The importance of wetlands

Every second day of February is commemorated as World Wetlands Day. It’s primarily for “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.” But how is it really important to your life and mine?

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently ordered the temporary closure of Boracay Island as a tourist destination. One of the environmental violations that angered him was the illegal encroachment into 5 of the 9 wetlands on the island. Verified investigations confirmed that some business owners put up at least 937 concrete structures on the forest lands and wetlands in the area.

The President is only one of the many people who is zealous about protecting the wetlands. Why is this so?

What exactly are wetlands?

Unfortunately, many people misconceive the essence of wetlands. Most often than not, they still hang on to the idea that wetlands are just wastelands – areas that needed to be drained, filled in, and re-purposed into something “useful”.

In reality, wetlands are far from that notion!

Wetlands are ecosystems that hold high biodiversity. They are land areas that may either be seasonally or permanently covered by shallow water. These ecosystems are found everywhere. They may come in the forms of:

  • Inland wetlands: swamps, marshes, lakes, ponds, fens, rivers, and billabongs
  • Fishponds and rice paddies
  • Salt pans – these are man-made wetlands
  • Coastal wetlands: lagoons, saltwater marshes, mangroves, estuaries, and coral reefs

Wetlands vary in size. Some are smaller than a hectare, while others have a massive expanse.

Importance of wetlandswetlands

As mentioned earlier, these ecosystems play very important roles for humans, flora and fauna, and the environment itself.

  • Wetlands ensure that mankind gets fresh water. They are capable of providing and improving the water quality.

Although most parts of the earth is water, only 2.5% of it is fresh. And only one percent of this fresh water is easily accessible. The rest is frozen, trapped in glaciers and snowfields.

Every person needs around 20-50 liters of water every day for drinking, cleaning, and cooking. We get this fresh water from streams, rivers, lakes, or freshwater wetlands. Almost 2 billion people in Asia and 380 million Europeans rely on groundwater aquifers for their water needs. Wetlands help replenish our groundwater aquifers.

When we repurpose our wetlands for concrete structures, like what happened in Boracay Island, we reduce or even deplete the source of fresh water. In fact, many people and communities across the globe are already experiencing the pinch of water scarcity due to depletion and contamination of the sources.

  • Wetlands purify and filter pollutants from water. Wetlands are efficient at improving the general state of our drainage basins. We all know that most of our sources of clean water are now polluted. Silt, nitrates, pesticides and other harmful chemicals from farms, industry, and mines contaminate our sources. But nature has its way of purifying our waters – through the wetlands. Yes, nothing beats wetlands, not even the most expensive man-made filtration systems.

Wetlands do it by trapping the sediments and eliminating the pollutants that are carried by the water from upstream. When the contaminated water passes through a wetland, the impurities are broken down by the bacteria found in the soil or vegetation. In a sense, the water is regulated and purified in the process, preventing the contaminants from going farther downstream.

  • Wetlands serve as a natural shock absorber. When rivers overflow, the peatlands and wet grasslands along its banks absorb the excess water like natural sponges. The roots of trees and other vegetation on these wetlands regulate the speed of flood water, distributing it more evenly over the floodplains. And as these wetlands create a wide surface pool, they not only reduce the flood. They also help protect the land from drought. The water stored in their roots is gradually released during the dry spell.

Likewise, the coastal wetlands reduce the height and speed of storm surges. Their roots protect the shorelines and withstand erosion caused by the wind and waves. Mangroves, saltwater marshes, and coral reefs increase resilience against climate change. In short, wetlands protect people and their properties from natural disasters, like raging storm waters, wind, landslides, and erosion.

  • Wetlands store carbon. Sadly, many of us don’t fully understand the role of wetlands in absorbing and storing carbon.

Based on the findings of the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel, wetlands cover only 9% of the earth’s land surface. Yet, this portion stores approximately 35% of terrestrial carbon. This means they store more amount of carbon than all the world’s forests. Whereas, all forests – tropical, temperate, and boreal together – store an estimated 31% of carbon in the biomass.

If we keep our wetlands intact or undisturbed, they will serve as carbon sinks. Their dense vegetation, algal activity, and soils absorb the carbon. They control the processes like anaerobic decomposition that produces methane and nitrous oxide. By doing so, the wetlands efficiently keep greenhouse gases away from the earth’s atmosphere. Thus, significantly slowing down the effects of global warming.

Sadly, several studies show that the number of wetlands and their quality in most areas of the world continues to decline. Thus, compromising their ecosystem services to the communities around them.

When wetlands are destroyed by burning or draining for agriculture and other purposes, a substantial release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere results. This is exactly what the business owners did in Boracay Island, Central Philippines. They converted at least 5 wetlands for tourism and commercial purposes.

  • Wetlands are cradles of biological diversity. Wetlands are the haven for over 100,000 freshwater species of wildlife. This number is actually growing all the time.

Amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and crustaceans are among the many inhabitants of marshy lands. Wetlands provide them bountiful nutrients and water, especially during the hot season and droughts. Birds find these places conducive for breeding and migration. Local wetlands even hold endemic species. Valuable fish and shellfish find the coastal wetlands a safe place for spawning and a rich feeding ground.

  • Wetlands are sources of livelihoods and sustainable products. Over 600 million people across the globe earn their living from aquaculture and fishing. In Tanzania, for example, families depend on wetlands for crop production and direct resource extractions. They also use the marshes as grazing pastures. While in Uganda, the wetlands provide the locals with
  • water for domestic use
  • watering for their livestock
  • support to dry season agriculture
  • provision of handicrafts
  • building materials
  • food resources like fish, vegetables, yams, wild game
  • medicine

When wetlands are sustainably managed, they can provide timber for building, medicinal plants, and vegetable oil. The stems and leaves of trees can also be made fodders for animals. In some communities, they use the leaves and stems for weaving and handicrafts.

Wetlands provide food. Not only do wetlands are sources of livelihood. They also guarantee the food supply for both humans, animals, and insects.

Studies reveal that humans consume more than 20 kilograms of fish each year. While an estimated 3 billion people whose staple food is rice depend on the varieties that grow on wetland paddies.

Having said all these, I hope to change people’s misconception about wetlands. That wetlands are not wastelands at all! I encourage everyone to actively participate in the protection and preservation of the wetlands in our respective areas. For sure, there is at least one wetland near you. It’s also wise to teach our children – the future generation – the importance of wetlands in biodiversity.

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