The Ramsar Convention: channelling actions for the future of wetlands

A mangrove preservation and ecotourism development site in Pintu Kota, Lembeh Island, North Sulawesi.    ©IFAD/Susan Beccio

Wetlands are land areas that are flooded with water, either seasonally or permanently. They may divided into three main categories: marine and coastal wetlands, inland wetlands, and man-made wetlands.

Wetlands greatly contribute to nature and humankind through economic and ecological services, as described below:

Economic services: many societies rely on wetlands for their livelihoods. They are home to indigenous peoples and a natural source of livelihoods for their communities by providing them with drinking water, energy, fisheries, agriculture, transport, recreation, cultural values and tourism.

Ecological services: wetlands greatly contribute to regulate climate and maintain ecosystems and biodiversity: plants in swamps absorb pollutants, mangroves store carbon, lakes and underground aquifers are a crucial source of water, and coral reefs protect coastlines from wave action and serve as shelter for marine organisms.

However, wetlands are at risk due to human-induced factors. Estimates show that at least 64 per cent of wetlands have been lost since 1900 and around 87 per cent since 1700. Moreover, 76 per cent of populations of freshwater plants and animals have disappeared in the last 40 years.

Human-induced factors threatening wetlands include:
  • Agriculture: globally, agriculture accounts for 65 per cent of the total water withdrawal on Earth; 
  • Industry: paper making, beverage production and other industries consume significant amounts of water; 
  • Climate change: while raising sea level swamps shallow wetlands, desertification has put in risk other wetlands like estuaries and floodplains; 
  • Dams: More than half of all large river systems have been fragmented by human dam building, with the more than 45,000 large dams worldwide obstructing two-thirds of all freshwater flows. 
The Convention on Wetlands is the intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. Adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971, also called the "Ramsar Convention", it came into force in 1975. Since then, 169 countries – or almost 90 per cent of UN member states – from all of the world’s geographic regions have become “Contracting Parties” of the treaty.

The Convention's 4th Strategic Plan 2016–2024 urges its members to address and engage the drivers behind pressures on wetlands, such as unsustainable agriculture, forestry and extractive industries – especially oil, gas and mining.

In September, IFAD was pleased to host a lecture by Ms María Rivera, Senior Advisor for the Americas at the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, who spoke about the key issues, benefits and challenges involving wetlands.

In recent years, Ms Rivera has contributed to the implementation of the Convention in the Neotropics, both in her position as Technical Officer at the Ramsar regional initiative office in Panama (CREHO), and before that in her work at the Ministry of the Environment in Colombia.

At IFAD, Ms Rivera advocated for more coordinated actions and sustainable practices in line with the Ramsar Convention. As an example of these, she mentioned the Ramsar regional initiatives, which support cooperation and capacity-building on wetland-related issues in specific regions or sub-regions.

Upcoming opportunity 

The 13th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (COP13) will be held from 21 to 29 October 2018 in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. The theme will be Wetlands for a Sustainable Urban Future.

Ms Rivera highlighted that the upcoming conference will be a good opportunity to convene the mangrove community, address progress and encourage more commitments in regards to the conservation of wetlands.

During the conference, the report Global Wetlands Outlook: State of the World's Wetlands and their Services to People will be released.

In addition, 26 resolutions are expected to be approved, aiming to promote policy links, implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), sustainable cities, regional initiatives visibility and awareness raising of wetlands values.