World Wetlands Day is celebrated each year on 2 February to raise awareness about wetlands. This year’s theme – Wetlands and Human Wellbeing – is especially relevant in the Latorica River transboundary floodplain landscape where we are kicking off a restoration planning process.
World Wetlands Day coincides with the kick off of our “Reconnecting the Latorica river floodplain in a transboundary context” project in Slovakia and Ukraine. The project is one of nine landscape and seascape restoration planning grants announced last fall by the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme, managed by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in partnership with Arcadia.
The Latorica river highlights the interconnection between healthy wetlands and human wellbeing as it flows from Ukraine into Slovakia, forming a unique landscape of oxbow lakes, soft and hardwood floodplain forests, old river meanders, grasslands and meadows – that still maintains much of its natural character from centuries ago. Not only is it important for rare and threatened bird and indigenous fish species, but it is also an inhabited landscape of villages and farms, with livelihoods, economy and culture historically supported and shaped by the river.
In the past, wide floodplains served as natural sponges, providing defences against floods and droughts by soaking up excess floodwaters and recharging groundwater. This also created outstanding habitats for unique European nature to thrive. But now, after decades of dike building and drainage, the negative consequences for both wetlands and people have become evident. Despite protected area designations, including a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance on the Slovakian side of the border, the landscape is facing many threats and challenges.
Floods are currently restricted between narrow dikes, and the wider floodplain that is essential to nourishing the health of the wider landscape is disconnected. At the same time, the climate is changing, with recent trends of lower spring floods and higher temperatures in summer. This is drying out wetland habitats, along with lowering groundwater levels and drying out of wells in villages. Flood risks are also increasing as, in much of Europe, there is a higher likelihood of extreme summer precipitation events that channel large amounts of floodwaters quickly downstream – without sufficient floodplains to absorb and reduce peak flows – towards larger towns.
Under the new project, partners in Slovakia and Ukraine – governments, civil society, knowledge institutes and the private sector – are coming together to start the process of co-creating knowledge and understanding. This is the basis to establish active transboundary cooperation which has been lacking between the countries, and will ultimately lead to the co-development of a shared vision for the future of the landscape.
We’re hopeful that this planning process comes at the right moment to envision a healthier and more climate resilient landscape. The restoration of floodplain wetlands is a multi-benefit, nature-based solution that has the potential to bring back nature, increase protections against both floods and droughts, improve water quality and drinking water security, and create more prosperous and sustainable livelihoods that sustain cultural traditions – benefiting wetlands and human wellbeing.
The Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme aims to restore natural ecological processes, species populations and habitats for a better and more sustainable future. It signals a shift away from a narrative of ‘slowing declines’ and ‘no net loss’ to a positive and creative conservation agenda in which the potential of our land and seas is recognised. The Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme is managed by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in partnership with Arcadia, a charitable foundation that works to protect nature, preserve cultural heritage, and promote open access to knowledge.
Photo credit: Milos Balla