Wetlands and Human Well-being
Wetlands, often overlooked and undervalued, are, in fact, one of the most vital and productive ecosystems on our planet. They serve as the world's natural sponges and water purifiers, playing an indispensable role in climate regulation, maintaining the global hydrological cycle, and safeguarding ecosystem diversity.
The benefits that wetlands provide extend far beyond their environmental impact. They also contribute directly to human welfare and have significant economic value. From providing habitats for a diverse range of flora and fauna to acting as natural buffers against storms and floods, the services rendered by these ecosystems are truly invaluable.
Despite their immense value, wetlands have historically been misunderstood and mistreated. Once seen as mosquito-ridden swamps and carriers of disease, they were feared and avoided. Early settlers and governments, driven by a lack of understanding and appreciation for these ecosystems, embarked on large-scale reclamation projects, draining wetlands for agricultural land and human settlements.
The neglect of wetlands, combined with the effects of human activities and natural events, has resulted in a substantial reduction in global wetland areas and a decline in quality. According to the Global Wetland Outlook by the Ramsar Convention, wetlands are vanishing three times faster than forests, sounding an alarm for urgent action.
Exploring the Wetlands in the Pacific
The Pacific Islands, known for their diverse range of freshwater resources, are predominantly characterized by coastal wetlands, including estuarine mangrove wetlands and salt marshes. These ecosystems are crucial to the region's biodiversity and provide invaluable services to the local communities. Most Pacific Island nations boast some form of coastal wetlands. However, the small size of these islands and their often low-lying, coral- and limestone-based land masses limit freshwater resources and aquatic ecosystems. Despite these limitations, these coastal wetlands serve as vital habitats for many species and act as natural buffers against coastal erosion and storms.
Inland freshwater reserves are a rarity in the Pacific, with only Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Samoa boasting significant reserves. Papua New Guinea stands out with several million hectares of wetlands, providing a unique and rich ecosystem that supports a diverse range of flora and fauna. Coral reefs, often called the rainforests of the sea, are the most extensive wetland type in the Pacific Island region. They occur offshore of nearly all coastlines that lack significant river discharge. New Caledonia, for instance, has around 24,000 km2 of coral reefs, including the world's second-largest barrier reef. Papua New Guinea is not far behind, with 40,000 km2 of coral reef. Some countries in Micronesia and Polynesia are almost entirely composed of coral atolls, showcasing the diversity and adaptability of these underwater ecosystems.
The Pacific Islands region is home to about 5,975 km2 of mangroves, with the most prominent areas in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji, and New Caledonia. Each country boasts a unique mixture of species, and these mangroves provide invaluable ecosystem services. They act as nurseries for fish, protect coastlines from erosion, and sequester carbon, playing a crucial role in mitigating climate change.
Coastal Development Impacts on Pacific Wetlands
Island ecosystems, by their very nature, are susceptible to disturbances. However, the vulnerability of many coastal wetlands, including estuaries, has significantly increased due to heavy modifications and intensive development over the past few decades. The looming threat of climate change further exacerbates this vulnerability.
In the Pacific, apart from Papua New Guinea, much of the population resides in the coastal zone, where population growth is generally high. Tourism, which contributes up to half of the gross domestic product for some Pacific Island nations, supports extensive coastal development. This development pressure has led to the exploitation of mangrove wetlands.
Changes in Pacific Island watersheds due to development, including deforestation, agricultural practices, and urbanization, have altered hydrology and sedimentation effects. Given that most Pacific Island wetlands are coastal, they are already feeling the adverse impacts of climate change.
Sea level rise is the most severe problem, contributing to coastal erosion and saline incursions of ground and surface waters from high sea levels. Projections indicate that sea levels could rise between 18–59 cm by 2100. The effects of rising sea levels are likely to be exacerbated by other projected climate changes. El Niño climate patterns and greater intensity of extreme events will likely cause more flooding and drought and more Category 4 and 5 cyclones. Globally, more than 25 per cent of all wetlands plants and animals are at risk of extinction. The IUCN's Red List Index, which assesses survival probability using available data, has identified negative trends for wetland mammals, birds, amphibians and corals, indicating they are heading for extinction. Coral reefs are declining fastest due to rising sea temperatures, while amphibians have the lowest numbers and are the most threatened. Wetland fish, reptiles and large mammals are also vulnerable, with every turtle species globally threatened and a third critically endangered.
Wetlands and Human Well-being
In the Pacific Islands, wetlands play a crucial role in supporting the livelihoods of the local communities and contribute significantly to national economies. They offer critical habitat for fish, waterbirds, and other wildlife, purify polluted waters, and help check the destructive power of floods and storms. They also provide various recreational opportunities like fishing, hunting, photography, and wildlife observation.
For example, the mangrove wetlands in Fiji are a vital part of the local economy. They provide timber and non-timber forest products, fish, and other marine resources. They also offer essential ecological services such as coastal protection, carbon sequestration, and habitat for various species.
In Samoa, wetlands are recognized for their cultural and spiritual values. Some are considered sacred sites and are even used for traditional ceremonies. They also support subsistence agriculture and provide materials for housing, boat building, and handicrafts. With much of the population residing in the coastal zone, access to clean, safe, and resilient water can be challenging. However, with their natural filtration systems, wetlands provide a sustainable solution to this challenge.
From a human well-being perspective, the role of wetlands in the Pacific is invaluable. These natural reservoirs act as lifelines for the communities that surround them. They ensure a steady water supply by storing rainwater and gradually releasing it to groundwater systems and streams, particularly during dry periods. This is crucial in regions where water scarcity can be a significant challenge.
But the benefits of wetlands go beyond just water supply. They also serve as natural filtration systems, improving water quality by filtering pollutants and sediments. This means that the water communities rely on for drinking, cooking, and bathing is cleaner and safer.
Moreover, the healthier the wetland, the healthier the community. Wetlands are home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, contributing to a rich biodiversity that can be a source of food and livelihood for many. They also offer recreational opportunities, serving as places for people to connect with nature and each other.
IUCN's Wetlands Initiatives
IUCN is actively working to protect wetlands in the Pacific Island countries through various initiatives. One of the key initiatives is the Kiwa Initiative, a multi-donor programme funded by the governments of France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union, that aims to strengthen the resilience of Pacific countries and territories ecosystems, economies, and communities. The initiative promotes funding projects that promote Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for climate change adaptation and biodiversity preservation. Another significant effort is launching the Promoting Pacific Island Nature-based Solutions (PPIN) project. This project, funded by the NZ government led by IUCN, and implementing partners of Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), the Pacific Community (SPC), and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP, aims to strengthen the integration of NbS uptake into relevant policies and sectors. The team based in Suva, Fiji, is dedicated to improving Pacific Islands ecosystems, economies, and communities resilience to climate change through enhanced ecosystem management and biodiversity conservation using Nature-based Solutions via grants and technical assistance.
Through these initiatives, IUCN contributes significantly to the conservation and sustainable management of wetlands in the Pacific Island countries. The evidence of the team's work can be seen in the numerous projects and the positive impact these projects have had on the local communities and the environment.
The wetlands of the Pacific Islands are not just environmental assets, and they are vital for the well-being of the human communities that depend on them. They are crucial in ensuring water security, supporting livelihoods, and maintaining biodiversity. Despite their immense value, these ecosystems are threatened by climate change, development pressures, and other human activities. Therefore, the need for sustainable management and conservation of these wetlands is not just an ecological necessity, but a social and human one. Protecting these unique ecosystems is about preserving our natural heritage and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Pacific Island communities. Our collective responsibility is to understand, appreciate, and protect these unique ecosystems for future generations.
2nd February is World Wetlands Day, and here, Vinay V. Singh, the IUCN's Regional Nature-based Solutions (NbS) Programmes Coordinator, demonstrates the importance of wetlands in the Pacific Island Countries.
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