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Wetlands crucial for the achievement of sustainable development goals

02 February 2024, Kenya: Christopher Kang’ethe was born in 1955 around Manguo Swamp in Limuru, Central Kenya, just about 40 minutes drive from the capital, Nairobi.

“Hippos used to live here some years back, but they all left,” says Kang’ethe. The hippos migrated because of increased human activity around the swamp following the expansion of the Limuru urban area. Now, not only are the hippos absent, but Manguo Swamp has dried up, and the birds that used it as a breeding ground have also left.

The story of Manguo Swamp exemplifies the fate of many wetlands in Kenya that have been destroyed or are facing extinction despite their importance in the ecosystem and in protecting biodiversity. Dr Paul Matiku, Executive Director at Nature Kenya, says the unfortunate status of Manguo Swamp indicates threats facing other wetlands such as Tana Delta, Yala, and Turkana.

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands defines wetlands as land areas saturated with water, either permanently or seasonally, such that they take on the characteristics of a distinct ecosystem.

As World Wetlands Day 2024 is marked on February 2, the theme, “Wetlands and Human Wellbeing”, could not be more apt. This year’s campaign spotlights how interconnected wetlands and human life are — with people drawing sustenance, inspiration, and resilience from these productive ecosystems.

“Wetlands provide us with water, protect us from floods and droughts, and provide food and livelihoods to millions. They support a rich biodiversity and store more carbon than any other ecosystem. Yet, their value remains largely unrecognized by policy and decision-makers,” says Dr Matiku.

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), wetlands significantly contribute to 16 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Inland wetlands include lakes and rivers, underground aquifers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands, peatlands, flood plains, and oases, including other human-made wetlands such as rice paddies, saltpans, and farming ponds. Coastal wetlands include estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, mangroves, coastal marine areas, and coral reefs.

The critical role of wetlands in the attainment of the SDGs is as follows:

SDG 1 – End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Wetlands offer a clean and reliable water source for cattle, agriculture, and human consumption, particularly in times of drought. In Cameroon, the Waza floodplain’s restoration helped reinstate the flooding regime. It improved agriculture production, grazing, and fishing, thus generating economic benefits estimated at 2.3 million dollars per year.

SDG 2 – End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Food production in many parts of the world relies largely on water from man-made and natural wetlands. For example, rice, the staple diet for nearly half of the world’s population, is grown mainly in natural and human-made wetlands. Additionally, wetlands store water resources needed to irrigate land under cultivation.

Wetlands are also an essential source of protein for many people around the globe. For instance, according to the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), Lake Victoria is the source of more than 60 percent of fish production in Kenya and one percent globally.

SDG 3 – Good health and wellbeing

Wetlands are essential tourist sites providing opportunities for leisure and creation, enhancing good health and long life. According to the Convention, half of international tourists seek relaxation in wetland areas, especially coastal zones. For instance, the Florida Keys wetland area in the United States generates at least 800 million dollars in annual income from tourism.

SDG 4 – Quality education

According to Lifewater, over half of the girls in sub-Saharan Africa drop out of primary school because of poor water and sanitation facilities. Safe water access, therefore, enhances educational opportunities, especially for girls. A report by CARE Kenya says that 99 percent of children who dropped out of school between September and October 2022 did so because of drought.

SDG 5 – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Women are primarily responsible for food, agriculture, and water collection and management. However, their knowledge and roles in wetlands management are still largely unrecognized. Wetland conservation, management, and restoration projects need to be gender-sensitive, recognizing the differentiated knowledge, roles, needs, and vulnerabilities of men and women and contributing to empowering women in governance and decision-making.

SDG 6 – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Almost all of the world’s freshwater is drawn directly or indirectly from wetlands. Wetlands provide the essential infrastructure through which freshwater is delivered for human consumption, making wetlands foundational to ensure water availability for all. They also provide a natural water filter. Wetlands vegetation captures nutrients, pollutants, and sediments, thus cleaning and improving water quality. For instance, wetlands surrounding Kampala act as a natural filter and prevent pollution from reaching Lake Victoria, a critical drinking water source for the city’s 1.5 million inhabitants.

SDG 7 – Affordable and clean energy

Rivers are a major source of electricity in many parts of the world. Therefore, sustainable upstream water management can provide affordable and clean energy. According to the US Energy Information and Administration, today, the US hydropower sector produces 38 percent of domestic renewable energy electricity, primarily through hydroelectric reservoirs connected to dams.

SDG 8 – Productive employment and decent work for all

One of the targets of this goal is to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. Wetlands contribute to this target by providing services of value to agriculture and industrial production, such as nutrient recycling, protection against flooding, and water filtration. This goal also emphasizes policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products. According to the World Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2014, wetlands sustain 266 million jobs in tourism and travel.

SDG 9 – Industry, innovation and infrastructure

Increasing climate uncertainty and extremes require better protection measures for infrastructure. According to the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, from 20 years to 2015, floods and storms worldwide affected about three billion people and damaged or destroyed a total of 87 million residences as well as 130,000 public buildings. Nature-based solutions can help mitigate and adapt to these mounting threats, with wetlands providing cost-effective natural infrastructure.

SDG 10 – Reduced inequality

Lack of or poor access to water leads to poverty in some regions of the world, as other areas thrive in improved food production. The United Nations estimates that healthy wetlands will mitigate the risk of five billion people living with poor access to water by 2050, thereby reducing inequality.

SDG 11 – Sustainable cities and communities

According to a paper published in the Scientific Reports, water-related disasters accounted for 90 percent of all disasters in the last two decades. Nature-based solutions such as coral reefs, mangroves, and salt marshes provide low-cost protection for coastlines by reducing wave height and strength, reducing storm surges, and absorbing some of the excess water.

The study shows that in the 2012 Hurricane Sandy in the US, the contribution by wetlands to damage reduction was one percent of the total damage caused, representing 625 million dollars in averted damages and an 11 percent reduction where wetlands remain.

SDG 12 – Responsible consumption and production

Placing the Rights of Wetlands at the center of consumption and production planning will lead to behavioral and systems change that ensures sustainability, particularly regarding water resource use and protection, says UNDESA. Wetland areas properly managed can sustainably support increased demands for water in all sectors.

SDG 13 – Climate action

In a paper titled Clarifying the Role of Coastal and Marine Systems in Climate Mitigation, Jennifer Howard and others write that wetland soils contain over a third (35 percent) of the world’s organic carbon.

According to the International Partnership for Blue Carbon, coastal ecosystems, particularly mangroves, saltmarshes, and seagrass beds, sequester two to four times more carbon than terrestrial forests. These blue carbon ecosystems play an important role in climate change mitigation.

SDG 14 – Life below water

Nearly half of the planet – three billion people – depend on marine resources for their primary source of protein, says the Nature Conservancy. Recognizing the importance of marine resources to people, this goal seeks to reduce pollution, sustainably manage and protect coastal ecosystems, reduce overfishing, and conserve at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Given the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, fisheries management requires the identification of habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds that are likely to persist into the future.

SDG 15 – Life on land

One target under this goal relates to the conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, including wetlands specifically. According to the Hydrobiologia journal, these ecosystems sustain about 126,000 freshwater species, representing 9.5 percent of total animal species, and 40 percent of all the world’s species live and breed in wetlands.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) State of the World’s Forests 2016, the annual value of the planet’s wetlands is estimated at 36.2 trillion dollars, and that of forests is 19.5 trillion dollars.

SDG 16 – Peace, justice, and strong institutions

Boundary disputes are a major source of conflicts in Africa and the world. For example, on August 28, 2014, Somalia filed an application against Kenya in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over a dispute on the delimitation of maritime spaces in the Indian Ocean claimed by both states.

Therefore, effective management of transboundary wetlands contributes to peace and security and helps avoid conflicts between countries.

Also Read: Rallis India scales up supply chain effectiveness through digital platform ‘Plan Guru’

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