Today marks World Wetlands Day 2014 to commemorate the adoption of the international convention on wetlands, the Ramsar Convention, and to help raise public awareness of the importance of wetlands around the world. The theme for World Wetlands Day 2014 is ‘Wetlands and Agriculture‘ which links with the UN International Year of Family Farming.
Ramsar encourages greater collaboration between the agriculture, water and wetlands sectors to ensure that healthy wetlands continue to provide clean water, food, and many other benefits to people and nature. Wetlands have often been seen as a barrier to agriculture, and they continue to be drained and reclaimed to make farming land available. But the essential role of wetlands in support of agriculture is becoming clearer and clearer, and there are successful agricultural practices which support healthy wetlands.
Across the world, 70% of all water withdrawn from wetlands, including aquifers, rivers and lakes, is used for agriculture. Wetlands support agriculture by providing water, transport and fertile soils but also by directly supplying food and other products such as thatch or biofuel. They also provide benefits to others further downstream such as helping to store water for drinking and for energy production and providing habitat for local and migrating animals.
Food production needs to increase by 60% to feed a growing global population that could exceed nine billion people by 2050. Agricultural water consumption is estimated to increase by 19%, with much of the increased demand being for irrigation in areas which are already water-scarce.
“Wetlands provide all the water we use in our daily lives, as well as the precious water needed to grow crops and produce food,” said Christopher Briggs, Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. “They also reduce the impact of storms, floods and droughts, and clean polluted water. It is important to maintain wetlands and to manage them wisely to ensure that they continue to support agriculture.”
Agriculture’s growing demands for water and land are increasingly threatening the future of wetlands. The drainage and conversion of wetlands for cultivation or aquaculture are highly visible examples; equally harmful is the widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers which contribute to wetland pollution.
The degradation of these areas can have significant social impacts, in addition to environmental consequences. It is critical to involve local stakeholders in wetlands management and in decision-making. For example, national and international regulations might be difficult to enforce in local situations in which the pressure on fertile land is high. In this context, incentivizing farmers to set aside part of their wetlands to ensure they remain healthy and continue providing their benefits and services could bring mutual benefits to the farmers and to the environment.
Successful agricultural practices that support healthy wetlands include water efficient irrigation systems and drought-tolerant crops. Organic farming and other practices that reduce water pollution can also help maintain healthy wetlands.
“Experience and observations from many wetlands show that the most effective approaches are often local solutions implemented with local knowledge, within larger efforts,” said Christopher Briggs. “Only by sharing knowledge and solutions and collaborating across the agriculture, water and wetlands sectors we will be able to meet the challenge of feeding nine billion people in 2050.”