News Release

Massive greenhouse gases may be released as destruction, drying of world wetlands worsens: UN

700 leading experts convene at edge of Brazil's vast Pantanal to take stock, offer policy prescription to remedy wetlands crisis

Peer-Reviewed Publication

United Nations University

Leading world scientists convene in Brazil July 21-25 amid growing concern that evaporation and ongoing destruction of world wetlands, which hold a volume of carbon similar to that in the atmosphere today, could cause them to exhale billows of greenhouse gases.

Meeting in the city of Cuiaba on the edge of South America's vast Pantanal, the largest wetland of its kind, some 700 experts from 28 nations at the 8th INTECOL International Wetlands Conference will prescribe measures urgently needed to better understand and manage these vibrant ecosystems, ranked among the planet's most threatened, and slow their decline and loss.

Warming world temperatures are speeding both rates of decomposition of trapped organic material and evaporation, while threatening critical sources of wetlands recharge by melting glaciers and reducing precipitation.

Covering just 6% of Earth's land surface, wetlands (including marshes, peat bogs, swamps, river deltas, mangroves, tundra, lagoons and river floodplains) store 10-20% of its terrestrial carbon. Wetlands slow the decay of organic material trapped and locked away over the ages in low oxygen conditions.

These waterlogged (either seasonally or year-round) areas contain an estimated 771 gigatonnes (771 billion tonnes) of greenhouse gases – both CO2 and more potent methane – an amount in CO2 equivalent comparable to the carbon content of today's atmosphere.

"Humanity in many parts of the world needs a wake-up call to fully appreciate the vital environmental, social and economic services wetlands provide – absorbing and holding carbon, moderating water levels, supporting biodiversity and countless others," says conference co-chair Paulo Teixeira, Co-ordinator of the Cuiaba-based Pantanal Regional Environmental Programme, a joint effort of the United Nations University and Brazil's Federal University of Mato Grasso (UFMT), which will host the event.

Says UN Under Secretary-General Konrad Osterwalder, Rector of UNU: "Too often in the past, people have unwittingly considered wetlands to be problems in need of a solution. Yet wetlands are essential to the planet's health – and with hindsight, the problems in reality have turned out to be the draining of wetlands and other 'solutions' we humans devised."

If the decline of wetlands continues through human and climate change-related causes, scientists fear the release of carbon from these traditional sinks could compound the global warming problem significantly, says Prof. Paulo Speller, Rector of UFMT. Drained tropical swamp forests release an estimated 40 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. Drained peat bogs release some 2.5 to 10 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year.

Adds Prof. Speller: "This landmark conference beside the Pantanal will gather an overview of the status of global wetlands, identify knowledge gaps, create greater collaboration and consistency in wetland science worldwide, and offer a plain-spoken policy prescription for decision makers with an appeal to adopt it with urgency."

German expert Wolfgang Junk says the impact of climate change on wetlands is small so far compared to the damage caused by poor management at the local level.

"Lessening the stress on wetlands caused by pollution and other human assaults will improve their resiliency and represents an important climate change adaptation strategy," he says. "Wetland rehabilitation, meanwhile, represents a viable alternative to artificial flood control and dredging efforts that may be needed to cope with the larger, more frequent floods predicted in a hotter world."

Prof. Junk, of the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology, notes that maintenance of wetlands is much cheaper than rehabilitation and that poorer countries will have fewer means to rehabilitate their wetlands to cope with climate change. Wetland-friendly development alternatives must be elaborated in developing countries, therefore, to minimize losses of their many benefits, he says.

He notes too that while pressure on wetlands in poorer countries has risen dramatically in recent years, they have not suffered nearly as much damage as those in the developed world.

Some 60% of wetlands worldwide – and up to 90% in Europe – have been destroyed in the past 100 years, principally due to drainage for agriculture but also through pollution, dams, canals, groundwater pumping, urban development and peat extraction.

Notwithstanding recent efforts in such countries as Australia and the U.S. (which has lost 50 million of an estimated 90 million hectares of wetlands 500 years ago) to protect wetlands and reverse past damage, at a world scale they continue to shrink.

"Wetlands act as sponges and their role as sources, reservoirs and regulators of water is largely underappreciated by many farmers and others who rely on steady water supplies," says Prof. Junk. "They also cleanse water of organic pollutants, prevent downstream flood inundations, protect riverbanks and seashores from erosion, recycle nutrients and capture sediment."

Typically high in nutrients, wetlands also offer rich habitats for small organisms which feed fish and other water life, which in turn nourish mammals and birds. Many wetlands feature biodiversity comparable to that of rainforests or coral reefs.

Conference organizers say efficient protection of wetlands requires complex, long term management plans that cover their entire catchment areas, often involving agreements between states or countries. These agreements need to cover activities that affect wetlands both directly and indirectly, such as the use of water and soils, development, waste treatment and disposal, but also harmonization of environmental legislation for protection of wetlands and all that lives in them.


For additional conference information:

Background notes:

  • Wetlands along the flood-prone Mississippi once stored 60 days of the river's floodwater; today they can store only 12 days' worth.

  • Around Africa's Lake Victoria, wetlands are so degraded they can no longer filter nitrate and phosphate runoff from surrounding land. The result: eutrophication and an explosive growth of lake-clogging water hyacinth.

  • In Malaysia, 90 percent of freshwater swamps have been drained for rice cultivation.

  • A study of a large wetland in arid northern Nigeria found it yielded an economic benefit in fish, firewood, cattle grazing lands and natural crop irrigation 30 times greater than the yield of water being diverted from the wetland into a costly irrigation project.

  • At US$15 000 per hectare per year, the economic value of flood prevention and other ecological services provided by wetlands is greater than any other ecosystem – seven times that of the next most valuable, tropical rainforests, according to a recent study.

  • The peat bogs of Siberia, North America and Scandinavia contain a third of all carbon in the world's soils. Those in Scotland contain more than 90 percent of the carbon in British soils and forests.

  • The US will spend $700 million over two decades to revive the Florida Everglades. It will include six artificial wetlands ("storm water treatment areas"), to receive and cleanse excess nutrients from neighbouring farm districts.

  • The world's most threatened wetlands include those around the Mediterranean, where for two millennia the population has been draining wetlands and floodplains for agriculture -- and more recently for urban areas, tourist developments, and to eradicate malarial mosquitoes.

  • Both Spain and Greece drained 60 percent of their wetlands in the last century. Pumping of groundwater for agricultural irrigation is drying Spanish wetlands such as the Doñana reserve, one of Europe's top sanctuaries for wintering birds, where the water table is falling one meter every two years.

  • Wetlands constitute an estimated 20% of South America but they are poorly mapped or classified by characteristics.

  • The vast, remote and relatively pristine Pantanal, spanning 160,000 square km, is confronted by increasing development pressure. Its catchment area straddles Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, while Uruguay and Argentina are downstream.

United Nations University
"Sustainable solutions for global problems of today and tomorrow."

Established by the U.N. General Assembly, UNU is an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems. Activities focus mainly on peace and conflict resolution, sustainable development and the use of science and technology to advance human welfare. The University operates a worldwide network of research and post-graduate training centres, with headquarters in Tokyo.

Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso (UFMT)

Established in 1970, the UFMT is a public university, financed by the federal government of Brazil. Located initially in Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state, UFMT has now three more campuses, in Rondonópolis, Médio Araguaia and SINOP. The only federal university in Mato Grosso, UFMT offers courses in all fields of knowledge to more than 18,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

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