32 NGOS and research institutions working together to bring a voice bring a voice and action towards protecting and managing the Mediterranean Wetlands).

This is an English translation of the original article, published in French on the Tour du Valat website. Tour du Valat is a Wetlands International Europe member and research institute focused on the conservation of wetlands in the Mediterranean.

 

[1] WWF – Living Plant Report 2022

[2] COP14 of the Ramsar Convention

[3] COP27 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

[4] COP19 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

[5] COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

[6] United Nations Environment Programme

[7] Peat bogs, lakes, marshes, lagoons, rivers, mangroves, ponds, alluvial valleys, deltas, estuaries…