No water without wetlands

Celebrating World Wetlands Day

Are you reading this newspaper over your Sunday morning breakfast? Bon appetit! And are you washing it down with a glass of water? This will fill up the three bathtubs of water, you just drank. Wait, three bathtubs and still thirsty? Clearly, the water in your breakfast was well hidden – virtual, so to say. We drink, in one form or another, nearly 4 liters of water daily, and use about 150L for washing and other purposes. However, the food we consume each day requires at least 2,000L to produce, 500 times as much. Your breakfast’s virtual water footprint: 140L for coffee, around 80L for toast, 120L for eggs, 240L for milk, coming, in total, to 1,100L or 13,391,400 droplets.

A droplet’s journey

Where does this vast amount of water come from? Let us rewind the journey of one of these droplets to find out. If you are in Metro Manila the tap water comes from the Angat reservoir, located north of the city in Bulacan Province. The water embraced in the glass of milk had to cover a longer distance to your table, most likely from New Zealand’s pastures. Interestingly enough, around 80% of accessibly freshwater used by humans is directed towards agriculture. Our globalized agricultural system means that much of that water use is not in the country where the product is being consumed. Thus, many countries, in particular the industrialized, are essentially exporting their water use, just as they export carbon emissions. For instants, it has been estimated by the Water Footprint Network that Europe exports 42% of its water footprint.

Another leg of the journey in the water cycle back will shed some light on how the water ended up in a large reservoir or a lush green meadow. As you might have guessed the little droplet first evaporated, travelled through the troposphere and returned to earth as rain or snow, feeding rivers or groundwater bodies, which can then be used for agriculture, drinking or sanitation.

Hang on, did we not miss a step here? Almost certainly the droplet would have passed a wetland on its way, the primary resource from which humans derive water. A minor detail? Certainly not, since ‘wetlands take care of water’, which is also the slogan of this weekend’s World Wetlands Day.

Wetlands as water infrastructure

The day’s focus is on the critical link between wetlands and water: without wetlands there will be no water – and without water there will be no wetlands. Undeniably, access to a clean and adequate water supply is critical for human survival, far beyond your breakfast: 41% of the world’s population lives with severe water stress, a number predicted to rise to two-thirds by 2025. The same time when even the tropical Philippines are predicted to be facing water shortage, partly due to their population growth. Already today providing clean water could save most of the 1.8 million children who die every year from diarrhea.

In contrast to this immediate importance of water, less well understood is that wetlands are fundamental regulators of water regimes. Without adequate management of wetlands from the mountains to the sea there is no water of the right quality and quantity where and when it is needed. ‘Wetlands are not competitors for water but rather essential components of water infrastructure, providing a clean source and store of freshwater’, says Anada Tiéga, Secretary General of the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

The new insurance company

Beyond being a caretaker of water, wetlands are one of the most biologically productive natural ecosystems, comparable to the glut of coral reefs. Wetlands include marsh, fen, peatland and other areas where water primarily controls the environment – whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, salty or brackish. These environments serve as a habitat for myriads of associated plants and animals, including many endangered and threatened species. Likewise, such plant communities, and the surrounding soil, function like a big carbon jar, thus playing a crucial role in moderating global climate. The degradation peatlands, a common phenomenon in Southeast Asia, equals alone 7% of all fossil fuel CO2 emissions.

To see yet another ecosystem value of wetlands, we can ask some residents of the urban communities, situated on the edge of Vientiane city, Lao PDR. They will happily tattle about the That Luang Marsh providing important resources and agricultural land for their local communities both in the city and in the bordering rural areas. Moreover, the wetland offers substantial flood protection, through the retention of storm runoff generated by the city, and water treatment for domestic, agricultural and industrial wastewater. Every citizen in Southeast Asia’s deluge plagued metropolises, be it Manila or most recently Jakarta, would certainly appreciate similarly functional ecosystems around their homes. The goods and services provided by relatively small That Luang Marsh alone are worth just under US$5 million annually, a number that can be up-scaled many-fold for a megacity.

Compared to the flood damage in the billions, wetlands provide a dirt cheap prophylaxis. Since likely climate change scenarios load the dice in favor of more extreme weather events, it is worthwhile thinking wetlands’ protective services as a new generation of insurance policy, provided not by AXA, Sunlife and Co., but Mother Nature herself. As the third most vulnerable country in a warming world, particularly the typhoon tortured Philippines would benefit big time from this full coverage climate collision insurance.

Wetlands warning: Thing global, act local

If wetlands play such an important role for the journey of the little water droplet and its comrades to our kitchen table, and beyond, why are they still at such stark peril of destruction and degradation? In 2010, a cover story in the scientific top journal Nature drew attention to the nexus between the use and misuse of wetlands and the dire consequences for mankind. In conclusion, the cumulative impacts of dams, pollution, agricultural runoff, the conversion of wetlands and the introduction of exotic species have led to a situation in which some 80% of the world’s population, next to five billion people, live in areas where river waters are highly threatened.

In response to these threats to one of our most precious life support systems, the before mentioned Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, was born on 2 February 1971. It is part of the international architecture including the UN Millennium Development Goals, the Green Economy initiative or the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, highlighting the importance of water management in an integrated, cooperative and holistic manner.

42 years later, appositely in the UN International Year of Water Cooperation, this weekend’s anniversary, the World Wetlands Day, shows how Ramsar has set the stage for globally recognizing the value of wetlands ecosystem, increasing awareness and understanding of wetlands’ multiple roles and benefits to humanity. In the last decades national and global initiatives have been intensified to safeguard and restore the lost or degraded hydro-biological functions of wetlands.

A regional illustration for the protection of the staggering 13,204 square kilometers of Ramsar wetlands in the ASENA countries is the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB). Based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines, the center coordinates national and regional efforts on wetland conservation and sustainable management of these ecosystems throughout South East Asia. Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP), supports the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change.

Zooming back in to our breakfast table: Equally important is engagement at the local level. ‘Water is not only the driving force of all nature’, as already Leonardo da Vinci put it, but also of all humans. Every single one of us is utterly dependent on the water wetlands provide us with, rendering wetlands a responsibility of us all.

A company can reduce its environmental impact and monitor its water footprint, as can the individual consumer. We can commit to recycle, reuse and conserve water in our private lives whether it is through rainwater harvesting, water-friendly garden design, cutting water usage in our home or supporting our local wetland.

Your breakfast can be a first step to ease the droplets long and wearing journey, preserving intact wetlands. For instance, by reducing the purchase of products imported from regions with high water scarcity, or with a large water footprint, such as coffee and meat. As the saying goes: Thousands have lived without love, not one without water – and certainly not without the wetlands providing, cleaning and securing it.

First Published on Saturday, 02 February 2013 17:50 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror