World Wetlands Day 2nd February

I recently came across an article about the world’s wetlands, and as the 2nd February has been proclaimed World Wetlands Day, this seems like an appropriate time to write about the problem of the loss of wetlands.

Wetlands are as important as rain forests in terms of their biodiversity and contribution to the Earth’s survival, but are often overlooked when we talk about saving the planet.

By definition, wetlands are ecosystems where water is the major factor controlling the plant and animal life in an environment. Wetlands can encompass both freshwater and coastal areas, whether natural or man-made sites. They include coral reefs, deltas, tidal flats and mangroves, as well as lakes, rivers, marshes, paddy fields, garden ponds and reservoirs. All these areas play an important part to nature and people that live near them and rely on them in some way. They affect local climates and contribute ecologically, socially, and economically towards sustainable development and the wellbeing of humans. In fact, it’s thought that 1 in 8 people on the planet rely on wetlands for their livelihoods – that’s about a billion people.

Although wetlands only cover 6% of the Earth’s land surface, some 40% of the world’s animal and plant species live in them. If these areas aren’t healthy in terms of biodiversity, then a number of things suffer, such as the climate, our food supply, our own health and livelihoods, not to mention the loss of the plants and animals themselves.

Surprisingly, wetlands are among the ecosystems most at risk of decline; they are suffering from degradation and loss which has a knock-on effect, and coupled with the high rate of growth of the world’s population and therefore consumption of all manner of things from these areas, are disappearing three times faster than forests. This makes them the Earth’s most threatened ecosystem, with 35% of wetlands having been lost since 1970.  A healthy wetland can affect other ecosystems, as they all work in harmony.

Once again it is us humans that contribute most to this decline by overfishing, introducing invasive species and altering drainage of areas to “improve” agriculture. By changing the way these ecosystems work on their own, we change the climate of the area and in turn destroy the habitat for certain plants and animals. We have historically seen wetlands as areas that are “wasted” and so we have reclaimed land, for profit, by re-routing rivers and streams. This way of thinking has to change so that these areas are considered to be valuable to the environment.

Did you know that wetlands absorb carbon dioxide? This is a natural way to slow global warming and reduce pollution. It has been identified in the last few years that peatlands store double the amount of carbon than all the world’s forest put together. Obviously, when we drain peatlands to extract the peat, huge amounts of carbon are release into the atmosphere.

There is already a programme in place to use alternatives to peat to allow the natural world to do it's job properly, so in the coming months, when you venture out into your garden to do some planting, look for peat-free alternative compost. In fact, I caught a gardening programme on television recently where the presenter was talking about this subject and was showing how peat-free compost is made. There were five ingredients that were mixed together to make the environmentally friendly compost. The mixture was topsoil, composted bark, wood shavings that had been turned into a fibrous material like wool, coir (coconut skin fibre) and compost made from garden waste from domestic brown bins. So, each ingredient was essentially a by-product that was being put to use. The topsoil came from sugar beet factories, the excess soil is cleaned from the beet before processing. The bark is from saw mills or naturally fallen trees, wood shavings from saw mills  and the coir (coconut skin fibre) being a natural product not needed in the food chain. And of course, the contents of our brown bins are rotted and converted to a compost. All of these ingredients bring different qualities to the final mix and work with each other to mimic traditional peat, but without the impact on the environment. They are all things which may otherwise have been discarded and not used usefully so it’s a win-win.

World Wetlands Day is designed to raise awareness of the problems mentioned, and to encourage the population, businesses and governments around the world to consider actions that will restore wetland areas and ultimately conserve them. I must admit that I was surprised to hear about the problems, as it’s usually the rainforests that we hear about. It seems that this is as big, if not bigger, than the destruction of rainforests so we need to treat it with the same urgency. Share World Wetlands Day with your contacts to raise the awareness the subject needs.