Wetlands have long been viewed by human societies as unproductive lands, and as a result huge expanses of wetlands have been dredged and filled all over the world – converted to agriculture or put to other uses. In the last few decades however, the importance of wetlands has gradually become clearer, and as a result, many countries have undertaken a number of measures to try to mitigate or offset the continuing loss of these important freshwater systems.
We came to realize that wetlands provide a valuable flood control function, so we tried to replace natural flood controls by building levees. We found out that wetlands were very effective at filtering and cleaning water, so to help with the ever increasing challenge of decreasing water pollution (often from agricultural runoff from the farms that replaced the wetlands in the first place), we spent hundreds of millions of dollars on water purification plants and expensive remediation measures. We came to understand how biologically productive wetlands are, so we passed laws limiting wetlands destruction, and created requirements that if a wetland had to be drained, developers at least had to offset the loss by creating artificial wetlands.
None of these surrogate measures has proven very effective. Levees fail, often with tragic results. Water purification is hugely expensive. Artificial wetlands are better than nothing, but they will never approach the biological diversity of natural wetlands.
In recent months, we’ve also been hearing more and more about the potentially critical role wetlands play in climate change. We now know that the planet’s remaining wetlands, in particular peatlands, sequester huge amounts of greenhouse gases. In fact there is roughly the same amount of greenhouse gases stored in our planet’s wetlands as there already is in the earth’s atmosphere, leading scientists to label wetlands destruction as a potential “carbon bomb”.
At some point we need to accept the fact that throwing money and technological fixes at the problems we’re creating by degrading wild places is hugely inefficient. Trying to play catch up by mitigating degradation is always going to be a losing strategy, especially as our planet’s population is headed for 9 billion people in coming decades: it’s vastly easier and cheaper to let nature do the job. Do we really want to spend our time scrambling to defuse the next carbon bomb that we hadn’t even anticipated – or is much worse than we ever thought it would be – instead of building towards a more sustainable future?
Unfortunately, this message has not yet been fully understood around the world. In the United States, where we have already destroyed many of our invaluable wetlands resources, we have been struggling for years to put a plan in place to restore one of our nation’s natural treasures, the Everglades in Southern Florida. A complex, multi-billion dollar proposal has been put forward, which shows signs of promise, though it is by no means guaranteed to be accepted by all in its current form, or to successfully bring back the Everglades “river of grass” even if it is. But what is encouraging in the Everglades plan is the implicit acceptance of an absolutely crucial fact: that restoring Florida’s “river of grass” is far more valuable than maintaining almost 200,000 acres of sugar cane production, and then trying to mitigate the huge environmental impacts of that industry.
Sadly, just as news of progress on the Everglades was being reported, we also learned of Kenya’s plans to drain parts of the Tana River wetlands for sugar cane plantations. The conservation community still has a lot of work to do to convince the global community that investing in wilderness and wild places makes much more sense than sitting in fear of the next carbon bomb.
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