Anand Chandrasekhar, Geneva, 30 December 2013
Estimates suggest that the world has lost 50% of its wetlands since 1900.
Invaluable. The word can be very misleading. It says a lot while still managing to say very little. Even dictionaries are conflicted over the meaning. Some define it as “extremely valuable or useful” and others as “valuable beyond estimation”. Yet we often reach for this ambiguous word when it comes to describing the role of wetlands in our lives. However, a closer examination of the status of wetlands reveals the folly of succumbing to this illusion.
Estimates suggest that world has lost 50% of its wetlands since 1900. Currently, the rate of loss of wetlands is increasing outside of North America and Europe. For example, China has lost a third of its inland wetlands between 1978 and 2008. The resulting impact on biodiversity has been alarming. Freshwater species and populations have experienced the greatest decline of all ecological communities between 1970 and 2008. We seem to be on a collision course with our so-called invaluable wetlands without any thought for the collateral damage caused by our actions.
In this context, ignorance is definitely not bliss when it comes to valuing our wetlands. It is a distressing contradiction that wetlands are reduced to the status of “second-class ecosystems” when it comes to decision-making despite providing us with widely known and appreciated ecosystem services. This clearly demonstrates a gap in knowledge that needs to be addressed now. So, how can wetlands benefit from a value assessment and why is it important to put a value on them?
1. Highlights hidden values
It helps bring to the forefront less-prominent but highly-valued ecosystem services that are rarely measured. For example, the climate change mitigation and adaptation services of wetlands are often overlooked in favour of more established and marketable services such as agriculture and fisheries.
2. Promotes transparency and informed decision-making
Valuation can change the way in which societies manage wetlands. It reveals the full range of options available for managing a wetland and alerts all involved to the consequences certain choices might have. Valuation is a valuable tool to facilitate decentralized and inclusive decision-making especially when wetlands are managed as Common Pool Resource by local communities.
3. Facilitates comparison against man-made alternatives
By quantifying the ecosystem services provided by wetlands they can be compared against alternative/competing man-made infrastructures designed to tackle the same problems. For example, wetlands have the potential to compete as cost-effective storm and flood protection infrastructure when compared to man-made infrastructures that require high investment and maintenance costs for a potentially rare event.
4. Quantifies the cost of inaction
Valuations enable us to calculate the true cost of losing our wetlands. This includes the financial implications of loss of ecosystem services as well as the cost of restoring degraded wetlands.
5. Makes prioritization easier
Wetlands are arguably the most valuable of all ecosystems. Valuation allows wetlands can be compared to other natural habitats in terms of the value of ecosystem services provided and thus help decision-makers prioritize them (or at the very least stop undervaluing them). Degradation of wetlands can also have a knock-on effect on other ecosystems and hence they often deserve more attention.
6. Helps promote international water cooperation
Wetlands can help governments meet national and international commitments like reducing poverty and hunger, improving health and sanitation, providing access to clean drinking water and meeting Millennium Development Goals. These wetland values can act as a strong incentive to avoid conflicts over water and embrace water diplomacy.
7. Demonstrates the potential for creating local employment
The income-generation potential of wetlands to local communities can be compared against job-creation opportunities promised by alternative uses. By providing local livelihoods, wetlands reduce financial dependence on the state and minimise migration of youth to urban areas in search of employment.
8. Frames intangible values
Values such as cultural identity, religious significance and natural beauty occupy an importance place in our relationship with wetlands. These intangible values can motivate communities to conserve ecosystems like wetlands even when alternative uses may promise greater economic benefits. When required and appropriate, valuation can attempt to quantify these “invisible” but important values to leverage wetland protection initiatives. For example, the revenue generated from wetland-centric tourism could help convince local officials of the benefits of investing in sewage treatment plants to maintain water quality.
9. Encourages national accounting to include natural capital
Wetlands are part of a country’s natural capital. Incorporating them into national accounts can help decision-makers understand and appreciate the linkages between the economy and the environment. It can also prevent the degradation and conversion of wetlands for short-term gains.
10. Convinces companies to incorporate the environment into business models
It helps companies understand the investment risks and opportunities associated with biodiversity/ecosystem services and not view them as mere externalities. For example, if it makes economic sense to invest in developing a fisheries industry or creating tourism infrastructure.
Given the above reasons it is an irony that despite our incontestable dependence on wetlands, they remain one of the most undervalued of all ecosystems. Let’s stop doing wetlands this disservice and give them credit for all the tangible and intangible values that enrich our lives.
To learn more about the value of wetlands, visit TEEB For Water and Wetlands.
About the author
Anand 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.
Photo credits: Peter Prokosh