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World Wetlands Day: Why Nurture Nature And Wetlands ?

Today, 02 February is World Wetlands Day. What are wetlands specifically? What role do they play to humanity on the planet? As the entire world commemorate this important day, MPHATSO MARTHA KALEMBA, Principal Environmental Officer, responsible for Biodiversity Conservation in the Department of Environmental Affairs provide insights on the important role wetlands play to support humanity.

What are wetlands?

Wetlands are unique and multi-functional ecosystems with transitional characters between water and land. In Malawi about 20 percent of the territory is covered by wetlands, which provide a wide range of habitats for aquatic and semi-aquatic biodiversity. They contribute significantly to the economy and livelihoods in terms of water supply, fisheries, agriculture, forestry and tourism.

In the dry season, wetlands retain moisture and support a vigorous growth of grasses. This happens when other alternative sources of grass are in short supply, but they provide the fodder for cattle and other livestock.

African Skimmers captured in the Elephant Marsh Wetland in the Lower Shire - Photo by: DNPW

Ecosystem services offered by wetlands

Wetlands provides essential ecosystems services to humanity that we are mostly not even aware about. For instance, they mitigate against flooding, providing a source of water during drought, prevent soil erosion and in cleaning our water. They even help to mitigate climate change by helping absorb and store greenhouse gases which would have gone into the atmosphere.

But even with all these important ecosystem services that they provide. In Malawi, wetlands are critically threatened areas due to agriculture, urbanization, unplanned settlements, and industrial activities. The values which people assign to wetlands are limited which results in the full costs of wetland loss and degradation being ignored. This has made wetlands to be over-exploited and inadequately conserved. They appear to be a free and less economically desirable resource that can be exploited at no cost and whose conservation yields few economic benefits.

Threats to wetlands

However, the consequences of wetland management and mismanagement affect all sectors of society and development. For instance, there have been floods in recent years in urban areas such as Lilongwe and particularly in areas of Mtandire, Kawale, Areas 47 and 49. These flash flood could have been avoided if wetlands, which essentially are key in slowing down run off water had not been encroached and converted to human settlements.

On a different note, unsustainable cultivation in wetlands has also led to removal of vegetation which is a habitat for different fauna and flora. This has increased cases of soil erosion thereby causing siltation of rivers leading to flooding during heavy rains which in turn affects aquatic ecosystems. Wetlands have been found to be easily irrigable areas and ideal locations for establishing farm fields. However, this has been done without consideration of their fragility and what type of transformation they can withstand without collapsing.

NO LIFE : Boats abandoned after Lake Chilwa partial drying in 2018 economic livelihoods came to a standstill

It would be far more advisable for the agricultural sector to invest in extracting higher yields from lands already under cultivation. This is ideal than enhancing the radical alteration of wetlands without much knowledge on the type of transformations that specific wetlands could withstand.

The agriculture sector has greatly benefited from wetlands and they need to do more to ensure the resilience of wetland ecosystems. The survival of an ecosystem depends on whether or not activities being undertaken enhance or reduce resilience. When resilience is enhanced, a system readily absorbed shocks and has capacity to learn and adapt to the changes. On the other hand, reduced resilience does not prepare a system to respond to changes and hence has a greater negative impact and disturbance of social, economic and environmental activities of an area.

Reduced resilience increases the vulnerability of a system to smaller disturbances that it could previously cope with. This is the case with most of the remaining wetlands in the country and in their new state the benefits that they can offer to communities are being diminished.

It is time for communities to come together and work with our local councils in the conservation and preservation of our wetlands. Considering that restoring a system to its previous state can be complex, expensive, and sometimes impossible, we need to treat wetland conservation as a matter of urgency before they reach a point of collapse.

Nurturing wetlands for posterity

It is time for communities to come together and work with our local councils in the conservation and preservation of our wetlands. Considering that restoring a system to its previous state can be complex, expensive, and sometimes impossible, we need to treat wetland conservation as a matter of urgency before they reach a point of collapse.

Fish captured while being dried on an open rack at Kachulu harbour on the shore of Lake Chilwa

Malawi’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan of 2015 – 2025 already proposes the development of a National Wetland Policy as a way forward in a harmonised approach of wetland management in the country.

Considering that wetlands do not have legal protection, policy guidance to ensure their wise use would be highly important. There is also need for citizens to be conscious of the value of wetlands before they are all turned into settlements, offices or cultivation fields.

This year theme “wetland, water and life inseparable” is again reminding us of the collective task we have as humanity. That is to ensure altogether, we conserve these remaining life supporting ecosystems for the greater good of the future generations to come.

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About the Author
Mphatso Martha Kalemba
The author is an external correpondent for AEJ Malawi

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