Wetlands and the Ramsar Convention
Water is the source of life. All organisms contain water and depend on it for survival. Water is crucial for all biodiversity including mankind. In a wide range of ecosystems water is a dominant component.
The Ramsar definition of "wetlands" is a broad one, encompassing not just marshes and lakes, but also coral reefs, peat forests, temporary pools, even underground caves, and all sorts of other systems everywhere from the mountains to the sea, including man-made habitats.
Naturally-functioning wetlands provide a range of under-appreciated benefits and services for people's livelihoods and well-being, including food, fibre, flood protection, water purification and cultural values, as well as water supply. However, these wetlands are often extremely vulnerable. The use of water by people has strongly affected almost all wetlands on Earth. The construction of dams changes the course and ecology of rivers; pollution, water-extraction, development and tourism activities threaten the biodiversity of lakes; fens, mires and bogs are being exploited industrially or converted into agricultural land; and climate change has large implications for many wetland areas.
Wetlands and biodiversity
Wetlands are extremely important for many taxa e.g. fish, terrapins and dragonflies. Waterbirds such as herons, egrets, swans, ducks and geese, and waders, use wetlands during the majority of their lifetime.
At least 12% of all Globally Threatened Birds, (146 species) depend on wetlands. The most important types of wetlands for these birds are lakes and pools; rivers and streams; bogs, marshes and swamps; and coastal lagoons. Due mainly to their importance for large congregations of waterbirds, wetlands make up a high percentage of Important Bird Areas (IBA). 69% of all European IBAs contain wetlands. Of those, 57% include freshwater lakes or ponds, 44% rivers and streams, 19% fens or mires and 13% mudflats and sandflats.
The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention)
The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat, adopted in 1971, entered into force in 1975 and as of August 2006 has 152 Parties. The Convention provides a framework for international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands. Parties are to designate suitable wetlands for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance, to formulate and implement their planning so as to promote the conservation of wetlands included in the List and the wise use of all wetlands in their territory. This also means that the Convention is concerned not just with isolated sites, but the management of the entire catchment of river-basins.
As of August 2006, 1,610 Wetlands of International Importance, totaling 145.2 million hectares, have been designated. For a comprehensive approach to the national implementation of the Convention, many countries have developed National Wetland Policies. For details, see the Ramsar web site.
Nowadays the Convention's activities include everything from groundwater modelling to sustainable fisheries, climate change, disaster mitigation, economic incentives and indigenous culture. But these are not changes to its original scope - they were all in fact already implied by different parts of the original far-sighted text. Hence in recent years Ramsar has been active in a very broad range of policy and technical areas, and it's certainly no longer mainly focused on waterbirds. Nevertheless the bird dimension is still a crucial aspect of its work, partly because birds have huge public appeal, there is a long-established and strong science-base on birds, and they have high ecological indicator value.
BirdLife and the Ramsar Convention
BirdLife International has been working with the Ramsar Convention from its early days, and this is reflected in BirdLife's status as one of the Ramsar International Organisation Partners, with IUCN, Wetlands International, the International Water Management Institute, and WWF being the others. This status carries with it advantages and responsibilities, enabling as it does close contact with the decision-making bodies of the Convention. BirdLife has made many crucial contributions to the development of the Convention over the years and regularly attends and actively contributes to the Conferences of the Parties, the meetings of Ramsar's Standing Committee, as well as Ramsar regional meetings. BirdLife is a key member of the Ramsar Scientific & Technical Review Panel, and has led a number of areas of its work.
The Ramsar Convention has become perhaps the most important global mechanism for BirdLife Partners in their national work. Many Partners have contributed to the designation of IBAs as Wetlands of International Importance in their countries, and many help to monitor these sites. A wide range of birdwatching and awareness-raising activities of BirdLife Partners are centred on wetlands. A number of Partners assist Parties with their implementation of the Convention, for example through participation in National Wetland Committees and in the development of National Wetland Policies.
If you have any further queries about the Convention please contact the responsible government Focal Point/Administrative Authority in your country. A list can be found on the Ramsar web site here.