Wetlands - Underestimated super ecosystems
Inside the fight to save and restore wetlands
Wetland ecosystems are estimated to cover more than 1.28 billion hectares of the Earth’s surface, an area 33 percent larger than the United States and 50 percent larger than Brazil. They are flooded either permanently or seasonally by water, where oxygen-free processes prevail. Wetlands by definition are a diverse assemblage of moist places. They can be permanently or temporarily wet, water can be stagnant or flowing, water content can display various levels of salinity, and they may or may not form peat deposits and sediments.
These lush ecosystems occur in many forms, depending on topography, hydrology, vegetation, and other factors such as human use. They are found in every climatic zone and are of huge ecological importance, guaranteeing critical services such as producing, cleaning, and storing water (and thus minimizing floods), offering food and non-timber products, and preserving biodiversity.
Wetlands are reservoirs for biodiversity: they offer habitats for a wide range of species – often specifically adapted to the individual conditions and under threat when these systems are disturbed. Many species stay in wetlands all their lives and are entirely dependent on them for survival. Other species are dependent only during a segment of their life cycle for temporary stays, occasional feeding or resting. According to the Ramsar Convention, about 100,000 different animal species have so far been identified from the world’s freshwater wetlands alone. Of these, about half are insects and some 20,000 are vertebrates. New discoveries are continually being made.
Intact wetlands for our survival and wellbeing
Intact wetlands often supply food, fodder, fibre and other materials that sustain local economies. By regulating water flows, they help to minimize the risk of floods and droughts and prevent seawater intrusion. In addition, they hold essential eco-archaeological information such as pollen records and historical artefacts. But even more importantly, intact peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store.
Globally, the remaining area of near natural peatland (over 300 million hectares) sequesters 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year and contains more than 600 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 44 percent of all soil carbon.
How does this work? Peatland vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and carbon is stored in peat layers of up to several metres as a result of biological processes.
Understanding the difference
The ‘Ramsar Convention on Wetlands’, adopted in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty that sets the foundation for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
Wetlands are distinguished from other landforms or water bodies by their characteristic vegetation of aquatic plants, adapted to the unique hydric soil. Peatlands are areas with a naturally accumulated peat layer at the surface.
Peat is accumulated material consisting of at least 30 percent dead organic material.
Mires are peatlands where peat is under accumulation. They arise because of incomplete decomposition of organic matter, usually litter and roots from vegetation, due to waterlogging and subsequent anoxia.
Specialized ecosystems under pressure
Wetlands are highly significant for global efforts to combat climate change. Their protection and restoration is therefore considered crucial. Nevertheless, over decades wetlands have been severely overexploited and damaged as a result of drainage, agricultural use, burning and peat mining. The degradation and loss of wetlands and thus inland and coastal wetland species is more rapid than that of other ecosystems.
Population growth and increasing economic development are among the primary indirect drivers of degradation and loss of wetlands. This reduces the capacity of wetlands to mitigate impacts, and particularly affects poorer people in lower-income countries. At the same time, the demand for denitrification and flood and storm protection will increase due to climate change.
"There can be no such thing as a climate-neutral human society if we do not protect each and every intact peatland and restore all of those that have been drained."
Tom Kirschey, NABU Head of International Peatland and Southeast Asia Programme
Disturbed peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, annually releasing almost five percent of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. During drainage, oxygen gets into the peat, leading to aeration and the decomposition of organic matter. As a result, the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (N2O) are emitted into the atmosphere, reversing the function of peatlands: they become a source of greenhouse gases instead of a store. In addition, draining peatlands reduces the quality of drinking water due to pollution from dissolved compounds. Damage to wetlands and peatlands also results in a loss of biodiversity and thus in a general decline of ecosystem services.
Joint efforts: NABU’s work for the conservation and restoration of wetlands
NABU is restoring wetlands and peatlands both in Germany and internationally, in collaboration with research institutions and local communities. In 2011 NABU initiated the German Peatland Protection Fund in alliance with Volkswagen Leasing GmbH, to fund nature conservation and climate projects. More than ten restoration projects have been successfully implemented since then.
In order to upscale restoration to European and international level, the International Peatland Conservation Fund, supported by Volkswagen Financial Services AG, was launched in 2016. When selecting the areas for conservation, NABU strictly follows scientific guidelines. The same applies to the monitoring of biodiversity and the assessment of the greenhouse gas balance of each peatland. Since its launch, the Fund has contributed to projects in Poland and the Baltic States.
Apart from these projects, NABU implements community wetland management, for instance in Ethiopia, in forest-connected wetlands affected by the activities of local communities, such as cattle grazing, briquette production, or agricultural production. Here too, wetlands are mapped and assessed in terms of their ecological status and biodiversity. In consultation with communities, non-use and use zones are identified, and management plans are elaborated. In Ethiopia, NABU has contributed to the conservation of several thousand hectares of wetlands.
This project, which is running until 2027, aims to reduce CO₂ emissions in project sites by the equivalent of 37.117 tons of CO₂ per year in Latvia and 3.500 tons of CO₂ equivalent per year in Finland. NABU is supporting the project with its expertise in peatland restoration and communications. more →
NABU is part of the LIFE Peat Restore project that aims to rewet degraded peatlands covering an area of 5,300 hectares in Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to restore their function as carbon sinks. more →
What Europe needs? Wet peatlands! NABU is part of the international project LIFE Multi Peat that aims to rewet and manage degraded peatlands covering an area of 689 ha. The project is being implemented in Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany. more →
The largest lake in Ethiopia, Lake Tana, is a source of life for 4 million people in the region. Over the course of the last decade, however, the consequences of increased industrialization and development have been posing a threat to this vital water supply. more →