Today, May 22 is the UN’s International Day for Biological Diversity, a day that various UN agencies are joining in celebrations of biodiversity conservation, protection and “wise use” efforts worldwide. Included is the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the only global environmental treaty in existence focused on addressing challenges related to one particular ecosystem.
Negotiated through the 1960s by UN member nations and NGOs and enacted in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran, 160 “parties” have signed the “Convention on Wetlands of International Importance,” or Ramsar Convention treaty. In doing so, they’ve committed themselves to “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.”
The “International Day for Biodiversity” reinforces and dovetails nicely with various longer term UN public outreach campaigns aimed at raising broad-based public awareness and involvement in the interrelated issues of sustainable development as it relates to biodiversity, climate change, land use, the oceans and environmental degradation. The UN has designated 2012 the “International Year of the Oceans” and the entire decade (2011-2020) the “International Decade of Biodiversity.”
Wetlands: Critical, diverse environments under threat
Defining wetlands as areas “with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters,” the Ramsar Convention effectively covers most of the world’s marine coastal zones and wetlands. These have been classified according to 12 major types, including sea bays, sea-grass beds, tropical marine meadows, mangroves, coral reefs, permanent water of estuaries and estuarine systems of deltas, and intertidal mud, sand or salt flats.
In addition to providing a wealth of sustainable natural resources that humans have been depending on for thousands of years, these 12 categories of marine coastal zones and wetlands provide a diverse range of critical environmental “services” for a tremendous diversity of flora and fauna.
Maintaining marine and coastal biodiversity is a particularly vexing challenge. More than 60% of the world’s human population lives on or near coastlines, putting non-human living residents of these critical habitats and ecosystems under continual pressure, the Ramsar Convention points out.
The results are numerous and troubling: accelerated sea-level rise and coastal zone erosion and interruption of water and sediment flows, large-scale habitat loss and human-made pollution, large-scale reductions in biodiversity–including many aquatic and terrestrial species of plants and animals of subsistence as well as commercial importance.
Helping Ramsar Convention signatories create and enact Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) plans that account for the interrelationships between land, inland waters and coastal areas has been a focus of treaty managers and agencies. Upstream construction of dams, pollution discharges and water extraction, for instance, can and have had drastic effects on downstream lands and waters, Ramsar notes.
Incorporating conservation and sustainable use of wetlands in “broad-scale integrated ecosystem management is a constant area of work for the Ramsar Convention,” noted Ramsar Convention Secretary General Anada Tiega in a May 22 blog post. One example of the Ramsar Convention Secretariat’s activity is the MedWetCoast Project, the goal of which is to conserve biodiversity of global and regional importance across six Mediterranean Sea basin countries.
*Photo Courtesy: Ramsar Convention on Wetlands