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Upstream- Downstream: Wetlands connect us all - 10 February 2009

Every year on the 2nd of February, the world celebrates World Wetlands Day in commemoration of the day when the Convention on Wetlands was signed in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971.

The Convention, now commonly known as the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international collaboration for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and associated natural resources. Apart from advocating for the legal protection of wetland sites of international importance, the convention also provides a forum for networking among wetland users and conservation practitioners. The Convention’s definition and scope of wetland management includes all aspects of wetland conservation and wise use and recognises wetlands as ecosystems that are critically important for biodiversity conservation and for the well-being of local stakeholders.

Each year on World Wetlands Day, government environmental agencies, non-governmental organisations, and concerned individuals take part in activities aimed at raising public awareness on the value and functions of wetlands. The activities include lectures and seminars, nature walks, competitions, wetland clean-up activities, radio and television interviews, media releases and launch of new wetland conservation initiatives.

To ensure a common focus in the celebrations and in recognition of the diversity of types, functions and problems associated with wetlands, World Wetlands Day activities are guided by a theme defined by the Ramsar Secretariat. This year’s theme is Upstream – Downstream: Wetlands connect us all. This theme is meant to highlight the linkages between watersheds and wetlands. It is intended to remind the public that the way in which the watershed is managed has a direct bearing on the health of the wetland downstream. The message being projected is that linkages between the watershed upstream and the wetland downstream extend beyond the biophysical components of the ecosystem to include the socio-economic issues. The theme will present an opportunity for people to take a closer look at the positive and negative interactions among components of a wetland and its watershed.

The expected outcome of this year’s celebrations is that stakeholders will better appreciate that wetlands are an integral part of a system and that wetland management also entails addressing issues outside the physical boundaries of a wetland.

A number of EWT research and conservation projects are aimed at conserving threatened species found in landscapes that are recognised as wetlands by the Ramsar Convention. These include coastal wetlands, riverine wetlands, palustrine wetlands (dams) and palustrine wetlands (marshes). EWT Working Groups like the African Cranes, Wetlands and Communities (in partnership with the International Crane Foundation), South African Crane Working Group and the Marine and Coastal Working Group deal directly with wetland species.

The other working groups, however, also undertake their field activities at sites that lie within watersheds in one way or the other. EWT values community and landowner participation in conservation of biodiversity found in wetlands and watersheds in the same way the Ramsar Convention recognises the vital role that stakeholders play in integrated wetland conservation. World Wetlands Day is one of the few occasions when conservation organisations should think and act alike irrespective of the differences in areas of specialisation.

It is therefore rational that EWT joins other organisations in observing World Wetlands Day and be at the forefront in promoting sustainable stewardship of wetland biodiversity. The celebrations will not only be an opportunity for the different working groups to reflect on what they have in common but will be a time for the organisation to identify partners, market its programmes and learn from others. This year’s World Wetlands Day will probably turn out to be the day when “abusers” of wetlands and watersheds will be persuaded to turn themselves into sustainable users – who knows?

Written by: Osiman Mabhachi
African Cranes Wetlands and Communities Programme
Tel: 011-486-1102 ext. 245
Cell: +27(0) 78 7033169
email: osimanm@ewt.org.za