African countries are losing the battle to save their wetlands

Wetland in dunga area,  next to lake Victoria, which is in danger of human encroachment with people building houses which become engulfed when it rains. [Michael Mute, Standard]

Wetlands have played, and continue to play, critical ecological functions in regulating water regimes and providing habitats supporting flora and fauna. They are also of great economic, cultural, scientific and recreational value.

Some 85 per cent of the world’s wetlands have declined in both quality and quantity since 2019. In Africa, wetlands are threatened by several factors, including climate change, pollution, invasive alien species, human encroachment and subsequent habitat loss and degradation.

Degradation has continued unabated despite the important need for wetland conservation and efforts initiated through the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat.

This is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. Yet despite its intentions, and the fact that over 90 per cent of United Nations Member States are Parties, the Convention has failed to achieve its mandate. Some of the reasons for this include the following.

First, coordination is lacking in many African countries. While the Convention is an international agreement, actions and policies are undertaken at the national level. Many African countries struggle to determine the government departments responsible for coordinating a national strategy and creating national committees to bring together stakeholders from the government, the private sector, NGOs and agencies in the sphere of biodiversity.

In some cases, governments have failed to allocate responsibilities for the conservation of wetlands among departments for the environment, agriculture and fisheries. A lack of political commitment to legislate and align policies and strategies in accordance with the Convention has often compounded the problem.

As a result, the Convention’s objectives are often given low priority at the local level. Governments must honour their commitments to the Convention. Examples of good wetlands governance include Argentina, which has created a permanent protected area of peatland complexes that serve as the largest carbon sinks in the country; the wetland sponge cities of China, and restoration of the Great North Bog in the United Kingdom.

Second, awareness is lacking. It is not uncommon, especially in African countries, to see wetlands drained and destroyed. This lack of awareness stems from the general shortage of biodiversity professionals and limited information on the importance and extent of wetlands and is hindering conservation efforts.

If departments responsible for implementing the Convention lack expertise and resources, the Convention’s objectives will probably be misinterpreted. In some cases, departments mistakenly believe that progress is being made while wetlands continue to be degraded.

Third, financial constraints inhibit research and project implementation. Internationally, the Convention Secretariat is not always able to promote key cooperation projects, seminars and publications. The situation is worsened by local governments failing to fund wetlands conservation to an adequate level.

As indicated in the UNEP State of Finance for Nature Report 2022, to realise climate, biodiversity and land degradation goals, there is a need to more than double the current investment in nature-based solutions from the current $154 billion to $384 billion annually by 2025.

Fourth, despite the Convention’s importance, it suffers from limited visibility and must compete with a host of other biodiversity-related programmes, agencies, and conventions. This could be because the Convention predates the UN’s flagship environment agency, UNEP, which handles many multilateral environmental agreements.

With increased competition from other biodiversity agreements and in a bid to remain relevant, the Convention appears to be drifting gradually away from its core mandate. The Convention must remain part of the UN family of environmental conventions and should re-orient itself to its original mandate of conservation of wetlands and waterfowl.

Destroying and degrading wetlands will cause increased flooding, the extinction of species, and decline in water quality. For good reason, wetlands are called the ‘kidneys of the earth’ for just as kidneys remove wastes, cleanse the blood and balance bodily fluids, wetlands absorb carbon dioxide, slow global warming and reduce pollution.

Much greater attention must therefore be given to the protection and restoration of wetlands, which play such a vital role in environmental sustainability. Draining wetlands and converting them to other uses such as construction, makes as much sense as removing kidneys from our body. The examples set by Argentina, China and the UK should be instructive.