Today is World Wetlands Day! Every year we celebrate World Wetlands Day to raise global awareness about the high importance of wetlands for people and our planet. The theme of this year, “Wetlands and water”, shines a spotlight on wetlands as a source of freshwater and encourages actions to restore them and stop their loss.
We are facing a growing freshwater crisis that threatens people and our planet. We use more freshwater than nature can replenish, and we are destroying the ecosystem that water and all life depend on most – Wetlands. Water and wetlands are connected in an inseparable co-existence that is vital to life, our wellbeing and the health of our planet.
Just one example of a vital wetland is Barr Al Hikman in Oman, identified by BirdLife as an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) and is a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). Moreover, the site qualifies as internationally important wetland under the criteria of the Ramsar Convention as it regularly supports more than 20,000 waterbirds and/or at least 1% of the individuals of a population of waterbird. Recent surveys show that Barr Al Hikman meets these criteria for no fewer than 18 species.
An estimated 35% of all wetlands globally have been lost since the 1970s, leading to increased risks of extinction for many species.
World Wetland Day history
According to RBC member Mary Matthews “The Americans in the 1930’s were the first to try to persuade the public that wetlands were not wastelands. Europe was slower, but, during the 1960’s, spurred on by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its partner, the International Wildfowl Research Bureau (IWRB) a proposal for an international Convention on Wetlands was established. It took 8 years to develop the convention text. Then a country was needed to host the required conference.
In 1969 Professor Geoffrey Matthews (husband of Mary Matthews, a member of the Rare Bird Club) became Director of IWRB, taking over from Dr Luc Hoffmann in the Camargue, and the organisation moved to The Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, where Geoffrey was Research and Deputy Director. In June of that year, he took the visiting Minister of the Environment of Iran, Eskandar Firouz, who was on a world tour, around the Trust. When the problem of finding a host country was raised, Eskandar instantly issued an invitation.
After much planning, many conferences, major hiccups, especially when the Soviets, usually helpful in this context, invaded Czechoslovakia, and tight negotiations (think Brexit) the conference took place in the town of Ramsar on the Caspian Sea in 1971. On 2nd February, the convention was agreed, and thus 2nd February is now known as World Wetlands Day.
After Geoffrey retired, IWRB moved its headquarters to the Netherlands, where it is now called Wetlands International.
The Ramsar Convention was not only vital to protect wetlands, but it was also ground breaking as the first global conservation treaty. Initially it was agreed by representatives of 18 nations. Now 171 contracting parties have committed to protect 2,414 wetlands of international importance, covering 254,543,972 hectares. The UK has 175 Ramsar sites with a total area of 1,283,040 hectares.
The signing of the Ramsar agreement in 1971
The Indian delegate was one of the first to sign in 1971, Eskandar Firouz on the left, Geoffrey on the right. Last December, India designated its 42nd wetland of international importance, the Tso Kar wetland complex, 4,500 metres above sea level, near Ladakh, so on its 50th anniversary this year, the Ramsar Convention is needed more than ever.
Luc Hoffmann, Eskandar Firouz and Geoffrey Matthews are considered to be its Founding Fathers.”