Wetlands are not wastelands

Mahmoud Bakr , Tuesday 8 Feb 2022

Wetlands sustain biodiversity, provide food and fresh water, and store carbon that helps to regulate climate change. What is Egypt doing to protect them, asks Mahmoud Bakr

From top to bottom: Burullus Lake Bardawil Lake Qaroun Lake Egypt has 520 species of migrating birds

Egypt took part in World Wetlands Day on 2 February with appeals on the Ministry of Environment’s social media accounts “to invest financial, human, and political capital to save the world’s wetlands from disappearing and to restore those we have degraded”.

Wetlands Action for People and Nature is this year’s theme for the day, highlighting the importance of actions to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands for human and planetary health.

The idea of the day is to raise people’s awareness about the importance of wetlands. The Earth is losing wetlands three times faster than forests, yet they are critically important ecosystems that contribute to biodiversity, climate mitigation and adaptation, freshwater availability, and the world economy. It is critical to reverse their rapid loss and encourage actions to conserve and restore them.

A wetland is an ecosystem flooded by water, the main factor that controls the environment and associated plant and animal life. The broad definition of wetlands includes both freshwater and marine and coastal ecosystems such as lakes, rivers, aquifers, swamps, wet grasslands, oases, estuaries, deltas, tidal flats, mangroves, and coral reefs, as well as sites of human activities such as fish ponds, rice fields, reservoirs, and salt pans.

Some significant wetlands are called Ramsar sites. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat is an international convention for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. It was named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where it was signed on 2 February 1971.

This year’s celebration of World Wetlands Day is especially significant as on 30 August 2021 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 75/317 that established 2 February as World Wetlands Day.

Egypt has four Ramsar sites, which are the Bardawil, Burullus, Qaroun, and Rayan lakes, said Yasmine Fouad, the minister of environment. It also has several other wetlands, such as the River Nile, Lake Nasser, coastal areas, marshes, salt marshes, and the northern lakes, parts of which have been declared nature reserves, such as the Ashtum Al-Gamil reserves, she added.

The ecological importance of wetlands is due to their being transitional areas between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems performing many functions to serve humanity, such as water purification and high fish productivity, Fouad explained. Wetlands are some of the most important natural sinks and carbon dioxide reservoirs and thus play a significant role in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Fouad added that the ministry was focusing this year on celebrating World Wetlands Day on social media to inform the public about these ecosystems and their value for the environment and people.

Ayman Hamada, head of the Central Department of Biological Diversity, said that civilisations have always been associated with wetlands, as they are a source of food and water. Wetlands serve local communities such as fishermen who sometimes resort to waterfowl and other bird hunting.

Egyptian law allows the hunting of 21 kinds of the 520 migrating birds that cross the country, Hamada added, stating that there are 150 kinds of birds that make Egypt their home while the rest are migrating birds. He said that the Ministry of Environment is firmly against illegal hunting and the trade of birds and wild animals, pointing out the ministry launched 12 campaigns against hawk hunters last year.

Hamada added that the ministry could not ignore the fact that wetlands constitute a source of income for some people but hunting in these areas has to be regulated according to strict laws and conditions, which is why the ministry allows hunting in wetlands in August only to preserve their resources and protect their bird and animal wealth.  

Preserving wetland ecosystems is one of the tools that can help to mitigate the effects of climate change, he added, saying that the Ministry of Environment is now focused on restoring Egypt’s wetlands.

Regarding the mangrove forests in the Red Sea, there are joint projects with Egyptian universities, research centres, the concerned authorities, and the local community to evaluate the conditions of the mangroves and restore degraded environments that are under threat of extinction, for example.

Hamada said that birdwatching is also a form of tourism that attracts foreign currency and that Egypt is keen to encourage this activity. The department is cooperating with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to develop and promote birdwatching tourism, which he described as “high-value tourism with few negative effects”.

IMPORTANT ECOSYSTEMS: Saber Mahmoud Othman, an expert on climate change and sustainable development, said that wetlands are one of the most important ecosystems that cover between three and six per cent of the planet.

Wetlands house 40 per cent of the Earth’s plants and animals, he added. They are vital for people’s health and food supply, the environment, the regulation of water and floods, and water purification.

Othman said that at least one billion people the world over depend on wetlands to make a living. They also contribute on the environmental, ecological, social, economic, scientific, educational, and cultural levels in achieving sustainable development and prosperity for mankind, he added.

Despite their various benefits, wetlands can increase the effects of climate change, however, as they can contribute to an increase in carbon emissions that cause climate change, he said. Anaerobic fermentation emits methane and nitrous dioxide, which can increase the temperature of the atmosphere more than carbon dioxide. Each heated methane unit can contribute about 23-fold the amount of carbon dioxide, which increases in the case of nitrous dioxide to 310-fold.

However, other aspects of wetlands have a positive effect in combating climate change since they preserve mangroves and peatlands and contribute to absorbing toxins, purifying water, and reducing beach erosion, Othman explained.

Unfortunately, wetlands are among the ecosystems that are subject to the highest rates of decline, loss and degradation, and they will likely continue to deteriorate due to direct and indirect causes, such as rapid population growth, unsustainable production and consumption, technological development, and the negative effects of climate change.