Here is how to bridge the knowledge gaps to support decision-making on wetlands

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Anand Chandrasekhar, Geneva, 21 December 2013

The renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is known to have said that “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

The TEEB for Water and Wetlands Report is an attempt to show how recognizing, demonstrating and capturing the values of ecosystem services related to water and wetlands can lead to better informed, more efficient and fairer decision making. Thanks to this report and other independent initiatives around the world, wetlands now rank high in terms of the knowledge base for ecosystem service values. Only tropical forests have a greater knowledge base.

However, this is not the the time for complacency. Due to the broad scope of issues involved and the complexity of wetlands, there exist gaps in knowledge that will need to be addressed in the near future. The renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is known to have said that “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” There is no place for illusions as far as wetland valuation is concerned.

A lot more work remains to be done to support evidence-based decision-making. The TEEB report has identified what the future needs for valuation research are and where the priorities of forthcoming valuation studies should lie. It is an open call to researchers and policy makers to build a stronger and more comprehensive knowledge base on the values of wetland ecosystem services.

Below are five suggestions on how we can bridge this knowledge gap:

Include more wetland types

Valuation assessment is best for coastal wetlands like coral reefs, mangroves and tidal marshes. More valuation studies are needed for inland wetlands and in particular open-water systems like freshwater lakes and rivers. This is a gap that needs to be addressed as lakes and rivers are the primary source of accessible freshwater for humans and ecosystems. They are also a critical component of the water-food-energy nexus. The agricultural sector depends on them for crop and livestock production as does the energy sector for hydro power generation and for cooling thermal power plants.

Assess a broader range of ecosystem services

Provisioning services have received the greatest attention when it comes to assessing the value of wetlands. These services include food, freshwater supply and raw materials, as well as genetic, medicinal and ornamental resources. In contrast, cultural services provided by wetlands have received little attention from researchers apart from coral reefs where tourism and recreation services have been analyzed. The spiritual and educational values of wetlands deserve more research given the relatively high value placed on them by local communities. These intangible values can motivate communities to conserve wetlands even though alternative uses like conversion for agriculture may promise greater economic benefits.

Cover more geographical regions

The majority of wetland ecosystem services values are available for Asia. This is understandable given that the annual rate of loss of wetlands in East Asia has been up to six times more rapid than elsewhere. The regions with the lowest amount of value estimates include Northern and Central Americas, Europe and Oceania. These regions could definitely benefit from more valuation studies. Despite a decreasing rate of wetland loss, many of the countries in these regions are looking to restore their degraded wetlands. They could definitely benefit from valuation studies to weigh cost-benefit options and convince policy makers to invest in wetland restoration projects.

Test and validate natural infrastructure solutions

Wetlands have traditionally been used as natural infrastructures much before large-scale engineered solutions became the norm. They provide us with many of the services associated with man-made infrastructures. They store water like reservoirs, prevent flooding like dykes, improve water quality like water treatment plants, and control/redistribute water flow like canals, pipelines and irrigation systems. More research is needed to understand how effective natural infrastructure solutions really are when compared with conventional or grey infrastructure. It is also worthwhile exploring how natural infrastructure can work with traditional infrastructure particularly in the area of resilience and disaster management. We do not have enough information to accurately estimate the degree of protection different wetlands provide from storm surges and floods. This is a gap in knowledge and previous studies based on simulation models need to be validated using real world data. It is also critical to assess where wetlands can offer cost-effective solutions for the public and private sector as natural infrastructure and incorporate them into planning and policy.

Understand linkages between natural capital and poverty reduction

Poverty is a complex issue and the relationship between poverty and biodiversity is not always clear cut. A common mistake is to oversimplify the relationship between natural resources and livelihoods, and thereby assume that delivering ecosystem services would automatically deliver positive livelihood outcomes. The role of wetlands as a lifeline for many poor households is generally accepted. However, more research is needed to demonstrate how the poor benefit from ecosystem services.

To learn more about the diverse values of wetlands, visit the TEEB for Water and Wetlands Report

About the author

anandAnand Chandrasekhar, is based in Switzerland and has a Masters in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent, UK and a Bachelors in Forestry from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, India. His experience extends to a wide range of environment issues including species conservation, environmental law and policy, natural resources governance, climate change and carbon markets. He now specializes in science and environment communications and enjoys developing thought-provoking content and challenging conventional thinking.


The views expressed in this blog are purely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of TEEB and should not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of TEEB.

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