Wetlands: Unsung heroes of the climate change crisis

Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor

Global countries must take urgent steps to invest more financial, human and political capital to save the world’s wetlands from disappearing and to restore those that have been lost, a top United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) official says.


“Healthy wetlands – critical for climate mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity, and human health and prosperity – punch above their weight in terms of benefits,” said Leticia Carvalho, principal coordinator for Marine and Freshwater at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).


“Making sure that they continue to deliver vital ecosystem services to humanity requires… their prioritization, protection, restoration, better management and monitoring.”


Carvalho made the comments to mark World Wetlands Day, which falls on 2 February.


The commemorations, she said, served as an urgent call to action and investment of financial, human and political capital, to save the world’s wetlands from disappearing altogether – and restore those that have been lost.


This year, for the first time since it was established by Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1972, World Wetlands Day is being observed as a United Nations international day


UNEP noted that wetlands, which include marshes and peatlands, were the unsung heroes of the climate crisis.


“They store more carbon than any other ecosystem, with peatlands alone storing twice as much as all the world’s forests. Inland wetland ecosystems also absorb excess water and help prevent floods and drought, widely seen as critical to helping communities adapt to a changing climate,” the UN environmental agency said.


Carvalho said the protection of wetlands was a priority for UNEP and a special focus of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global push to protect and revive the natural world.


“It’s encouraging that there is increasing recognition of wetlands as an invaluable but overlooked nature-based solution,” she said. “COP 26 started to shine a spotlight on the role of finance and political will. More of both need to be channelled towards wetlands, enshrined in countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions, and better integrated into development plans.”


On February 2, Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world to commemorate World Wetlands Day under the theme: “Wetlands Action for People and Nature.”


Rapid urbanisation and other human activities continue to be a huge threat to the country’s fragile ecosystems.


Environmental experts say developments on wetlands continue unabated due to legislative loopholes, administrative deficiencies within local authorities and lack of proper collaboration between the ministries of environment, local government, lands, Environmental Management Agency and local authorities to monitor the status of wetlands leading to unprocedural developments on wetlands.


Despite the problems, Zimbabwe has made huge strides to enhance the effective management of wetlands.


The country has developed a National Wetlands Master Plan – that contains maps of all wetlands in the country, a National Wetlands Policy to guide management of the ecosystems and the National Wetlands Management Guidelines to support the making of ecologically sound development decisions.


Zimbabwe ratified the Ramsar Treaty in 2011 and now has seven wetlands that have been declared as Ramsar sites.


These include the Monavale Vlei, Cleveland Dam, Mana Pools, Lake Chivero, Driefontein Grasslands, Chinhoyi Caves and the Victoria Falls National Park.


Monavale Vlei, Lake Chivero and Victoria Falls wetlands were once on the verge of complete destruction through rapid urbanisation, but intense lobbying saved the fragile ecosystems.


Zimbabwe has a variety of wetlands that include flood plains, pans, swamps, dambos/vleis and artificial impoundments that cover 34,96 percent (13,65 million hectares) of the country’s total area.


According to the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), 17,63 percent of wetlands are in pristine condition while 55,65 percent are moderately degraded and 26,72 percent severely degraded.


EMA attributes the loss and destruction of wetlands to infrastructural developments, agriculture, drainage, invasive alien species, deforestation, mining, solid and liquid waste disposal, freshwater diversion as well as climate change.


Wetlands are disappearing 3 times faster than forests and are the most threatened ecosystem on Earth.


In just 50 years – since 1970 – 35% of the world’s wetlands have evaporated, according to UNEP.

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