Morass, quag, quagmire, slack, bog, peat bog, mire, swamp – just some of the different names for different types of wetland – none of which evoke positive images for most people. Frequently represented as dangerous, menacing places sheltering dangerous creatures; uncontrolled places of mystery, supernatural evil and repositories of disease; and in literature, where the anti-hero often comes to a decidedly sticky end – wetlands have had a distinctly bad press.
An alternative view is that of romantic places of refuge and remnant wilderness of exceptional beauty and shelter for spectacular and rare wildlife. For some people, bogs – Ireland’s most common type of wetland, is the ‘fundamental Irish landscape’ and for our Nobel laureate poet Heaney it was a metaphor for the Irish psyche, a “dark casket where we have found many of the clues to our past and to our cultural identity”. On the other hand, wetlands such as beaches, coral reefs, lakes and rivers are naturally attractive to people.
Whatever your subjective opinion is, wetlands are exceptionally useful habitats, vital for life and delivering a wide range of ecosystem services that contribute significantly to human wellbeing. These include:
- provisioning services such as food, freshwater, fibre and fuel;
- regulating services such as water purification and waste treatment, climate regulation, retention of soils and sediments, protection from storms and floods;
- supporting services such as soil formation and nutrient cycling (nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon); and
- cultural services such as aesthetic and spiritual values, education and recreation.
What are Wetlands?
Wetlands are areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated plant and animal life. They occur where the water table is at or near the surface of the land, or where the land is covered by shallow water. The Ramsar Convention – which aims to conserve as much of the world’s wetlands as possible – uses a broad definition of wetlands which includes lakes and rivers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands and peatlands, oases, estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, near-shore marine areas, mangroves and coral reefs, and human-made sites such as fish ponds, rice paddies, reservoirs, and salt pans.
What is World Wetlands Day?
2 February is World Wetlands Day every year as it marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar. It has been celebrated each year since 1997 to help raise public awareness about the importance and value of wetlands.
The Convention on Wetlands – called the “Ramsar Convention” – is an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ and to plan for the “wise use“, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories.
2014 is the UN International Year of Family Farming – so the Ramsar Convention chose Wetlands & Agriculture is the World Wetlands Day theme for 2014. This is an excellent theme for Ramsar, given that wetlands are so often intimately linked with agriculture. This year’s slogan is ‘Wetlands and Agriculture: Partners for Growth’, highlighting the need for the wetland and agricultural sectors to work together for the best shared outcomes.
Wetlands have often been seen as a barrier to agriculture, and they continue to be drained and reclaimed to make farming land available. However, the essential role of wetlands in supporting agriculture is clear and indisputable, while there are successful agricultural practices which support healthy wetlands.
What is the problem?
Wetlands provide food and other agricultural products such as fuel and fibre directly through agricultural production activities that take place within wetlands, such as in rice paddies, coastal grazing marshes, recession agriculture and aquaculture in large floodplains, and cropping of small seasonal wetlands. Wetlands also support agriculture indirectly, for example by providing fertile soils and reliable supplies of good quality water. However, in some regions of the world more than 50% of peatlands, marshes, riparian zones, lake littoral zones and floodplains have been lost, with conversion for agricultural uses being one of the primary reasons for these losses. Today, roughly 2.5 billion rural people depend directly on agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting or some combination of these for their livelihoods.
What can you do?
Find out more by watching the World Wetlands Day video and reading this year’s World Wetlands Day leaflet.
There are also activities for children including comic strips and games.
Conserving water reduces pressure on rivers which are often abstracted to supply water and you can support conservation work on bogs with Wetlands International and the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. In particular, it is important not to use gardening products containing moss peat as this destroys extremely rare raised bog habitat. Lastly, why not visit and walk a Ramsar site near you. These can be found on the database.
A key tool for saving wetlands is evaluation of the value of ecosystem services. If you are interested to learn more about it, contact us about our course in Biodiversity and ecosystem services valuation