The state of the world’s wetlands | outcomes from Ramsar COP 13

Released by David Stroud and Stephen Grady on 9 November 2018 for the Wader Study Group:

(Download PDF version here)

The Ramsar Convention’s 13th triennial Conference of the Parties (COP13), recently held in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, was attended by 143 of its 170 Parties and provided an opportunity to reflect on the state of the world’s wetlands and set the international conservation agenda on these important ecosystems for the next three years and beyond.

A highlight was the launch of Ramsar’s Global Wetland Outlook (GWO), a comprehensive assessment of the status and trends of wetlands and their species worldwide, drivers of change, and both the actual and required conservation responses.  It makes for sobering reading, concluding that:

  • “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.”

Whilst the Convention came from waterbird conservation roots, it has always promoted a much wider vision of wetland conservation, including ecological character and wise use, and their role in delivering vital ecosystem services.  As this international treaty approaches its 50th anniversary in 2021, issues under discussion at COP13 were broad.  The current focus is perhaps less on species conservation needs, and more on addressing those issues ultimately impacting on wetland condition.  A major driver for current conservation action is ensuring the ability of wetland ecosystems to achieve biodiversity and sustainable development targets at all levels (local to global), including providing people with food, improved water quality, protection from natural disasters, and increasing resilience to climate change.

For example, multiple Resolutions consider and promote ecosystem-based climate change adaptation and mitigation in the context of both peatland restoration and also the conservation of coastal ecosystems (especially those with so-called ‘blue carbon’).  Whilst these superficially seem to be of little relevance for waders, delivering ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement including via ‘nature-based solutions’ in wetlands, has the potential to unlock significant new funding sources for wetland restoration and conservation.

With respect to waders, after much discussion, the COP adopted a comprehensive Resolution on coastal conservation issues drafted by the Philippines.  Following similar Ramsar Convention Resolutions adopted in 1999 and 2008, it provides a decadal reflection on the state of the world’s coasts.  Among its many elements, it calls for:

  • the establishment of a multi-sector global coastal forum to raise the profile of coastal conservation needs, especially with other relevant multilateral environmental agreements, governments, the private sector, relevant international and national non-governmental organisations, experts and other stakeholders;
  • governments to urgently designate remaining coastal wetlands of international importance as Ramsar Sites, and to form ecologically connected site networks with other key sites under other designations, for example building on the success of the Wadden Sea Flyway Initiative (with World Heritage Sites);
  • the development of guidance related to the sustainable economic use of ‘working coastal wetlands’ – for example traditional salt production, including the importance to maintain the ecological character and functionality of these habitats;
  • the removal of perverse incentives that may encourage the loss or degradation of coastal wetlands;
  • the implementation, where feasible, of restoration of coastal habitats including promotion of managed retreat;
  • the encouragement of greater engagement with the public to communicate the importance of inter-tidal wetlands and other coastal habitats, for example by the promotion of festivals that celebrate the arrival of migratory species; and
  • the draft 5th Ramsar Strategic Plan (to be considered at COP 14 in 2021) to duly consider the conservation and wise use of coastal wetlands.

For those working in coastal conservation, Ramsar’s coastal Resolution (and the complementary Resolution 12.25 adopted by the Convention on Migratory Species last year) provides an explicit statement of the critical needs from the international community to protect these ecosystems.  Yet, as with all such agreed mandates, such Resolutions are only useful to the extent of their implementation, so do read it and advocate for its actions.

David Stroud and Stephen Grady, Joint Nature Conservation Committee


Featured image: Seocheon Tidal Flat, Republic of Korea (Ramsar Site no. 1925), ©Seochon-gun county.