Why we must act to save our wetlands
Wetlands constitute about two percent of Zimbabwe’s total land area. Seven wetland sites in the country, covering over 453, 000 hectares, have been designated as Wetlands of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention.
However, Zimbabwe’s wetlands are under threat of degradation. This World Wetlands Day, celebrated annually on 2nd February, is an opportunity to bring awareness on the vital role they play in benefitting people and the planet. This year’s theme — Wetlands Action for People and Nature — emphasises the need for and the importance of acting on the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.
The importance of wetlands to Zimbabwe is not far removed from us. They are entrenched in our everyday lives, providing cultural, economic, and biological value that is key to our existence. As such, they are amongst the most important natural resources on earth.
Wetlands help us by:
Improving water quality
Wetland’s sponge-like nature is purifying. They function as a natural filtering system for water flowing through them. As such, they are a necessity to the ecological balance of our environment and for our access to safe and clean drinking water. In addition, they also help recharge underground water, rivers and streams.
Providing habitat to wildlife
Wetland ecosystems are some of the most productive in the world, providing sustenance for many different species of fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals that directly depend on them.
Supporting Food chains
A very complex and extensive food chain is supported by wetlands. They provide sustenance for many consumer organisms within and outside them.
Wetlands are located in depressions in different landscapes, often along river drainage areas. As a result, they help slow down or dissipate flood waters during high rainfall events and storms, protecting nearby communities from floods.
The vegetation in wetlands functions as shock absorbers by dissipating the force of flowing water. The root structure also aids in stabilising sediments.
Providing opportunities for recreation
Wetlands provide us with beautiful spaces, potential aesthetic appreciation and natural products for our use, sometimes at no cost at all.
In short — their existence determines our very own.
However, wetlands are often overlooked in policy and sustainability discourse, resulting in them disappearing at a frightening rate. They are extensively used without reclamation measures, resulting in destruction and a decline of biological diversity. In 2018, it was found that wetlands are disappearing three times as fast as forests, according to research conducted by the Global Wetland Outlook by the Ramsar Convention. 35% of global wetlands have been lost in the last 55 years and almost 90% have been degraded since the 1700s. In Zimbabwe, over 50% of wetlands in the country are lost due to agricultural activity.
However, this decline can be reduced or halted if we act to rehabilitate them. Extensive work in this area by the Global Environment Facility Small Grants programme (GEFSGP) in Zimbabwe shows wetlands can be protected and re-claimed successfully. Working with communities in Matabo, Murewa, Masvingo, Lower Gweru, Bindura and Shurugwi, many hectares of wetlands have been reclaimed and are now being managed sustainably.
In Shurugwi, GEFSGP worked with Local Initiatives Development Agency to support the rehabilitation and conservation of 9 wetlands covering 237 hectares. In addition to the protection of the wetlands, the communities received support on sustainable usage of this natural resource. They learnt how to practice climate smart agriculture and how to farm fish. Solar powered boreholes and water harvesting structures were installed to lessen the dependence on the wetlands.
As a result of this, over 2,200 people, a majority being women and girls, have improved access to water in their homes, increased productivity in their fields and livelihoods, and improved nutrition from their gardens.
Key lessons on sustainable wetland rehabilitation from this and other fruitful experiences are that: active community participation is important from the onset; the integration of local indigenous knowledge systems with scientific methods during protection and use is a key success factor; and that support and buy-in from the local leadership makes implementation easier.
According to Martha Rojas Urrego, Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the global agenda on sustainable development will not be achieved without wetlands. Going forward, we will continue to ensure that wetlands are protected through the implementation of Nationally Determined Contributions and through national consultations leading up to Stockholm +50. As a nation, if everyone embraces the notion of wetlands conservation and sustainable use, this can go far in addressing the challenges of water shortages, food insecurity and above all biodiversity loss.
Tsitsi Wutawunashe — National Coordinator (GEFSGP)
with Emelie Isaksen — Project Assistant UNDP (ZVBP)