Saving the world's life support systems

Posted on 18 October 2018

WWF works with the Ramsar Convention and partners to protect wetlands for the benefit of people and nature
From freshwater and food security to sustainable cities and poverty eradication, healthy wetlands are essential for our daily survival - and for solving humanity’s most pressing challenges.

And yet, the world’s wetlands are in crisis. The first ever Global Wetland Outlook estimates that 35 per cent have been lost in the past 45 years, while WWF’s Living Planet Report shows that freshwater biodiversity has declined by more than 80 per cent over a similar period - shocking indicators of the damage being done to wetlands across the globe.

As the international community galvanizes its efforts to meet 2030’s Sustainable Development Goals, the central importance of wetlands to many of the key targets has been thrown into sharp focus. And it is about time.

Swamps, bogs, marshes and mangroves may not be as famous or photo-friendly as cloud forests and coral reefs, but we can’t survive without them and as climate change becomes an inescapable reality, wetlands offer us opportunities to build resilience, mitigate some of its effects and adapt to others. As extreme weather events increase, healthy wetlands provide the best natural defence against devastating floods and storm surges.

The Ramsar Convention remains our best hope for protecting these precious resources and ensuring a long-term future for thousands of threatened species, from freshwater fish and marine turtles to corals and migratory birds, while securing the essential benefits that healthy wetlands can provide for people. Benefits that are just as important in vast megacities as they are in traditional indigenous communities: everybody in the world needs wetlands.

For the last 20 years, WWF has been one of the Ramsar Convention’s most committed partners, supporting the designation of 110 million hectares of Ramsar sites across the world - an area roughly twice the size of Spain. But we need to do much more.

WWF’s global goal – the point we need to reach, if we’re to have a sustainable future – is to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s land and sea areas, including wetlands.

There are still huge areas of globally important wetland that need urgent protection, and through Ramsar we’re convening, collaborating and cooperating with many governments and international partners to bring this about. To ensure a sustainable future for all, we know we can - and must - increase the impact that the Ramsar Convention has had since its inception.

In 2021, the Ramsar Convention will celebrate its 50th birthday, while WWF will turn 60. As this report shows, decades of collaboration and cooperation have achieved some extraordinary results. Ramsar now boasts the world’s largest network of protected areas, almost half of which were designated by countries with support from WWF.

But the world’s wetlands continue to be degraded and destroyed – rivers and reefs, marshes and mangroves, swamps and seagrass beds. And with them our hopes of a sustainable future. If current trends continue, there will not be much to celebrate in 2021.

Healthy wetlands are an integral part of the solutions to many of humanity’s most pressing problems and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. From mitigating climate change to feeding our growing population, from reversing the loss of biodiversity to supplying water to our megacities – we can only tackle these huge challenges by halting the destruction and degradation of the world’s wetlands. But they continue to be undervalued and overlooked. Many Ramsar sites still face serious threats, let alone the more than 80 per cent of wetlands that are not designated as sites of international importance.

So it’s time for everyone to redouble their efforts. While there are a wide array of actions that countries may take to improve their efforts, we believe that three are key to delivering significant impacts:
Prioritize – However much we would like to, there is no way to protect all the world’s wetlands: there will need to be tradeoffs. This will involve hard decisions. Countries will need to prioritize – basing their decisions on the values of their most important wetlands and their potential contribution to commitments under the SDGs, Convention on Biological Diversity and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Commit – Countries need to commit fully to their Ramsar sites – both new and old. Designating a site means more than drawing some lines on a map and giving them a Ramsar number: it’s essential that new and existing sites are protected in practice as well as on paper. WWF believes it is critical to bolster the Ramsar Advisory Missions (RAMs), which help countries identify and address the wetland challenges they face. These missions are a critical tool and have proven effective in the past. RAMs need to be strengthened, supported, given adequate resources, and utilized by countries – as well as recommended by NGOs – to help ensure the ecological character of the world’s most important wetlands are maintained so that they continue to deliver benefits to both people and nature.
Innovate and Partner – Along with traditional on-the-ground protection, countries need to adopt and implement innovative approaches to securing wetlands These could include rethinking investments that negatively impact Ramsar sites and seizing the opportunities offered by bankable water solutions to protect our wetlands. Corporate water stewardship also provides an opportunity to explore partnerships and creates a space for the private sector to come on board as a key partner for wetland protection.
WWF remains fully committed to Ramsar and will continue to work with Contracting Parties and the other International Organization Partners to achieve more successes, specifically by:
  • Demonstrating that securing wetlands under the Ramsar Convention helps countries to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change and deliver their commitments towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals;
  • Promoting the vital role of the Ramsar Convention and wetlands in delivering a future where people, economies and the environment thrive; and
  • Ensuring that our initiatives and programmes across the world continue to demonstrate what can be achieved through the effective implementation of the Ramsar convention.

WWF’s mission is to create a world where people and nature can thrive together – and this can’t happen unless wetlands are understood, valued and truly protected. Without Ramsar, it’s impossible. With Ramsar, we can look towards the future with hope. And perhaps in 2021 – given the necessary effort – we will read a Global Wetland Outlook with more optimistic statistics about the state of the world’s wetlands.

That would be great news for all the species and people that depend on them. And a perfect 50th and 60th birthday present. 
A designated Ramsar site - Haringvliet, Netherlands
© WWF-Netherlands
Saving Our Life Support Systems
© Pheakdey Sorn/IUCN
Marismas Nacionales, Mexico
© Jaime Rojo
Local kids playing in a boat in a wetland in Colombia
© Camila Diaz/WWF
An Amazon river dolphin
© White/WWF
A fisherman pulls a fishing net out of the water in Tram Chim, Viet Nam
© Thomas Cristofoletti / WWF-Viet Nam
Pantanal wetland - one of the world's largest tropical wetland
© Andre Dib/WWF