Covering six percent of the world's total land area, wetlands provide food, water, fiber, fuel and medicine to millions of people. They also help purify water, regulate floods and absorb greenhouse gases. The estimated annual global economic value of wetlands is around $70 billion.
However, wetlands face a host of threats. Millions of hectares in Southeast Asia have been drained to make way for palm oil and biofuel production; water in rivers that supplies wetlands has been diverted for irrigation; and fertilizers and pesticides from farms have polluted wetlands. Hydropower development, climate change, land degradation and population growth are also significant and growing pressures.
"We need policies on wetlands that simultaneously support ecosystems, sustain rich biodiversity and improve the livelihoods of farming communities who depend on wetlands or whose activities directly affect them. We need to find a way to have the best of both worlds." Matthew McCartney, hydrologist at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
Influencing global policies
There is a growing consensus that the need for conservation should be balanced with the need to protect and improve livelihoods. Communities have a wealth of knowledge that could provide insights into the best ways to manage wetlands.
The CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) has contributed to policies on global wetland management through its research and involvement in the Ramsar Convention. In particular, WLE scientists have played a role in discussions on conservation, promoting a people-centered approach to wetlands planning and management.
Since 2008, IWMI has contributed to 10 Ramsar resolutions, which provide a framework for the convention's 168 signatory countries to manage wetlands wisely. In 2013, WLE researchers worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to produce a series of publications on wetlands and agriculture to coincide with World Wetlands Day in February 2014.
Establishing the importance of wetlands
Currently, WLE is coordinating efforts with communities in the Barotse floodplain in Zambia. This area is a living example of humans and wetlands co-prospering, where residents move annually with the floods. A multi-disciplinary group of researchers are working with different local groups to examine sustainable ways of improving livelihoods and ensuring adaptability to extreme climate events while maintaining ecosystem integrity and local tribal traditions.
In the coming years, WLE and its partners will continue to research wetlands, seeking a deeper understanding of the potential to improve rural livelihoods and equity. Researchers will investigate opportunities for boosting fisheries in artificial wetlands to reduce hunger and decrease pressure on fish populations in reservoirs. They also plan to explore variations in perceptions of man-made wetlands and how men and women may benefit differently from wetlands.