Wetlands disappearing three times faster than forests

A squirrel in St James's Park Lake, London. [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The planet lost a third of its wetlands between 1970 and 2015. Moreover, this decline has been accelerating since the start of the century due to urbanisation, agriculture and climate change. This was the Ramsar Convention’s warning in a report published on 27 September. EURACTIV France’s media partner, the Journal de l’environnement, reports.

Lakes, rivers, swamps, marshes, peatlands, estuaries, lagoons, mangroves, oases or coral reefs – no region of the world has been spared from the loss of these valuable wetlands. They now only cover 12 million square kilometres, in other words, 24 times the area of France.

Vital resources

This is happening even though wetlands possess countless assets. As major sources of freshwater, wetlands are vital for their nutrients, raw materials, genetic resources and hydroelectric power, among other benefits. They are also habitat for 40% of the world’s species, who live and breed there.

Not to mention their contribution to climate regulation. The peatlands, which only cover 3% of the planet’s surface, store twice as much carbon as all of the forests. However, they generate between 20% and 25% of global methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas.

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Urbanisation and agriculture

Nevertheless, the pressure of human activities on them has intensified since 1970, bringing about the loss of 35% of wetlands between 1970 and 2015. The causes of this were increasing drainage for urbanisation (particularly in coastal regions) and agricultural purposes, as well as climate change.

“They are disappearing three times faster than forests,” warned Martha Rojas Urrego, secretary general of the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar). Signed in 1971, the treaty was ratified by 170 countries and protects between 13% and 18% of the world’s wetlands.

Pollution

According to the report, water pollution and nutrient loads from fertiliser runoff represent the primary threat “to the global prospects of wetlands”. These valuable areas receive 80% of wastewater without adequate treatment, according to the UN.

Wetlands also face a major biodiversity crisis because more than 25% of their plants and animals are in danger of extinction.

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Objective of zero net loss

Solely including new sites on the Ramsar list of protected areas will not be enough to rectify the situation.

The report stressed the need for states to develop plans to effectively manage wetlands and incorporate these areas into any policy related to sustainable development and climate change. In the first instance, this could be done by establishing an objective of “zero net loss of wetlands.”

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