Wetlands and wellbeing: Balancing the needs for conservation and livelihoods

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The CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains’ long-running webinar series, on the various ways to realize multiple benefits across the water–energy–food–ecosystems nexus, returned in 2024 with a wide-ranging discussion on wetlands. ‘Wetlands and human wellbeing: Perspectives from Asia and Africa’ explored how to best manage wetlands so that they continue to be biodiversity hotspots and provide a a basis for livelihoods.

The webinar was moderated by Dr Matthew McCartney, Research Group Leader in Sustainable Water Infrastructure and Ecosystems at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and NEXUS Gains Lead. He introduced the concept of the ‘wise use’ of wetlands, developed by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which aims to balance wetland development and conservation. “It’s this balance between human wellbeing and environmental protection that is the theme of today’s talks,” he said.

Community best practices in Sri Lanka

The first speaker was Dr Priyanie Amerasinghe, an Emeritus Scientist at IWMI, who first gave an overview of the enormous importance of wetlands. “The ecological services provided by wetlands have been valued at more than USD 47 trillion each year,” she explained. “Wetlands store 20 percent of organic ecosystem carbon, and two-fifths of all species live or breed in wetlands.” However, Dr Amerasinghe also noted that the planet has lost 35 percent of its wetlands since 1970, with rapid urbanization and agricultural expansion some of the biggest causes of this loss.

Dr Amerasinghe then focused on a recent joint project she had worked on with seven partners to increase the biodiversity and livelihood resilience in Colombo’s wetlands. The Sri Lankan capital sits amid the Colombo Wetland Complex: 2,000 hectares of urban rivers, lakes, marshes, and rice paddies that provide both environmental and livelihood benefits. The three-year project aimed to study community wetland practices, promote management best practices, build biodiversity resilience and develop a framework to align community wetland initiatives with government policies.

The project co-developed a set of principles for wetland management in Colombo and a widely used online course on community wetland management. Project staff also ran training workshops on community best practices and gender-sensitive community-led monitoring. In addition, an education programme taught more than 100 schoolchildren about the value of wetlands.

Arguably the project’s most significant output is the co-developed Colombo Wetland Management Framework, which advises the creation of a Colombo Wetland Strategy Committee and multiple Wetland Delivery Boards to ensure best practices are adopted by all communities in the region. “The partners agree with this proposal in principle,” concluded Dr Amerasinghe, “and we are now ready to talk with the Ministry of Environment for endorsement and to move it forward.”

Sustainable wetland management in Zimbabwe

Attendees next heard from Dr Thomas Marambanyika, a Senior Lecturer at Midlands State University, Zimbabwe, who offered a Zimbabwean perspective on these issues. “Wetlands cover about three percent of the country,” he said. “These include floodplains, pans, swamps, and dambos, which are largely seasonal wetlands covered by grass.” In a country dealing with hyperinflation and increasingly frequent droughts, wetlands are an essential source of income and food security for many rural communities.

However, only 21 percent of Zimbabwe’s wetlands are classified as stable. In contrast, 61 percent are moderately degraded and 18 percent are severely degraded. Cultivation is the major threat to wetlands, followed by livestock grazing,” explained Dr Marambanyika. “Some communities are also diverting water away from wetlands or even pumping water from them to irrigate their crops. Increasing agrochemical pollution is also damaging the country’s wetlands.”

Happily, Dr Marambanyika also noted that restrictions on wetland use, introduced in 2002, are producing “a massive shift toward sustainable wetland management.” Looking to the future, he continued, “we need to accompany this with a comprehensive wetland inventory and monitoring service as well as better enforcement and education of existing policies, as awareness and compliance are patchy.”

Stories of success

The third speaker was Dr Chaturangi Wickramaratne, a Researcher and Freshwater Ecologist at IWMI, who provided a global perspective on wetlands with an overview of the Ramsar Convention. Coming into force in 1975 – making it the world’s oldest multilateral environmental agreement – the convention has gradually broadened its scope from conserving wetlands as waterfowl habitats to protecting the environmental, ecological, and cultural dimensions of the planet’s wetlands.

This balance of conservation and sustainable use was echoed by Chandana Kalupahana, Director of Environment and Landscape at Sri Lanka’s Urban Development Authority and one of the webinar’s two panel members. “In Sri Lanka we regard urban wetlands as both very important ecosystems and providers of ecosystem services,” she observed. “So we are working with cities to ensure these wetlands are properly regulated and governed.”

Accounts of successful community management of wetlands, such as those detailed by Ms Kalupahana and Dr Amerasinghe, were welcome news for Zebedee Njisuh, Senior Adviser for Africa at Ramsar and the webinar’s second panel member. “Sometimes at the Ramsar Convention Secretariat we lack these stories, so it’s great to see citizens already promoting systems for the wise use of wetlands. We really need to tell the world about these best practices happening on the ground. That way, when politicians decide about the development of wetlands, they can understand the true value of these environments.”

Didn’t catch the webinar? You can watch it here.

View the presentation by Priyanie Amerasinghe

View the presentation by Thomas Marambanyika

View the presentation by Chaturangi Wickramaratne

You can also catch up on all previous NEXUS Gains Talks on our webinar landing page, with links to watch recordings and download presentations. Subscribe to the NEXUS Gains newsletter to be the first to hear about upcoming webinars.


This work was carried out under the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, which is grateful for the support of CGIAR Trust Fund contributors: www.cgiar.org/funders

Header image: Wetlands in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo by Martin Seemungal/IWMI.

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