Tomorrow, February 2, is World Wetlands Day. In the Philippines, wetlands or lupaing tubig are usually associated only with mangrove areas. The 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands Conservation, however, extended its definition to include rivers, lakes, open coasts, coral reefs, seagrasses, freshwater marshes/swamps, floodplains, peatlands as well as man-made wetlands like rice paddies and fishponds, to mention a few.
Wetlands are among the most valuable ecosystems in the world providing so much benefits to people. Among the values and functions of wetlands are as:
Kidneys of the earth – They purify water and wastes from both natural and human sources by preventing high levels of nutrients from agricultural run-offs such as phosphorous and nitrogen from reaching the groundwater as well as preventing the rapid growth of algae which use up the oxygen in the water that is important for the survival of other wetland species.
Storehouse of genetic materials – Wetlands are habitats for a wide variety of plants, animals and micro-organisms. They are nurseries for numerous fish species and resting and nesting places for migratory birds.
Biological supermarket – It is the source of fish and other protein-loaded aquatic creatures. Wetlands are also the source of fuelwood, timber, materials for utensils and handicrafts of indigenous peoples and even fodder for work animals.
Defense fortifications — Wetlands proved excellent defenses against the onslaught of typhoons and tsunamis as proven by the tsunami generated by an earthquake occurrence in 2004 which reached Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Scientists explained the roots of vegetation that surround Asian mangroves and other forest wetlands helped to hold the sediments in place against the impact of strong winds and waves.
Natural engineering structures – Wetlands are natural dams absorbing heavy rainfalls, preventing floods or slowing down the flow of floodwaters. Most important is the fact that wetlands store water and, therefore, stabilize water supplies.
Sponge for freshwater – Wetlands help recharge groundwater aquifers to satisfy people’s need for drinking and agriculture. More than a billion people in Asia rely on groundwater for drinking while it was reported that in Europe, an estimated 65% of public water originates from groundwater sources.
Treasure trove of cultural heritage – Many wetlands featured in man’s march towards civilization and are now heritage sites and tourists destinations generating much income for the population. Among them are the Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap (Cambodia), Kalang River (Singapore), Inle Lake (Myanmar) and the coastal areas of the island of Mindoro (Philippines).
Be that as it may, wetland loss and degradation is a current concern throughout the world due to natural causes (sea-level rise, drought, earthquakes, typhoons, soil erosion, etc.) and human actions (wetland conversion to other uses, uncontrolled groundwater extraction, poor drainage, etc.). The problem is exacerbated by the fact that wetlands constitute a least priority in the national agenda as shown by inadequate policy and practices, institutional weaknesses and lack of wetlands-related legislation enforcement and implementation.
The prevention of the loss and deterioration of wetlands requires, among others, the promotion of a wetlands policy which includes, but is not limited to, the following: national inventory of wetlands, identification of the benefits and values of wetlands, effective public information, awareness and participation, wise use that ensures sustainable utilization of wetland resources through appropriate and effective regulation.
As a Party to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the Philippines is exerting efforts towards understanding their value and promoting wetlands conservation through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The Society for the Conservation of Philippine Wetlands, Inc. along with university-based NGOs and wetland specific foundations, among them, the Minsupala Development Foundation for the Liguasan Marsh in Maguinadano, Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat in Central Mindanao; Save Nature Society for Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Mactan, Cebu and the Tabuk Islet Marine Park Fish and Bird Sanctuary in Palompon, Leyte; Pipuli Foundation for the Baliangao Wetland Park in Misamis Occidental, ably supports the government in the maintenance of the ecological character of the country’s wetlands.
On the regional level, Ramsar Center Japan (RCJ), an NGO with international membership, periodically sponsors the Asian Wetland Symposium, a Ramsar Convention on Wetlands complementary forum for the discussion of scientific and technical issues for the wise use of wetlands. Thus far, it had successfully undertaken the symposium on best practices and sharing of experiences and recent information on wetlands management in Kushiro (Japan), Penang (Malaysia), Bubhaneswar (India), Hanoi (Vietnam), Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia), Wuxi (China) attended by policy makers, management experts, scientists, economists, planners, activists, members of the academe, environmental lawyers, NGO, CSO, local community and indigenous peoples’ representatives, to mention some of the partcicipants. Under consideration as future sites for the Asian Wetlands Symposium and other capacity-building assistance activities of RCJ are Cambodia, Myanmar, Krgyzstan, Korea, Iran and Japan.
After all, many things are connected to each other through the medium of water. Wetlands are where water meets life. Or, as Filipino students in Qatar sum it all to celebrate World Wetlands Day: “Mangroves today. Green Earth tomorrow”.
Former ambassador Amado S. Tolentino, Jr. is a professor, diplomat and environmental law pioneer.