Wetlands will be the Litmus test of our climate response

Blog by James Dalton. One of the increasingly common messages proposed for the management of water resources is ‘systems thinking’. The hydrological cycle is after all, a ‘system’ – a set of constituent parts and processes that work independently but also together, allowing water to flow, drain, infiltrate, evaporate, condense and precipitate. This water system is also a key part of the overall climate regulation process – a process we are distorting through fossil fuel burning.

Okavango Delta

As an example, a coastal wetland is a hydrological system; maintaining a certain salinity, pH, and other water quality factors. This in turn allows water and sediment to move, infiltrate into soil and rocks and evaporate into the atmosphere. We are good, increasingly very good, at understanding these unique processes and the science behind them, and consequently managing these smaller but highly complex systems, such as wetlands. 

What we are not good at is the conversion from site specific thinking into managing water resources at scale, beyond a ‘site’ or an individual wetland. There are many reasons for this.  Data is often compartmentalised, incompatible between sectors or not shared. Institutional mandates differ and create an ‘independent focus’. In doing so our vision tends to narrow and ignore the systems thinking needed to better manage water resources at the broader basin scale.

Wetlands are essential regulators of water and nutrient flow – be they headwater wetlands that help to move water downstream and recharge groundwater, or wetlands lower down in river basins that store water, providing many ecosystem services such as for farming and habitat for biodiversity. But how we treat our wetlands now can have a dramatic effect on their continued ability to contribute to the hydrological cycle and store carbon. 

Coastal wetlands are some of the best natural carbon stores on the planet. Peatlands, covering only 3% of the planet store almost one third of all land based carbon. Yet we are losing these natural carbon stores and water regulators three times as fast as we are losing the world’s forests. Degraded and damaged wetlands have the potential to turn from carbon store to carbon source, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. 

If we are to manage our water and carbon cycles for the future, then understanding our natural systems better is crucial.  Ambition is needed on a scale not seen before if we are to sustain freshwater systems and keep global warming at 1.5oC – a threshold that is critical for our natural systems to stay our allies in our response to climate change.  Any warmer, and the carbon stores become sources, the floods and storms increase, and precipitation shifts.

Wetland decline has to be halted and reversed quickly. Putting wetlands centrally into the post 2020 Agenda could help make reversing their decline an indicator of multiple SDG successes, and not an indicator of failure as they are currently used for. The Ramsar Convention is a critical policy instrument to guide countries in protecting and restoring wetlands. Understanding the Convention across multiple sectors, not just water, is crucial to fully mobilise resources for wetland action beyond the focus on habitat protection, but to understand the role of wetlands within the full hydrological and carbon cycles.

On World Wetlands Day, let's reinforce the effort to help make the Ramsar Convention the success it needs to be, and the success it was hoped to be when it was adopted 44 years ago. It is an International Water Treaty that focuses on wetlands, not just for nature but for all the services wetlands provide – including regulating water and carbon, the two main drivers of our climate. If you keep wetlands intact, and managed comprehensively both as ‘site’ and as part of the overall water management system, you maximise the benefits they provide locally, and globally.

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James Dalton is the Director of the IUCN Global Water Programme

To contact, please email water@iucn.org

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