Wet wonderlands: Making a case for wetland restoration
1 February 2023
Sustainable land management & restoration
Gracing every continent of the Earth, wetlands are essential to the planet’s health, often compared to its vital organs, acting as arteries that carry water and as kidneys that filter harmful substances.
Wetlands serve as the watchful sentinels of our wellbeing: they form protective barriers against tsunamis and sponge up the excess rainfall to reduce flood surges. During the dry season in arid climates, wetlands release the stored water which helps delay the onset of drought and reduce water shortages. They also store vast quantities of carbon, helping mitigate climate change. Home to some of the most diverse and fertile ecosystems, wetlands support livelihoods of 1 billion people. 40 percent of all plant and animal species live or breed in wetlands.
World Wetlands Day is observed each year on 2 February to increase people’s understanding of the critical importance of wetlands and raise awareness of the urgent need to protect these fragile and threatened natural gems.
“We at UNCCD are proud to join in this celebration and recognize the unique and valuable ecosystem services provided by wetlands. We are committed to doing our part to conserve and protect wetlands, and we are calling on all of you to join us in this vital cause,” said UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw.
To date, nearly 90 percent of the world’s wetlands have been degraded or lost, with 35 percent in the last 50 years alone. That is why on this World Wetlands Day, UNCCD is joining the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and other partners to highlight the examples of countries and communities making strides in wetland restoration.
- Indonesia: Creating green wildfire barriers
Drained peatlands pose a high risk of fires that are devastating for people, nature and climate. In 2015, fires in Indonesia emitted more carbon dioxide a day than the entire US economy. More than half of these fires occurred in peatlands, causing an economic loss of US$ 16 billion. Rewetting and restoring peatlands can enhance drought resilience and lower the risk of wildfires. In the Sebangau National Park in Kalimantan, Indonesia — home to one-fifth of the world’s orangutan population — measures to restore the forests and rewet peatlands have helped prevent the spread of wildfires.
- Argentina: Rewilding jaguar habitats
The Iberá wetlands in Argentina comprise the largest freshwater aquatic ecosystem in South America and are the focus of an ambitious rewilding endeavor across 7,000 square kilometers of northeast Argentina’s Corrientes Province. A jaguar reintroduction program started in 2015 first bore fruit in 2018 when two new wild jaguar cubs were born in the newly formed Iberá Park, the first in decades. Reintroductions of the red and green macaw started in 2015 with just 15 birds, and by 2020 they had successfully raised wild chicks for the first time in 150 years.352 353 Formerly extinct throughout Argentina, the return of this charismatic species – an important seed disperser for many plant species – is a further mark of the program’s success.
- Nigeria: Growing the Great Green Wall
In Nigeria, the national Great Green Wall (GGW) program is being implemented across 11 frontline states, with a population of over 40 million people and comprising 43% of the country’s land. Nigeria is threatened by recurrent droughts, persistent land degradation, and encroaching desertification spreading across grasslands and wetlands. One of the key components of the national GGW program is the establishment of a contiguous 1,400-kilometer shelterbelt (windbreak) from Kebbi state in the northwest to Borno state in the northeast, to ward off Harmattan winds from the Sahara.
- Iran: Replenishing a biosphere reserve
In Iran, a clear signal of vanishing wetlands is the increased frequency and intensity of dust storms, heralding the advance of desertification. The basin of Lake Urmia is home to 6.4 million people and 200 species of birds. Agricultural expansion and population growth over the past decades led to the over-exploitation of lake’s resources, causing land degradation. To remedy the situation, Iran has launched a sustainable management project for the lake, working with local communities. Engineering works have helped to unblock and un-silt the feeder rivers, and there has been a deliberate release of water from dams in the surrounding areas.
- China: Reviving Himalayan wildlife
Situated at the headwaters of the Yellow River, the sedge-dominated peatlands in the Ruoergai plateau in China store water and supply it to downstream areas. They are also home to endemic and endangered Himalayan wildlife species. In the 1960-70s, these peatlands, which had been drained for agriculture, began to be badly damaged by overgrazing, with over 70 percent severely degraded as a result. A peatland restoration project implemented on almost 5,000 ha over six years included blocking the canals and cultivating vegetation to raise the water table. Rewetting targeted areas resulted in enhanced carbon sequestration and reduced emissions. Restored sites also recreated habitats for endemic amphibians and birds, while water stored in previously dry canals provides water for livestock, supporting local communities
- Belarus: Bringing peatlands back to life
In Belarus, massive peat excavation resulted in about 300,000 ha drained to harvest peat deposits for fuel. Since 2018, a peatland restoration project, supported by UNCCD, is centered on around the application of rewetting techniques and improvements in monitoring, forecasting and early warning of peatland fires. Rewetting and re-naturalization of peatlands provides vast ecosystem benefits: the increased level of ground water reduces drought risks while preventing further mineralization of peats locks the soil carbon in the rewetted areas, removing it from the atmosphere. Rewetted peatlands also have a larger potential to sustain biodiversity and supply additional income-generating opportunities for local populations, such as cranberry harvesting.
As emphasized by the UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw, successful wetland restoration requires a concerted effort from governments, civil society and the private sector. Investments in science for technology innovation, infrastructure for effective management and financial mechanisms for project implementation can turn the tide toward a better future for wetlands.
Photo credit: @UNDP_Belarus