Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, and they need to be protected.
The world’s wetlands account for some 6% of the earth’s total surface and can be found on every continent except Antarctica, although most of them are situated in tropical and subtropical regions. These unique ecosystems occur where water meets land, and include mangroves, peatlands and marshes, rivers and lakes, deltas, floodplains and flooded forests, rice-fields, and even coral reefs.
What do wetlands do for the environment?
What don’t they do would be a better question, really. An immense variety of species of microbes, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals can be part of a wetland ecosystem, all of which have a special relationship with the local landscape that brings about numerous benefits for both people and the planet.
Peatlands – one type of wetland – absorb heavy rainfall which provides protection against floods. This is an especially important function as the effects of climate change mean we’re going to see much wetter weather in the future. Other types of wetland, such as rivers and deltas, serve as important sources of drinking water, food and irrigation for crops.
Millions of people depend on peatlands for herding cattle, catching fish and farming. Wetlands in dry areas such as Australia and Africa, meanwhile, are also essential for farming, and many people’s livelihoods in these areas depend on their access to water.
Wetlands serve as a massive sink for carbon dioxide. Peatlands, for example, contain twice as much carbon as the world’s forests, and if they’re disturbed or drained they can become a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Mangroves are also vital for capturing carbon, as are arctic wetlands. It’s particularly important that arctic wetlands are protected as they hold enormous stocks of organic carbon in their soils, all contained by frozen permafrost. As temperatures rise due to climate change, this permafrost will thaw and a significant volume of greenhouse gases could be released into the atmosphere.
Wetlands are home to thousands of animals, including critically endangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger. Wetlands in high altitude areas, meanwhile, provide important stopping points for migratory birds. In fact, 40% of all species live or breed in these areas.
As the effects of climate change take hold, we will experience more and more extreme weather, but some types of wetlands can actually help protect us against the impact of these events. Mangrove forests provide protection and shelter against storm winds and floods, and can disperse tidal surges associated with these events. According to wetlands.org, a mangrove can reduce the destructive force of a tsunami by up to 90%. Meanwhile, wetlands in high altitude areas help to promote vegetation growth which lessens soil erosion and buffers water flow – this helps to reduce the severity of disasters such as landslides, floods and droughts.
How are wetlands under threat?
Wetlands – like all elements of the environment – are under threat from human activity in many different ways. Some of the most common hazards leading to the loss of wetlands include:
Drainage for agriculture and construction
Draining of wetlands to make space for agriculture or construction work is one of the biggest threats to such areas. These spaces are often viewed as wastelands good only for redevelopment, with little consideration given to their environmental benefits. Tourism facilities, for example, are often built by draining wetlands.
In places where temperature increases are raising the sea levels, coastal wetlands are being submerged or drowned. In areas where higher temperatures are triggering droughts, the wetlands are also drying out. As such, climate change has a devastating impact on wetlands whether it causes higher or lower water levels.
Dams alter the natural flow of a river in order to meet human needs, but these alterations cause significant disturbances in the ecosystems dependent on the river. Wetland areas such as swamps and marshes can suffer from a lower or a higher flow of water than normal, which upsets the delicate natural balance of the area and can lead to loss of wildlife and carbon-storing potential.
Wetlands are viewed as natural water filtration systems – any polluted water that washes into the area is purified as it leaves, with pollutants either absorbed as nutrients by plants or turning to sediment at the bottom of the wetland. Sadly, wetlands are often treated as dumping grounds for industrial effluents, household wastes and sewage, and the higher the levels of pollution, the harder it is for these areas to filter out toxic contaminants. Wildlife depending on the area as a water source will struggle to survive.
How can we protect wetlands?
Wetlands are vital areas that should – like all environmental spaces – be respected and protected. Taking steps to limit your impact on the climate and to reduce your carbon footprint will have a beneficial impact on wetland regions, as will direct action within those areas. Some suggestions include:
- Not buying or using peat in your garden – start a compost heap
- Conserving and restoring any wetlands that are on your property.
- Reducing or eliminating the amount of fertilizers and pesticides you use in your garden.
- Using eco-friendly laundry and dishwasher detergents.
- Disposing of your litter properly.
- Keeping an eye out for planning ordinances that could threaten wetland areas and objecting vociferously to your local authority.
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