Why a green recovery needs a blue recovery at its heart

This post is by Tom Fewins, head of policy & advocacy at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT).

Here’s a question for you: what does ‘Ramsar’ stand for?

While some may see it as shorthand for the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, it is actually named after a place. The Iranian city of Ramsar sits on the shores of the Caspian Sea, where this multilateral agreement was first signed; this year the Ramsar Convention marks its 50th anniversary.

Today, over 170 countries are signed up to the convention, with more than 2,300 wetlands around the world, some 200 million hectares, designated as Ramsar sites. The UK leads the world, in numbers at least, with 175 Ramsar sites. But this sounds better than it is: the truth is many of our historic wetlands have disappeared, with England alone losing around 90 per cent of its freshwater wetlands over the past 500 years.

The wetlands that remain face serious pressures, be it unsustainable development, pollution, climate change or any number of other causes. This is not only bad news for the curlews, cranes and other species that depend upon wetlands to live and breed; it is bad news for us all. Wetlands are critical sources of ‘natural capital’, the stocks of natural assets, ranging from water to the living things they sustain, that underpin our economy and wellbeing; earlier this month the government backed Dasgupta Review highlighted that we are depleting this capital faster than it can naturally replenish. And wetland loss is a factor contributing to the climate, nature and wellbeing crises we were facing before Covid-19 hit, a pandemic which has its roots in habitat destruction.

Wetlands are a sound investment
We now have a precious opportunity to change course and build back better in a way that protects public health, rebuilds the economy and repairs our environment. At WWT we are proposing that the green recovery promised by the prime minister needs a ‘blue recovery’ at its heart, creating 100,000 hectares of wetlands (as recommended by the Natural Capital Committee) across the country, to restore these natural assets, replenish our natural capital and renew local communities.

Such wetlands function as blue infrastructure that provides many essential benefits. Ramsar’s 2018 Global wetland outlook notes that:

“Wetlands act as a source and purifier of water, they protect us from floods, droughts and other disasters, they provide food and livelihoods to millions of people, they support rich biodiversity, and they store more carbon than any other ecosystem. Yet, the value of wetlands remains largely unrecognised by policy and decision-makers”.

A blue recovery would mean creating wetlands that provide such benefits, from majestic saltmarshes that store carbon, to ponds and leaky dams that reduce flood risk; from urban rain gardens that boost your wellbeing to treatment wetlands that restore life to water bodies. These are exactly the kind of nature-based solutions envisaged in the government’s 25 year environment plan. A hundred thousand hectares of new wetland would not only constitute a significant chunk of the new Nature Recovery Network at the heart of this plan, but it would also be a sound investment, providing a benefits to costs ratio estimated by the Natural Capital Committee to be as high as 9:1.

Three steps to a blue recovery
Past wetland restoration and creation has been ad hoc and piecemeal. We propose scaling up action with a more strategic approach to unlock much more of the potential that wetlands have to offer society. This means three things:

1. A clear process for wetland creation
Successful wetland creation rests upon combining practical conservation work with capacity building and community engagement.

Capacity building means more people can create wetlands themselves. We want to share WWT’s specialist knowledge and experience, to provide the training, advice and other forms of support required.

Community engagement must ensure the people who live and work near wetlands can value them into the future. That means meaningful consultation so that communities can help to shape their local environment, education and awareness programmes to build understanding, and volunteering and employment opportunities to support livelihoods into the future.

2. Effective partnerships
A hundred thousand hectares of wetlands is a big figure which no single organisation can deliver. Partnerships are needed to make it happen. From national and devolved governments to local authorities, from businesses to civil society bodies, everyone can play a part in securing a blue recovery.

2. A supportive policy framework
Creating new wetlands at this scale needs a supportive policy framework to drive the integration of wetland creation into government and businesses’ plans and this needs three elements in place.

First, there needs to be adequate information for effective decision making. This includes data about the location and condition of existing wetlands (including opportunity mapping), comprehensive evidence of the benefits they provide, and guidance about how to restore, create and make use of them.

Second, this must be a strategic approach so that we make the best use of the benefits wetlands can provide. This must include setting clear targets (eg for including new wetlands in urban redevelopment), incorporating wetland creation into existing strategies (eg health, infrastructure) and developing new best practice standards (eg a Wetland Carbon Code – similar to the Woodland Carbon Code – would set assurance standards to help unlock private investment).

Third, adequate funding to make a blue recovery happen. This includes making the most effective use of public funds, be it for agricultural support or levelling up opportunity, as well as encouraging private sector investment through a combination of statutory requirements (eg water company business plans) and financial incentives that stimulate a market in wetland creation.

Fifty years ago, countries came together in recognition of the global importance of wetlands for people and nature. Today, as this recognition grows of the importance of nature-based solutions to the climate, nature and wellbeing crises, wetlands are more important than ever. From our wild and windswept coastlines to our crowded, concrete jungles, we stand to gain so much from putting wetlands back into our lives. We need a blue recovery.

Find out more about WWT’s proposals for a blue recovery: www.wwt.org.uk/bluerecovery

[Image of Lakenheath Fen nature reserve © Katie (cc-by-sa/2.0)]

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