Blog | 02 Feb, 2022

Wetland action to benefit both people and nature

Blog  — “Wetlands Action for People and Nature” – that is the theme for World Wetlands Day this year, focusing on how to invest our human resources into ensuring the world’s wetlands are protected from further loss and restored where they are currently degraded.

By Monika Böhm1 and Ian Harrison2.
1 Freshwater Coordinator of the Global Center for Species Survival & IUCN SSC Butterfly and Moth Specialist Group Co-Chair.
2 IUCN SSC Freshwater Conservation Committee Co-Chair and Freshwater Specialist, Conservation International.

Best available data suggests that, globally, natural wetlands declined by 35% on average from 1970 to 2015 and that threats to freshwater systems have resulted in, on average, an 84% decline in freshwater vertebrate populations between 1970 and 2016. Despite these gloomy statistics, there are clear signs that freshwater biodiversity issues are finally given the key focus within global development and conservation agendas that they had been previously denied. 

While World Wetlands Day is celebrated every year on 2nd February, on the anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention), last year it was formally adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (Resolution 75/317). Also, in 2021, and for the first time ever, the Forum of the IUCN World Conservation Congress included a theme focused specifically on freshwater conservation. The messages coming out of the Forum were broad, forward-thinking and action-oriented – recognizing the problems, looking for solutions whose first goal is to achieve conservation and restoration of freshwater ecosystems, while also recognizing the essential natural benefits freshwater systems provide to people. In the “words” of World Wetlands Day, we need wetlands action that benefits both people and nature.

Members of the IUCN Species Survival Commission can play an important part in mobilizing attention and resources to achieve these successful outcomes for people and nature – and from the inspiring discussions at last year’s IUCN Congress, we know how to. For example, IUCN Water and IUCN’s Global Species Programme organized a Freshwater Conservation Action Café to identify actions necessary to reverse the decline in freshwater biodiversity. WWF led a session on Rethinking freshwater ecosystem protection and management that highlighted the need to upscale freshwater protection and management by embracing a whole new scale in our thinking and ensuring that benefits of protection are shared across the whole basin. Conservation International’s session on necessary actions to implement the Global Biodiversity Framework in freshwater ecosystems emphasized the need to bring together the full range of stakeholders from different sectors in freshwater planning – only then can we ensure a shared understanding of the issues, and implementation of action under a socio-ecological system approach. This invariably means that as freshwater conservationists, we need to step outside our comfort zone and insert ourselves into these discussions with different sectors.

The high-level messages from the Congress Forum were clear: while freshwater is getting undoubtedly more attention, our collective action is not yet fast enough. Concrete steps need to be taken to give clearer guidance on how to apply the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework to freshwater ecosystems. In addition, the SSC’s freshwater community came out of the Congress with a set of at least a dozen Resolutions that provide the impetus for action. These Resolutions highlight the sustainable development value of freshwater ecosystems, and identify critical actions that can be implemented to help conserve them, at the same time as promoting better management of the benefits they supply for people and nature. In so doing, they address many of the overarching issues affecting freshwater systems: loss of connectivity caused by hydropower projects and other infrastructure; the lack of coordinated transboundary management of freshwater systems; the impacts of climate change on freshwater biodiversity; and the often undervalued benefits of healthy freshwater to people which lead to inadequate protection of biodiversity. 

In some of these Resolutions, the SSC is taking a central role in action for nature and people, especially by highlighting the importance of integrating species knowledge into the decision-making processes for the conservation and wise use of freshwater ecosystems.

Specialist Group work directly precipitated Resolutions 006 (Promoting harmony between cranes – flagships for biodiversity – and agriculture) and 114 (Saving the world’s otters) by providing the underlying knowledge on the issue and its solution: namely, the “Handbook on Cranes and Agriculture: Humans and Cranes Sharing the Landscape” and the “Global Otter Conservation Strategy”. Developing these guidance documents and action plans is a key function of SSC Specialist Groups, improving our impact on conservation planning and action – and providing the basis for future Motions! 

Other Resolutions also neatly encapsulate the World Wetlands Day theme of mobilizing resources to work across different sectors. Resolution 009 (Protecting rivers and their associated ecosystems as corridors in a changing climate) is a great example of this, as it not only calls on the IUCN and its Commissions but empowers society as a whole in the endeavour for free-flowing rivers. The importance of protecting our rivers, and especially our remaining free-flowing rivers, was also noted in Resolutions addressing threats from hydropower dams to the species-rich lower Congo river (Res 134) and the Andes-Amazon rivers of Peru (Res 013), and in a press conference on the growing, global movement and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers. At the heart of this Declaration is the understanding that, by recognizing the basic rights to which all rivers are entitled, we can safeguard the natural functions of these rivers, which are critical to the cultures and livelihoods of the people that live on or near them. 

Other resolutions are primarily focused on improved understanding of the full value of freshwater resources, including recognizing the importance of previously undervalued ecosystems (Res 018 - Conservation of spring ecosystems in the Mediterranean region) or resources (Res 020 - Valuing and protecting inland fisheries). 

In summary, these outputs from the IUCN Congress show there is a growing interest in freshwater biodiversity, its conservation and sustainable use. The IUCN community has been mandated to action via several Resolutions. Picking up on these, turning Resolutions into actions, and paving the way for future freshwater motions through the excellent work done by SSC Specialist Groups, is a clear way to address the objective of World Wetlands Day 2022, for nature and people. 

For a full list of the freshwater-related Resolutions passed at the 2020 IUCN World Congress, visit the Resolutions website, and select the Resolutions by theme (e.g., ‘Conserving Freshwater to Sustain Life’).