How bad swamps became good wetlands

Drain the swamp!  It is an old cry.  Swamps are where bad things happen, right?  They are wastelands.  Malaria breeds.  Mists settle.  Tracks disappear.  Criminals lurk.

Dalmas, 74 year old, born in the Yala Swamp on the shores of Lake Victoria. 74 year old Dalmas remembers the Yala Wetlands before they were drained for agriculture. Photo: Fred Pearce

Ever since the Dutch began installing windmills to pump out the boggy places where the Rhine met the North Sea, engineers have been on the case big-time.  An estimated half of all the world’s wetlands – swamps, bogs, river banks, lake margins, mires, oases, river deltas, mangroves, tidal flats, floodplains and the rest – have been drained, or dried out by upstream barrages and dams.

In their places are cities, infrastructure of all sorts and farmland – released, it is said, from the menace of flooding.

Celebrating wetlands

Except, of course, we now realise that wetlands are a good thing.  You can tell how our views have changed by the name.  Just as bad jungles became good rainforests, so bad swamps and mires have become good wetlands.  We even have a World Wetlands Day.

This year it is on 2 February, and is being used to promote the theme of re-integrating wetlands with agriculture.  More wetlands have been drained in the name of extending and improving agriculture than for any other reason.

Yet real farmers often object, especially smallholders dependent on wetlands for parts of their livelihoods.  They know that wetlands are fecund places, centres of biodiversity, sources of fish, and rich in mammals and birdlife, and in fibres and wood.  They are places for grazing livestock and for salt pans.  They provide water for irrigation and recession agriculture.

Wetlands more often support agriculture than impede it.  Rural landscapes work best when farms and wetlands are seen as complementary rather than rivals.

The good news is that large areas of wetlands survive.  By some estimates, they cover 6 per cent of the world’s land mass.

What’s the big deal about wetlands?

Wetlands are places where floodwaters can drain or dissipate.  They prevent more floods than they cause.  They moderate climate by cooling summers, warming winters and wetting dry air.  They maintain river flows and top up groundwaters.  They protect shorelines from storms.  They even clean pollution, soaking up nutrients and toxins and turning them onto biomass.

A single wetland can be the biological and hydrological engine of an entire river system.  Flooded forests round the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia capture monsoon floods from the Mekong and act as nursery for most of the river’s massive fish resources.

Wetlands protect people in extremis.  The Sudd swamp on the Nile in South Sudan is maintaining lives during the current civil conflict there.  The Inner Niger delta in Mali did the same during last year’s war there.   Even in times of peace, the inner delta sustains some two million people: grazing cattle, catching fish, harvesting wood, growing crops as waters recede in the drier months.

The destruction of wetlands, even in the name of economic development, involves the destruction not just of natural ecosystems but of economic and cultural systems, too. Witness the depopulation of parts of central Asia after the Aral Sea was strangled up upstream diversions.

The pressure to drain

The pressures to drain nonetheless continue.  For one thing, wetlands are often commons.  They are shared land, because their resources are so valuable to communities, and because those resources depend on an intact ecosystem.  Dividing up a wetland into private parcels would destroy it.  So when privatization happens, the swamp soon goes.  Many of the world’s most controversial land grabs have involved draining marshes.

Witness what happened when American evangelist real-estate entrepreneur Calvin Burgess began to drain the Yala Swamp on the shores of Lake Victoria to grow rice.  He expected his Dominion Farm to win thanks from the locals; instead he faced riots and a wave of anger.  He never realised that the swamp was a resource rather than a curse for the locals.

74-year-old Dalmas [pictured above] told me: “We all used to live in the swamp.  I was born there.  My grandfather died there.  Our family had a hundred cattle then."   Now 1500 former swamp-dwellers huddle together in shacks round the farm fence.  Their cattle are long gone.  They are poorer, they say.

Reinventing wetlands for the modern world

Smart farmers don’t destroy wetlands; they maintain and use them.  Seasonal wetlands on river floodplains, known as dambos, are the lifeblood of smallholder farming in much of sub-Saharan Africa. They are the source of free irrigation water and organic fertilizer for crops, and provide wet pastures for livestock.

In Asia, wetlands combine rice and fish production.  As river and ocean fish disappear, wetlands are increasingly vital for aquaculture.

The trick today is to reinvent wetlands for the modern world, with new systems of governance, new crop regimes, new economic roles and, if necessary, some new hydrology.  The ancient Ma’dan culture, dictated by the reed bed ecosystems of the Mesopotamian marshes in Iraq, has gone for good.  So too has the untamed hydrology, as dams are built upstream.  But new management systems within a national park may yet give it a viable future.

If we want to integrate conservation and agriculture in river valleys, wetlands are the key.  If we want fish with our rice, or beef and milk with our wheat, wetlands can be the key.  Successfully wetlands are models for agroecosystems.  They also put a premium on local expertise, because hydrologically, ecologically – and often culturally -- no two wetlands are alike.

A well-run wetland is a model and testbed for successful management of the wilder landscape to maintain ecosystem services, protect nature and deliver human needs.  If we cannot get wetlands right, then we will fail at much else.

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