01.02.2013 - Natural Sciences Sector

Wetlands take care of water

All life on the planet depends on water. In designating 2013 as the UN International Year of Water Cooperation, the United Nations General Assembly recognizes that water is critical for sustainable development and for human health and well-being. This recognition is not new - Leonardo da Vinci captured the importance of the issue when he proclaimed that ‘Water is the driving force of all nature’.

Water fundamentally connects. From source to sea and through the never ending water cycle, water connects all corners of planet Earth. The Ramsar Convention recognises that wetlands occupy a key position in this interconnectivity and that the wise use of wetlands is essential for the delivery of sustainable water management.

On 2 February, we celebrate World Wetlands Day 2013 under the theme Wetlands and Water Management. UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (IHP) is proud to celebrate this day in partnership with Ramsar and in celebration of the International Year of Water Cooperation. Both IHP and Ramsar have always had the nexus of water, people and wetlands at its core. Wetlands constitute a resource of great socio-economic, cultural and scientific value, and their loss would be irreparable.

Wetlands deliver essential ecosystem services, or the benefits people obtain from nature, including acting as regulators and providers of water. Thus water management and the “wise use of wetlands” are inextricably linked. The key objective of World Wetlands Day 2013 is to raise people’s awareness of the interdependence between water and wetlands, to highlight ways to ensure the equitable sharing of water between different stakeholder groups and to understand that without wetlands there will be no water.

Access to a clean and adequate supply of water is a basic requirement for human survival. We constantly underestimate the role of wetlands as basic water management elements within the supply and regulation process upon which humanity depends. Impacts from changes in land use, water diversions, and infrastructure development continue to drive the degradation and loss of wetlands. Without the appropriate management of wetlands there is no water of the right quality and quantity, where and when it is needed. Managing water requires appropriate governance arrangements. Increasingly this requires that decisions regarding water management move from the margins of government to the centre of society.

We are all water managers, not just the water companies or government regulators. Every time we turn on a tap or buy food we are responsible for a small element of the much larger water management cycle. At the most basic level, each human body on the planet contains more than 60% water.

How do we ensure access to precious water resources for a growing population whilst ensuring the future protection of the very ecosystems upon which we depend? This is where recognition of the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands as regulators of water regimes comes into its own. Wetlands are the earth’s natural water infrastructure, providing a clean source and store of freshwater. Their loss and degradation directly intensifies water supply issues and compromises human well-being. Just as water scarcity and security are not issues confined to the water sector but are really societal issues, the role of wetlands in ensuring the security of water supply is also a matter of societal choice. Governments and individual citizens can affect future decisions.

Wetlands are ‘water providers’, processing and purifying water. They are also ‘water users’: they need a certain amount of water input if they are to continue to supply the water output, not to mention the many other services and products they provide for humans. Their role in water cycles is integral to water resource management from the level of a local pond right up to trans-national river basins. Just as we are all water managers, we all need to take responsibility for the wise use of wetlands in order to keep humankind supplied with water.

What can we do?
Local actions to recycle, reuse and conserve water are the basis of sustainable water management and should not be underestimated. Local stakeholders have a direct role to play in the delivery of broader water management initiatives, through domestic initiatives such as rainwater harvesting and water-friendly garden design or simply reducing water usage or enhancing local wetlands. Similarly stakeholders are encouraged to ensure that their experiences and concerns are integrated into water management decision-making. Grass roots advocacy and action can make a difference! 

Consumers can reduce the amount of water through direct action - by applying a water-saving showerhead, shutting off the tap during teeth brushing,  by not disposing of medicines, paints or other pollutants down the sink etc. They can also support the protection and restoration of wetland ecosystems.

But consumers also have an indirect water footprint and this is usually much larger than the direct one. To reduce their indirect water footprint consumers are faced with two basic options. The first option is to move from purchasing products with a large water footprint to an alternative product with a smaller water footprint. A second option is to continue with the same consumption pattern but to select a product that has a relatively low water footprint or that has its footprint in an area that does not have high water scarcity.

Such choices require access to information and it is important that consumers challenge manufacturers and ask for product transparency from businesses and governments alike. Only when information is available on the impacts of products on the water cycle system will consumers be able to make conscious choices about what they buy.

At the global level, The Ramsar Convention has called for local to national governments to recognise wetlands as the primary sources from which humans derive water and that they are a major and critical component of the water cycle that keeps us supplied with water.

The Convention and UNESCO have a very close partnership. They cooperate through UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention, the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme and in recent years with the International Hydrological Programme (IHP). UNESCO-IHP through its networks and partners actively contributes to the implementation of the Ramsar Convention in particular by identifying and inventorying transboundary aquifers and groundwater dependent ecosystems that are vital for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

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