Importance of Wetlands and how F.r.o.g.s revived Goulbourn wetlands

1. Ramsar convention on global wetlands

2. Birds, frogs and sunset walks: how a wetlands project transformed the NSW town of Goulburn

1. Ramsar convention on global wetlands

PREFACE

We all interact with and depend on wetlands for our livelihoods, sustenance and well-being. In the context of climate change, increasing water demands and increased risks of floods and droughts, wetlands are more critical than ever to achieve sustainable development. In fact, wetlands contribute directly or indirectly to 75 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicators. Of critical importance is the Convention’s leadership role in reporting on wetland extent as a co-custodian with the United Nations Environment Programme of SDG indicator 6.6.1. The Convention provides a platform like no other to foster collaboration and partnership to achieve other international policy objectives including the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction to promote co-benefits and scale up the needed action to conserve and wisely use wetlands. These ambitious plans assume that we have a baseline against which to measure successes and failures in wetland management. The Global Wetland Outlook provides a snapshot of wetland status, trends and pressures, along with an overview of ways in which countries are working to reverse the historical decline in wetland area and quality. I am pleased to introduce this first edition and hope that you find it both useful and stimulating, and that it will empower you to take action in implementing the recommended responses.

Martha Rojas Urrego, Secretary General

Global Wetland Outlook | 2018 KEY MESSAGES

• Healthy, functioning natural wetlands are critical to human livelihoods and sustainable development.

• Although still covering a global area almost as large as Greenland, wetlands are declining fast, with 35% losses since 1970, where data are available.

• Wetland plants and animals are therefore in crisis, with a quarter of species at risk of extinction.

• Quality of remaining wetlands is also suffering, due to drainage, pollution, invasive species, unsustainable use, disrupted flow regimes and climate change.

• Yet wetland ecosystem services, ranging from food security to climate change mitigation, are enormous, far outweighing those of terrestrial ecosystems.

• The Ramsar Convention promotes wetland conservation and wise use and is at the centre of efforts to halt and reverse wetland loss.

• Key steps in conserving and regaining healthy wetlands include:

• enhancing the network of Ramsar Sites and other wetland protected areas

• integrating wetlands into planning and the implementation of the post-2015 development agenda

• strengthening legal and policy arrangements to conserve all wetlands

• implementing Ramsar guidance to achieve wise use

• applying economic and financial incentives for communities and businesses

• ensuring participation of all stakeholders in wetland management

• improving national wetland inventories and tracking wetland extent.

Responses

• Enhance the network of Ramsar Sites and other wetland protected areas: designation of over 2,300 internationally important wetlands as Ramsar Sites is encouraging. However, designation is not enough. Management plans must be developed and implemented to ensure their effectiveness. Less than half Ramsar Sites have done this as yet.

• Integrate wetlands into planning and the implementation of the post-2015 development agenda: include wetlands in wider scale development planning and action including the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction.

• Strengthen legal and policy arrangements to protect all wetlands: wetland laws and policies should apply crosssectorally at every level. National Wetland Policies are needed by all countries. An important tool here is the avoid–mitigate– compensate sequence recommended by Ramsar and reflected in many national laws. It is easier to avoid wetland impacts than to restore wetlands.

• Implement Ramsar guidance to achieve wise use: Ramsar has a wide range of relevant guidance. Ramsar mechanisms – such as reports on changes in ecological character, the Montreux Record of Ramsar Sites at risk and Ramsar Advisory Missions – help to identify and address challenges to the conservation and management of Ramsar Sites.

• Apply economic and financial incentives for communities and businesses: funding for wetland conservation is available through multiple mechanisms, including climate change response strategies and payment for ecosystem services schemes. Eliminating perverse incentives has positive benefits. Businesses can be helped to conserve wetlands through tax, certification and corporate social responsibility programmes. Government investment is also critically important.

• Integrate diverse perspectives into wetland management: multiple wetland values must be taken into account. To ensure sound decision-making, stakeholders need an understanding of wetland ecosystem services and their importance for livelihoods and human well-being.

• Improve national wetland inventories and track wetland extent: knowledge supports innovative approaches to wetland conservation and wise use. Examples include remote sensing and field assessments, citizen science and incorporating indigenous and local knowledge. Identification and measurement of indicators of wetland benefits and drivers of change are key to supporting wise use policy and adaptive management. A broad range of effective wetland conservation options is available at the international, national, catchment and site level. Good governance and public participation are critical throughout, management is required, investment essential and knowledge critical.

Types of ecosystem services provided by wetlands

Water

Wetlands play crucial roles in providing fresh water for domestic uses, irrigation and industry. Global renewable water resources from rivers and aquifers total ~ 42,000 km3 /year of which 3,900 km3 /year is extracted for human use (FAO 2011). Agriculture accounts for 70% of water withdrawals, industry 19% and the municipal sector 11%. Global irrigated agriculture area has doubled in 50 years. Europe withdraws 6% of water resources (29% for agriculture), Asia 20% (80% for irrigation), and the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa withdraw 80- 90% for irrigation (FAO 2011). Groundwater demand has rapidly increased, particularly in South Asia where 40% of irrigated agriculture relies on groundwater alone or in conjunction with surface water (FAO 2011). It is estimated that around 60% of human water withdrawals flow back to local hydrological systems, with the rest representing consumptive use (FAO 2011). Impacts on water services are similar in countries with very different levels of wealth (Dodds et al. 2013).

Food

Wetlands provide a wide diversity of food. Inland fisheries range from large-scale industrial operations to subsistence, with global annual harvest rising from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to over 11.6 million tonnes in 2012, likely even higher if small-scale subsistence fishing is included (FAO 2014). Bartley et al. (2015) report that 95% of the inland fisheries’ catch occurred in developing countries, where it often plays a vital nutritional role, but represents only 6% of global fish production. Estuarine and coastal fisheries have declined by 33% since industrialization, with fishery nursery habitats (e.g., oyster reefs, seagrass beds and other wetlands) declining by 69% (Barbier et al. 2011; Worm et al. 2006). Global aquaculture increased from less than 1 million tonnes in 1950 to 52.5 million tonnes in 2008, comprising 45.7% of the world’s food fish production. Rice fields are increasingly used for aquaculture (Edwards 2014). Aquaculture is commonest in Asia (especially China), significant in Europe and Africa, but still relatively low in the Americas (FAO 2011). Wetlands also provide grown and harvested wet crops, wildfowling and other hunting.

Water regulation

Wetlands retain, release and exchange water, influencing policies such as Natural Flood Management (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology 2011). River channels, floodplains and large connected wetlands play significant roles in catchment hydrology, but the water-holding capacity of many “geographically isolated” wetlands can play important roles in hydrology (Marton et al. 2015) with effects on stream flows (Golden et al. 2016). Wellfunctioning wetlands can reduce disaster risk. Practical examples include the Charles River in Massachusetts, USA, where conservation of 3,800 ha of wetlands reduces flood damage by an estimated $17 million/year (Zedler & Kercher 2005). Conversely, wetland loss can increase flooding and storm damage (Barbier et al. 2011). There is a growing appreciation that maintaining wetland services is generally more economic than converting them to alternative uses (Garcia-Moreno et al. 2015). Other natural hazards Wetlands play key roles in other types of natural hazard regulation. Moist wetland habitats can serve as a brake on natural and anthropogenic pressures contributing to salinization of soils and wildfire spread. However, the relationships between the various factors modulating the impacts of extreme events are complex and often poorly understood (de Guenni et al. 2005).

Climate regulation

Storage and sequestration of carbon by wetlands plays an important role in regulation of the global climate. Peatlands and vegetated coastal wetlands contain large carbon sinks and sequester approximately as much carbon as do global forests, although freshwater wetlands also represent the largest natural source of methane (Moomaw et al. 2018). Salt marshes sequester millions of tonnes of carbon annually (Barbier et al. 2011), whilst deep tropical dams can be a substantial source of methane, offsetting or overwhelming the reported low-carbon benefits of hydropower generation (Lima et al. 2008). Natural processes in wetlands account for 25–30% of methane emissions, and wetlands are a significant contributor to the 90% of nitrous oxide emissions from ecosystems (House et Wetlands also provide microclimate regulation, for example in urban environments where they can break down “heat islands” (Grant 2012).

Cultural heritage

Natural features of wetlands and other ecosystems often embody cultural and spiritual importance, including regional identity. These can include both natural features, such as the sacred lakes of the Himalayas (WWF 2009), and human-constructed features such as the rice paddy that constitutes the principal source of income for about 100 million households in Asia and Africa (Umadevi et al. 2012). Cultural heritage includes traditional knowledge about the characteristics, social meaning and stewardship of wetland resources, as for example for Australia’s First People (Department of the Environment 2016).

Recreation and tourism

Both natural and modified wetlands offer recreational possibilities and tourism benefits. Scuba diving in coral reefs provides a rationale for their protection but also adds potential pressures on ecosystems (Barker & Roberts 2004).

In 2002, the earnings of about 100 dive operators in Hawaii were estimated at US$50–60 million/year (van Beukering & Cesar 2004). Coral reef diving earns gross revenue of US$10,500–45,540/year in the Bohol Marine Triangle, the Philippines (Samonte-Tan et al. 2007).

The value of tourism on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is more than AU$ 5.2 billion annually (Goldberg et al. 2016). Substantial losses in tourism revenue have been observed due to recent coral bleaching events (Barbier et al. 2011).

2. Birds, frogs and sunset walks: how a wetlands project transformed the NSW town of Goulburn

Not long ago Goulburn was in the midst of a water crisis, but volunteers have rejuvenated the local environment with a thriving wetlands.

Heather West, president of the group Friends and Residents of Goulburn Swamplands, says using plants of local provenance has been key to the wetlands project’s success.
Heather West, president of the Friends and Residents of Goulburn Swamplands, says using plants of local provenance has been key to the wetlands’ success. Photograph: Nigel Featherstone/The Guardian

Here, less than a kilometre to the east of Goulburn’s main street, is the music of birds twittering in trees, the splash of ducks diving, the ponk-ponk-ponk of frogs in conversation, and the heady smell of eucalyptus.

If a healthy landscape is one where birdsong is often heard, then the Goulburn wetlands must be one healthy landscape indeed, which is remarkable considering it is only 10 years old – and not long ago this part of New South Wales was facing a water crisis.

Canola and wheat farmer Scott Darcy at his flooded property in Bedgerabong in NSW.
When the levee breaks: burrows from mouse plague cause trouble for flood-hit NSW farmers

It was formed out of clay pits once used by brickworks that closed just after the second world war. For much of the most recent drought, the wetlands were just a hole in the ground.

But heavy rain last year and again this spring and summer brought an abundance of water. The regeneration plantings are thriving to the point that banks of wattles and eucalyptus are up to eight metres high.

For local people in the know, this is the place to walk your dog in the evening, catch another glorious pink-and-orange sunset, and, of course, see birds paddling about in search of a meal.

Friends and Residents of Goulburn Swamplands (Frogs) is a small, volunteer-run organisation that cares for and maintains the wetlands on a weekly basis. They have counted 130 different bird species.

Birdwatcher Frank Antram says the list of birds includes the blue-billed duck, which is noted as a vulnerable species, and the ruddy turnstone, which visits from the NSW south coast.

It even includes the Latham’s snipe, which flies all the way from eastern Russia and the Japanese islands, and is protected by the Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement.

Human visitors can enjoy three timber-and-iron bird hides as kangaroos laze on the nearby grasslands and snakes lurk among the groundcover.

President of Frogs, Heather West, also a retired primary school teacher, says people have been drawn to the wetlands during the Covid-19 pandemic – and had more time to get in touch with nature.

“People have been out walking, whereas before [lockdown] they were busy driving here and there to do various activities,” West says. “They’ve discovered that there are some really nice things to see.”

The Goulburn wetlands seen from one of the viewing hides.
The Goulburn wetlands seen from one of the viewing hides. Photograph: Nigel Featherstone

The link between wetlands and human health is well established. A global report by the Ramsar convention on wetlands in 2018 said they were critical to human and plant life.

More than a billion people depend on wetlands for a living and 40% of the world’s species live and breed in wetlands, the global wetland outlook said. Wetlands also mitigate floods, provide food and resources, protect coastlines and play an important role in cultural and spiritual wellbeing.

But the value of these ecosystems remains largely unrecognised by policymakers around the world, secretary general of the Ramsar convention, Martha Rojas Urrego, said in the outlook. “The result is that 35% of wetlands, where data is available, have been lost since 1970, at a rate three times greater than that of forests.”

The Australian government acknowledges the vulnerability of wetlands to climate change and Australia is a party to the Ramsar treaty for the conservation of wetlands, but some say more needs to be done to protect them.

Water crisis sparks idea

Bill Wilkes has been a member of Frogs since its early days. As is the way in regional areas, he is involved in other community organisations, including the Goulburn Group, whose members believe urgent action on climate change is needed.

Wilkes says the idea for the Goulburn wetlands arose from various community discussions, most of which focused on water. It’s not surprising, considering the town almost ran out of water in 2005 during the millennium drought.

Since then, the project has received funding from a variety of sources, including local, state, and federal governments, as well as organisations such as Rotary. But mostly it is a result of hard, physical work.

The masterplan, which aimed to recreate a sample of habitats that are thought to have once existed in the region, was also key to the success of the Goulburn wetlands. Seeds from the surrounding area are collected for the wetlands under a partnership with the Australian Plants Society’s local branch.

“Because we use plants that have local provenance, we have a 90% success rate,” West says.

“When we first started planting, we over-planted because we thought we’d lose 50% of them over summer. These days, we water them when they go in, and we never water them again.”

‘A very different world’

Another key to the wetlands’ success has been maintaining a network of like-minded groups, including ornithologists, the local branch of the Field Naturalists Society, the local council and a nearby bushfire brigade, which helped to burn the site before regeneration could take place.

The mayor of Goulburn Mulwaree, Bob Kirk, speaks enthusiastically about the wetlands, saying “it changes the focus” of the community.

“We have high levels of sporting participation, but kids are growing up in a very different world to what their parents did, and what I did. With facilities like the wetlands around to interest them, to educate them, they will pass that on to others.”

Goulburn MP Wendy Tuckerman says she would “love to see even more investment in the wetlands” to support the “fantastic biodiversity and conservation efforts” already undertaken by Frogs.

So what does West see in the wetlands’ future? She says the aim is to get the wetlands to “manage itself”.

“We know the gum trees are going to fall into the ponds and the wattles are going to die after 15 years. Some gums will be bigger than others and new ones will come up. And the grasses will reseed. So it should just keep on keeping on.”

West is interrupted by two women walking a dog. They ask if she and her band of volunteers are responsible for the wetlands. West confirms that is the case.

“Thank you,” beam the dog walkers. “We appreciate it so very much.”

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