Wetlands matter

Pakistan should move away from solely using a hard-engineering approach for controlling floods and, instead,consider soft-engineering approaches like the creation of wetlands

When we look at some of the pressing questions we face today, most of those point to the issue of water. Availability of water remains central to the growing population of the country, water quality and quantity being one of the important issues. Public health also depends on access to clean drinking water. Food production, preserving biodiversity; and mitigating climate crises, all come back to the question of availability of water bodies in the country.

In the current climatic conditions that continue to be buffeted by climate change crises and climate-induced migration at unprecedented rates, wetlands can be the silver bullet against some calamities, providing a safe-haven to the human population, animals and plants.

In the past, wetlands which include marshes, peat lands, flooded forests, and mangroves, were widely considered unproductive wastelands full of disease and danger. The only good wetland was a drained wetland. No wonder the world has lost its natural wetlands at an alarming rate. We have lost 87 percent of our wetlands in the past 300 years, and 35 percent since 1970, due to agricultural practices, urban and industrial development, pollution, and over-exploitation; all of which still contribute to the ongoing degradation of wetlands.

Today, they are disappearing faster than any other ecosystem – three times faster than even forests. As they vanish, so does the life within them. More than 25 percent of wetland plants and animals – which comprise upto 40 percent of the world’s species – are at risk of extinction, and stocks of other remaining species are depleting rapidly.

Like all other environmental problems there’s no single solution for the protection of wetlands. The Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, provides guidance on the wise use of wetlands. “Wise use” was a highly progressive term coined by the Convention’s founders in 1973, long before sustainable development was mainstream, and continues to be useful today. The central idea behind wise use is that all the benefits wetlands provide must be considered and incorporated when people make decisions that affect them.

Unfortunately, the “wise use” of these wetlands when translated into Pakistan’s context resulted in unsustainable exploitation and increased levels of industrial and urban effluent discharge into the aquatic environment. A signatory to the Ramsar Convention since 1976, Pakistan has only been able to list 19 Ramsar wetland sites, covering an area of 1,343,627 hectares, out of the Convention’s 1,283 sites which now cover a surface area of 108,751,595 hectares.

As an agrarian economy, managing river systems through a growing system of wetlands could have helped Pakistan manage the menacing floods, dealt with droughts, created engines for a green economy, as well as helped mitigate greenhouse gas emissions more effectively and more cheaply.

In East Africa, researchers have worked with communities to develop approaches to help sustainably manage wetlands in a way that improves food security and enhances livelihoods, a step on the way towards wise use.

With Pakistan fast approaching the scarcity threshold of water, what is even more disturbing is that groundwater supplies — the last resort of water supply — are rapidly depleting. In these conditions, the fundamental importance of wetlands of cleaning, storing and recharging ground water supply multiplies. At a time when one in three people worldwide lacks access to safe drinking water, and water-related conflicts are on the rise, protecting these ecosystems will eventually save lives.

The implications of this trend are sobering, given that wetlands were supposed to be our most valuable ecosystem from the high mountain lakes up in the north to the marshes and mangroves in the Indus delta region. Economically, wetlands are estimated to provide $47 trillion worth of services annually and a livelihood for about one billion people.

Examples of ways to facilitate wise use of wetlands include a few examples, such as Colombo. The capital of Sri Lanka recognised that wetlands helped prevent flooding and therefore prioritised the protection of these urban spaces for flood defence and other benefits.

In India, guidelines have been developed on the preservation of wetlands to protect the role they play in the provision of food, fish, and other goods to many poor communities.

Similarly, in East Africa, researchers have worked with communities to develop approaches to help sustainably manage wetlands in a way that improves food security and enhances livelihoods, a step on the way towards wise use. Wetlands are also among the planet’s most effective carbon sinks, and thus play a central role in climate regulation. That is why countries like Scotland and Denmark have embarked on large-scale peatland restoration, with positive knock-on effects for wildlife.

But, despite clear evidence of beneficial impacts, wetlands are largely sidelined in national policymaking. A recent study published by Springer in 2019 – The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment (authored by 210 scientists from 22 countries), warns that these water towers could lose between one-third and two-thirds of their ice fields by 2100.

According to Hassan Abbas, an expert in hydrology and water resources, “Pakistan’s rivers will initially have more water in the drier summer months due to higher glacial melting until 2050-60, and thereafter much less; the wetter months, however, will see bigger and heavier clouds that would bring more water in the rivers; and, with more energy in the system, the frequency and severity of the extreme events, longer droughts and heavier flooding, would increase.”

According to the Ramsar Convention, Pakistan has the potential of maintaining an additional 15 wetland sites on the eastern and western banks of the river Indus. According to a Ramsar Advisory Mission to Pakistan in 2013, the government should move away from the paradigm of solely using a hard-engineering approach to controlling flood and instead, take an integrated approach and also consider soft-engineering approaches (creation of wetlands). This would include managing floodplains and using or restoring lakes and ponds for flood water storage, and the replanting of riverine forests to slow the speed of flood waters. There is a need to take the traditional approach of looking at the annual floods as a blessing and to maximise benefits.

The writer is freelance contributor based in Lahore.

Controlling floods in Pakistan: Soft-engineering approaches like the creation of wetlands should be considered