Today is World Wetlands Day, commemorating the signing of the Ramsar Convention for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands in 1971. More importantly, it’s a day to celebrate the amazing diversity and value of wetlands around the globe.
As the name suggests, wetlands are water-rich areas that are flooded either permanently or seasonally. The habitats they create often harbour prolific biodiversity, and wetlands around the world support one billion people. They also provide surprising environmental services. Did you know wetlands can help us cope with extreme weather events by storing carbon dioxide, reducing storm surges, storing and spreading floodwater and safeguarding against drought? Quite impressive when you think that ‘wetland’ often conjures up images of stagnant, boggy marshes.
Given their importance to the environment, it’s no surprise WWF works in areas of wetland around the world. Today I’d like to draw our focus to two particularly special ones…
The Pantanal Wetland
The Pantanal is a well-kept secret in South America, often overshadowed by the other remarkable ecosystem of Brazil, the Amazon. But it’s the world’s largest wetland, spreading over 170,500km2, mostly in Brazil but also stretching into parts of Bolivia and Paraguay.
A mosaic of lakes, rivers, lagoons and marshes, the Pantanal is home to at least 4,700 species of plants and animals. This wetland wonderland is a home for jaguars, hyacinth macaws, giant river otters, marsh deer and caiman – among a staggering variety of other wildlife.
Sadly, the Pantanal is threatened by intensive farming, deforestation and pollution. Soil erosion is causing sedimentation to silt up some waterways, and chemicals are polluting the once-pristine waters. It lost 15 per cent of its total area by 2009 and there is little sign of the situation improving as deforestation, forest fires, the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, bad agricultural practices, and lack of basic sanitation continue to pose serious threats.
What are we doing for the Pantanal?
WWF-Brazil, with support from the HSBC Water Programme, has set about creating the Pantanal Headwaters Pact to recover and preserve rivers which feed the immense wetland. The Pact unites local authorities, businesses, communities and individuals in actions that will guarantee quality of water in almost 750km of rivers in headwaters. The Pact has already restored waterside ‘gallery’ forests around 62 springs which feed the headwaters. Finally, the Pact raises crucial awareness of the importance of the Pantanal in the region.
To mark World Wetlands Day today, WWF is calling for the government of Brazil to approve and implement the Pantanal Law before the end of this year. Despite the Pantanal’s importance, the bill has been languishing since 2011.
Most importantly, the bill should be amended to include not only the Pantanal floodplain but also the upland areas that encompass its headwaters. If these critical regions are not conserved, the Pantanal will remain threatened. The bill should also provide incentives to promote sustainable development, including in traditional communities, and to encourage environmental restoration and conservation.
Doñana National Park
Travel from the Pantanal over the South Atlantic Ocean and through Africa to the Doñana National park in southern Spain, and you will find another wetland sanctuary. The Doñana wetland is of such value for people and wildlife that it’s considered to be one of the most important wetland sites in Europe.
Doñana is essentially the delta of the Guadalquivir River, and it is home to a rare mix of wildlife: The Iberian lynx, the imperial eagle, and six million migratory birds every year who rely on the stopover in Doñana to survive their epic journey across Europe. Many of these birds are familiar to our UK shores, including much-loved swallows, chaffinches and geese.
Despite enjoying World Heritage Site status, Doñana is threatened by poor management and over-extraction of water, causing the wetland to dry out. The area now receives only 20 per cent of its natural water input. Last year there were plans to dredge the Guadalquivir River, which would have been disastrous for the delicate balance of life in the area, particularly the migratory birds.
What are we doing for Doñana?
First we asked our supporters to email the Prime Minister of Spain, calling for an end to the dredging plans. When the plans were still set to go ahead by November, we showed the Spanish government the strength of support for Doñana by asking people to make origami birds – any style, any colour, any size – and send them to us. Thousands of you responded from all over the world with a flood of support, and our colleagues in Spain were able to create this spectacular display in Madrid, right outside the Spanish Parliament. In response, the President of the Parliament agreed to talks with us and just over a week later the dredging plans were cancelled.
While this was a dramatic success, dredging was only the most imminent threat to Doñana. This precious wetland is still under pressure from illegal wells, and there is still work to do to preserve it.
The outpouring of support for wetlands is a testament to the value of these natural havens, essential for so much life. We have seen wonderful examples of people standing together to protect these vital habitats, and as long as there is still work to be done, we hope you will be with us as we continue working to protect these essential wetlands.