African governments must not allow rapid urbanization and industrialization to infringe on the few remaining wetlands on the continent, the African Coalition of Communities Responsive to Climate Change (ACCRCC) has urged.
Working through and with communities, national CSOs, and partners, the ACCRCC report dwindling and polluted wetlands around most of Africa.
“We are seeing some governments and local authorities hiving off wetlands and issuing title deeds for investments. As things stand now, our communities are exposed to the loss of ecosystem services derived from wetlands,” said Dr Rosalid Nkirote a member of the Executive Advisory Board at the ACCRCC.
From Tanzania, Gabon, and DR Congo, to Somalia, Djibouti, and Mozambique, coastal wetlands suffer from the cutting of aquatic, Illegal, and improper fishing practices, the establishment of housing, and commercial activities.
Wetlands in such cities as Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Nairobi or Djibouti suffer from pollution by domestic sewage, industrial effluent, and agrochemicals.
Many governments have also opted to hive off wetland areas for development activities, including dam construction, coastal development, mining, and quarrying.
In addition, there is cutting of vegetation leading to over-cultivation or overgrazing by pastoralists and farmers.
Dr Nkirote urged governments to devise land use plans, including human population, settlement and livelihoods, and environmental conservation to improve the governance of the wetlands.
The ACCRCC however lauded efforts being undertaken by such governments as Uganda, which has gone out of its way to involve communities in the management of wetlands. Recently, the Ministry of water and environment has urged the public to get more involved in environmental conservation by reporting all acts of degradation.
Lucy Iyango, a Commissioner in Uganda’s Water and Environment ministry says the government has realized that it can achieve so much mileage in reducing the degradation of wetlands in several parts of the country by working with communities.
She said wetlands function as natural sponges that trap and slowly release surface water. “Trees, root mats and other wetland vegetation slow the speed of flood waters and distribute them more slowly over the floodplain. When someone builds homes around the wetlands, it is risking neighbours’ homes to suffer from flooding when it rains,” she said.
According to Dr Nkirote, sustainable wetlands could minimize the impacts of flooding on property and infrastructure, given the precarious position Africa finds itself in the context of climate change.
The ACCRCC has said its work with communities around many African countries has recorded many rural communities crying for State intervention. “Communities are seeing some States giving away their wetlands and allowing unplanned settlements and expansion of farming areas. This is dangerous as it exposes us to greater loss and damage when it floods,” she said.
The Ramsar Convention of 1971 defines wetlands as areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish, including areas of marine water, depth at which low tide does not exceed six meters.
Wetlands areas tend to have soil moisture higher than the surrounding uplands. They help to reduce sediment loads in surface water bodies, recharge groundwater, and are home to a wide range of biodiversity.
According to the UNEP, nearly 90% of the world’s wetlands have been degraded since the 1700s, and we are losing wetlands three times faster than forests.
Yet, wetlands are critically important ecosystems that contribute to biodiversity, climate mitigation and adaptation, freshwater availability, world economies, and more.
According to the words of Dr. Musonda Mumba, Secretary General, the Convention on Wetlands wetlands are a major source of rural productivity by providing fisheries, wet ground for farming, and pasture that is vital during dry seasons, preventing resource conflicts. They are one of the world’s most important environmental assets, containing a disproportionately high number of plants and animal species compared to other ecosystems in the world.
African wetlands are rich in offering ecological, social, and economic benefits in biodiversity, especially for housing birds that form an important tourist attraction in the region. But although wetlands are being managed through multi-sectoral laws and policies, they have continued to be degraded.
World Wetlands Day, celebrated annually on 2 February and aims to raise global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and the planet.
This day also marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar and it is an ideal time to increase people’s understanding of these critically important ecosystems.