85% of the world’s wetlands have been lost due to human interference, much of it through large-scale modern agriculture.
Known as “nature’s kidneys,” wetlands slow the flow of water across the landscape, allowing sediment, nutrients, and other particles to settle to the bottom. Those nutrients in turn fuel wetland productivity, supporting plants and invertebrates that provide food and shelter for waterfowl, fish, and other wildlife, delivering clean water to many habitats and communities.
Wetlands come in many beautiful and interesting forms and occur both coastal and inland such as: marshes, fens, bogs, billabongs (oxbow lakes), peatlands, estuaries, swamps, and mangroves.
Benefits of Wetlands
Wetlands are an essential and necessary part of the water cycle. They work as natural sponges filtering surface pollutants and other types of sediment that are carried down water systems. Due to that, they hold large amounts of the world’s available freshwater. One acre of wetlands can hold 330,000 gallons of water!
Other benefits of healthy wetlands aside from water quality include; erosion control (shoreline and inland) that in turn prevents flooding, maintains stream flows, provides critical and extensive wildlife habitats through nutrient retention, provide food and economy to the communities that live around them – almost 1 billion people in total globally. In one study, it was estimated that in terms of flooding alone, wetlands value to the US alone stands at about $1.2–$2.9 trillion!
With all these significant benefits, wetlands also serve a very important purpose — that of being able to store carbon.
All wetlands sequester carbon from the atmosphere through plant photosynthesis and by acting as sediment traps for runoff. Carbon is held in the living vegetation as well as in litter, peats, organic soils, and sediments that have built up, in some instances, over thousands of years.
Wetlands contain a disproportionate amount of the earth’s total soil carbon; holding between 20% and 30% of the estimated 1,500 Pg of global soil carbon despite occupying 5–8% of its land surface. Or in layman’s speak, around 225 billion metric tons, or the equivalent of carbon emissions from roughly 189 million cars every year—that’s more than the number of registered automobiles in the U.S. in 2015.
Issues Facing Wetlands
As we have seen, wetlands are incredibly important to humans and more than three billion people, almost half the world’s population, obtain their basic water needs from inland freshwater wetlands. (#Waterjustice) The UN has declared that “Access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene is the most basic human need for health and well-being.” However, despite what we know about wetlands, it is now known that over 85% of the world’s wetlands have been lost due to human interference, much of it through large scale modern agriculture activities. Wetlands face further threats from invasive species, pollution, dam construction, mining, and all forms of human development.
Importance of Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Wetland Protection and Management
Many Indigenous communities have lived on and from wetlands around the world for centuries and loss of this knowledge or other conservation systems being imposed on them can affect both the wetlands and the communities future, for example, one study in the Artic where almost 34% of Indigenous Communities are involved in wetland management, related that:
“Indigenous communities inform a lot of what is happening on the ground, especially because most management authorities do not have eyes on the Arctic at all times of the year. Often Indigenous peoples have really interesting solutions to conservation and management problems that do not necessarily fit into our standard prescribed set of actions when we establish a protected area or manage a species. There is a lot that can get lost when Indigenous peoples are not involved.”
These communities and their knowledge systems need to be protected as well if we are to see both social and environmental resilience building for long-term solutions to the issues we face. Wetlands are all seen as culturally important and sacred sites to many indigenous groups who revere them as more than just basic social support systems in terms of economy and food security.
Wetlands as Nature-based Solutions
Nature-based solutions are actions to protect, sustainably manage, or restore natural ecosystems, that address societal challenges such as climate change, human health, food and water security, and disaster risk reduction effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.
So wetlands are, in effect, an already fully packaged Nature-based Solution that already exist across the world, ready to support our environment, assist humans and therefore should be number one on our list of restoration and protection.
In a nutshell, they provide many of the ecosystem services one would require to develop a NbS project: they protect coastlines, support extensive biodiversity and their related ecosystems, and along with carbon storage defend against flooding and purify water through retaining contaminants. All this supports healthy communities through continued economic streams and food and water security.