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12 key ecosystem services, 12 conservation actions
The wetlands of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) are a global resource. They provide habitat for migratory birds from as far away as Siberia, support rich agricultural and wild biodiversity, and provide key services for communities, both upstream and downstream – from flood control, to nutrient and sediment retention, to regional weather regulation.
Wetlands are transitional ecosystems between terrestrial and aquatic habitats. Given their ability to dilute and filter contaminants before they reach larger water bodies and the integral roles they play in the hydrological and chemical cycles, they are sometimes referred to as “the world’s kidneys”.
Wetlands face multiple stresses – from pollution to over-extraction of resources to environmental change, including changes in land use and climate change. Historically, communities as well as governments have tended to underestimate their significance, and large areas have been drained for agriculture, pastoralism, and forestry.
As we celebrate World Wetlands Day 2022, let us take a moment to consider the wetlands of the HKH in light of the ecosystem services they provide. A better understanding of these ecosystems can helps us see how closely we are all connected to them.
For each of the 12 ecosystem services we receive from our wetlands, we can take protective and restorative actions that can help ensure their longevity. If we act now, our wetlands can continue to provide us the services they always have and benefit humanity, now and in the future.
Being at the interface of land and water, wetlands are the most productive and dynamic ecosystems on earth, providing habitats to a wide range of flora and fauna. They host a diversity of bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, fish, and invertebrate species. Wetlands are specifically important for water birds, migratory birds, and fishes.
What we can do: Know our wetlands and increase our level of awareness on the values and benefits of wetlands
Wetlands moderate fresh water supply by purifying surface water and groundwater recharge. They also include points through which groundwater discharge may surface on land, such as springs. Wetlands are a source for water used for multiple purposes: irrigation, navigation, and drinking, among others.
What we can do: Promote integrated water resource management
Often referred to as a “biological supermarket”, wetlands support a diverse food chain. Wetlands are productive areas and key contributors of food resource. They supply the global population with a broad range of wild and cultivated food sources such as fish, molluscs, and crustaceans as well as plants – rice, a range of leafy vegetables and fruits. Rice grown in wetland paddy fields is the staple diet of mountain communities. Additionally, wetland soils support range of medicinal plants.
What we can do: Promote wise use of wetland resources respecting local knowledge
As “the kidneys of the world”, wetlands act as sinks for greenhouse gases. They store carbon within their plant communities and soil, thus regulating local and regional temperature, precipitation, and other weather patterns. Wetlands play a significant role in moderating global climate conditions.
What we can do: Include wetland management in all sectoral plans, programmes, and policies that aim to mitigate climate change and improve adaptation
Wetlands are reservoirs of water resources. Their capacity to store and hold water safeguards against drought and recharges aquifers. They are a nature-based solution for sustainable water management. In terms of improving water security, wetlands play a much bigger role than any other ecosystem. They regulate both the quality and quantity of water and contribute immensely to water security.
What we can do: Proactively monitor, maintain, manage, and restore wetland resources
Wetlands acts as buffers and slowly filter surface runoff rainwater while recharging groundwater to maintain the hydrological cycle. The roots of wetland plants bind and remove as much as 90% of sediments present in runoff or streamflow, thereby improving water quality. Wetlands also provide special functions such as the removal of pollutants from surface water and chemical detoxification.
What we can do: Ensure that we do not pollute water bodies and that waste is not diverted to wetlands
Wetlands have enormous capacity to store carbon. Peatlands alone store more than twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. Carbon sequestration in wetland ecosystems is an important service that benefits humans greatly through the mitigation of climate change. For instance, Ruoergai marshes in China store 750 million tons of carbon. This is 7.5 times the annual fossil fuel emissions of the transportation sector of China.
What we can do: Invest in long-term monitoring and evaluation of wetlands and improve the scientific knowledge base
Wetlands provide habitat for a large number of pollinators and serve as mediums for the dispersal of seeds and pollens, and areas for breeding. Research indicates a positive correlation between pollinators and the health of natural landscapes. The loss of wetlands could significantly affect pollinators, hindering regeneration and growth of plant and animal populations, including posing risks to apiculture – a major means of livelihood of HKH mountain communities
What we can do: Document biodiversity from wetlands and raise public awareness of their conservation and protection
Wetlands are important ecosystems when it comes to nutrient cycling. Wetlands’ microbes, plants, and animals perform this valuable ecological function and regulate nutrients and minerals in the water. They transform and change the mobility of nutrients and the biological availability of growth-promoting and, when in deficit, growth-limiting chemical substances. Wetlands effectively attenuate minerals such as sulphur and phosphorus. Wetland plants are able to take excess nutrients from the environment and convert them into less harmful forms and, overtime, recycle the nutrients
What we can do: Invest in science to better understand wetland ecology, functions, and services
Wetlands function as natural sponges that trap and slowly release surface water, rain, snowmelt, groundwater, and flood waters. Trees, root mats, and other wetland vegetation also slow the speed of flood waters and distribute them more slowly over the floodplains. The combined water storage provided by vegetation and wetlands provides a braking action that lowers flood height and reduces erosion. The holding capacity of wetlands helps control floods and prevents water logging of crops.
What we can do: Strengthen policy and programmes to restore wetlands with a focus on recognizing their role in disaster mitigation
For many indigenous communities, their spirituality is often directly tied to wetlands. Mainstream religious institutions have also traditionally tended to construct places of worship in and around wetlands. Wetland flora and fauna are considered auspicious and pure and are part of many religious practices. One can find several oral traditions, songs, chants, and stories based on wetlands. They can be found in high-altitude wetland areas such as Gokyo in Nepal, Lake Manasarovar in the Kailash region, and Band-e-Amir in Afghanistan, all of which are considered sacred.
What we can do: Raise public awareness of the cultural value of wetlands and link to our culture and traditions
Wetlands are interesting ecosystems for education and research. They are equally well known as recreation sites supporting a range of tourist activities including hiking, rafting, fishing, bird watching, photography, and hunting. Hot springs are also well known as healing places. Nature-based tourism built around wetlands can support the livelihoods of many mountain communities and provide economic opportunities.
What we can do: Practice responsible tourism and ensure that natural wetlands habitats are not degraded by tourism infrastructure