The Ramsar Convention: Advocating for wetlands for over 40 years

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Anand Chandrasekhar, Geneva, 2 September 2013

The Convention’s goal of stemming the loss and degradation of wetlands still drives us. Despite the many successes achieved through Ramsar over the years, that challenge essentially still remains the same.

Nick Davidson has been Deputy Secretary General of The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands since February 2000, with overall responsibility for the Convention’s global development and delivery of scientific, technical and policy guidance and advice. As one of the co-authors of the TEEB for Water and Wetlands Report, Nick has been tirelessly spreading the message of the public benefits provided by wetlands. In the run up to World Water Week whose theme this year is ‘Water Cooperation – Building Partnerships’, he advocates for integrating wetlands across all sectors.

Anand Chandrasekhar: The Ramsar Convention is now over 40 years old. Does life begin at 40 or is Ramsar due for a mid-life crisis?

Nick Davidson: When we were preparing for the 40th anniversary celebrations in 2011, we had been talking of the Ramsar Convention being the oldest of the modern global environment agreements, but that could have made us seem rather geriatric. Hence we decided to showcase Ramsar as the first and most experienced of them all. Since it was agreed in 1971 there have continued to be many challenges but the Convention has continued to grow and evolve to respond to a changing world over these 40 years. The number of countries joining the Convention continues to increase and rate of designation wetlands as Ramsar Sites has doubled over the last 10 years when compared to before that. The challenge now is to support this growth and help our governments implement the Convention.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Forty + years on the three founding principles of the convention (wise use, designation & management of Ramsar Sites, and international cooperation) are still relevant today. Is this a result of the far-sighted approach of the founders or have the pressures on wetlands remained the same?

Nick Davidson: The simple answer to that is both. I firmly believe that the founding fathers of the Convention were remarkably far-sighted. They were way ahead of their time in terms of understanding the linkages between people and nature as well as the two-way relationship between wetlands and water. Forty years ago, they were stressing the same issues that we’re trying to get across through TEEB. The Convention’s goal of stemming the loss and degradation of wetlands still drives us. Despite the many successes achieved through Ramsar over the years, that challenge essentially still remains the same.

Anand Chandrasekhar: While wetlands have definitely benefited from Ramsar Site designation there have also been setbacks. For example, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 states that degradation and loss of wetlands is continuing more rapidly than other ecosystems. How can Ramsar bridge the gap between effective policies on paper and ground realities?

Nick Davidson:  There is no silver bullet for difficult decisions like feeding an ever-growing population or providing drinking water to an expanding city. The immediacy of urgent short-term demands still often override the long-term strategies and actions to maintain the natural systems which actually help the world deliver these needs. But providing a much clear understanding of the consequences of such decisions is really needed, and that’s where the TEEB helps us. At the very least this approach can ensure that we can minimise and mitigate any negative impact on wetland services.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Wetlands have often been unfairly relegated to the sidelines while other ecosystems like tropical forests have grabbed the limelight. For example, more than half of Ramsar member countries do not have a wetland policy in place. Are wetlands under-valued by decision-makers or under-sold by the wetland community or both?

Nick Davidson: It is no longer enough to draw a line around wetlands and try to manage it in isolation of the landscape within which it sits. To connect water and wetlands you need to follow the flow of water from the mountains to the seas and understand the crucial role of wetlands in maintaining the water cycle. A national wetland policy provides a valuable framework for implementing action on water and wetlands. The number of countries with such policies is steadily increasing, and our latest information is that 51% of Ramsar member countries now have a wetland policy in place, and more are being prepared. Other countries have taken an alternative approach and have incorporated wetlands into broader policies. Perhaps there is a case to be made in having wetlands spread throughout all your policies and sectors. National, sector-specific policies have not always worked well in the past. An alternative is to ensure that water and wetlands are embedded in all sectors’ policies and strategies. Whether it is poverty eradication, energy or food, water is the key to their delivery – and much of our water comes from or through wetlands.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Ramsar’s Changwon Declaration on human well being and wetlands is an attempt to redefine wise use and move away from the “business as usual” scenario. Why is it so important to reach out to leaders in other sectors and re-frame the language of conversation regarding wetlands?

Nick Davidson: The Changwon Declaration was not so much about redefining wetland wise use, but more about explaining its relevance, in clear language, to the business of other sectors of society. We all love our own jargon and language, which we think everyone understands. But if you stop people on the street and ask them what “biodiversity” or “ecosystems” mean, the great majority don’t know what you are talking about. Ecosystems are difficult to visualize, especially when some definitions describe them as anything from a grain of soil to the entire world. Even terms like “ecosystem services” that have generally been well received are not clearly understood. But if you rephrase ecosystem services as the “benefits we get from nature”, then there is much more recognition. Even the term wetland does not always mean much to people such as water managers. Talking of wetlands as “natural infrastructure” has much more resonance with the work they are engaged in and hence better understood.

The purpose of the Changwon declaration was to speak simple and clear language to other sectors about the importance of wetlands to them. A main reason for Ramsar asking TEEB to prepare the Water & Wetlands report was requests for help from our governments for better ways to communicate the value of wetlands to their own ministers and decision-makers.

Anand Chandrasekhar:The link between wise use, ecological character and ecosystem services was only made quite recently and TEEB for Water and Wetlands is a major step in this direction. What has been the response of Ramsar member countries to this initiative?

Nick Davidson: The clarification of the linkage between maintaining ecological character and delivering wise use came from the thinking of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in the early 2000s. That helped us, through our scientific advisory panel, to reassess the way we think about the interrelationship between ecosystems, and their characteristics, functions and benefits. From this emerged the logical approach, for all wetlands, is that the delivery of their wise is through maintaining their character. This was not so much a new way but a clearer way of presenting the concepts and links between wise use and ecological character of our environment.

The thinking behind the TEEB for Water & Wetlands report was presented in various forms and fora including major conferences and meetings such as the Rio+20 summit, Ramsar COP11 and CBD COP11. It received a lot of attention and positive feedback including many helpful comments on the draft report during the consultation stage. We launched the report on World Wetlands Day on 2nd February this year, so we haven’t yet had enough time since then to measure how much it has been picked up and used at the national level yet. But thanks to funding from Switzerland, Norway and IUCN we now have the summary report available in six languages to ensure good access to it around the world. We’ve always seen this report as the starting point; a first step to pull together what we do know about the importance and value of wetlands. The report has shown that even the wetland community has underestimated the value of wetlands, particularly coastal wetlands, when you look at some of the facts and figures. I seldom go to any conference or meeting without including at least one slide on the TEEB water and wetlands story – and it gets attention. The TEEB for Water & Wetlands Report has also shown us what the gaps in our knowledge still are. We do not have enough information about some parts of the world and some types of wetlands. This gives us an agenda to encourage further work on the importance and value of wetlands, so we can fill these gaps in the future.

Anand Chandrasekhar: Many governments regard the erosion of natural capital for the sake of economic growth as an acceptable strategy. For example, the Stern report had little impact in convincing growing economies to embrace a low carbon development model. Can framing wetlands in terms of water security, natural infrastructure and green economy really change their minds?

Nick Davidson: There is a a paradox that to achieve economic growth and poverty eradication goals you need to maintain and benefit from what the natural systems provide us with. But this is not as yet well understood by all those responsible for delivering such policies. So decision-making often still leads to cutting off the “wet hand” that underpins your food and water security. However, there are promising signs of increased recognition of role of wetlands in providing the right quality of water, in the right amounts, at the right place, and at the right time. TEEB’s work is helping bring that recognition higher up in the agenda and to highlight the values that wetlands provide to us, largely for free, and largely about water.

Anand Chandrasekhar: What can we expect from Ramsar in the near future?

Nick Davidson: We need to develop a new strategic plan for the Convention because the current plan will end in 2015. The TEEB water and wetlands story will help us in looking at how the Convention might best focus its future implementation. There is also the context for Ramsar and wetlands and water of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and Strategic Plan for Biodiversity adopted by governments in 2010, and the current process developing post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. By aligning and linking with other conventions and targets we can demonstrate better to governments that by implementing the Ramsar Convention they are also simultaneously working to deliver such global biodiversity targets. Our new Ramsar Secretary General Christopher Briggs will have a lot on his schedule.

Anand Chandrasekhar: What would you like Ramsar to have achieved by its 50th birthday?

Nick Davidson: That gives us just a further eight years. But I am an optimist or I wouldn’t be working for Ramsar despite knowing the many problems still faced by wetlands globally. I would say we need to go back and re-read that original text of the Convention and really stem the loss and degradation of wetlands now and for the future, as our 50th birthday present.

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.

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