By: Prof. Edward Debrah Wiafe,
Dean, School of Natural and Environmental Sciences
University of Environment and Sustainable Development,(UESD) Somanya
February 2, every year is marked as World Wetlands Day. It wasinstituted in 1997 to raise awareness about wetlands as critically important ecosystems that contribute to biodiversity, climate mitigation and adaptation, freshwater availability, economies and more. This day also marks the anniversary of the Convention on Wetlands, which was adopted as an international treaty in 1971.
The theme for this year’s celebration is: Wetlands Action for People and Nature. This is a public campaign and an appeal to invest financial, human and political capital to save the world’s wetlands from disappearing and restore those that have been degraded.
Even though wetlands are perceived as useless lands, disease-ridden places, and no man’s land, they are lands that provide ‘value’ that no other ecosystem can. The values include; improvement of quality of natural water, flood protection, shoreline erosion control, opportunities for recreation and aesthetic appreciation and natural products for human use at no cost.
Wetlands provide a wealth of natural products, such as shellfish and other varieties of fish, fruits, timber, rice and some ‘wild’ medicines. Many of the country’s fishing industries are dependent on wetland habitats. For mammals such as; sitatunga, manatees and hippopotamus, reptiles such as alligators and amphibians such as toads and frogs, wetlands are their haven.
Wetlands function as natural sponges that absorb and gradually release surface water runoffs, rain, snowmelt, groundwater, and flood waters. Trees, grasses, and other wetland vegetation also slow the speed of flood waters and distributes them slowly over the floodplain. This combined water storage and braking action lowers flood heights and reduces erosion.
Yet, human activities have had devastating effects on our wetlands. Human activities have caused grave wetland degradation and loss through changing water quality, quantity, direction, and flow rates. Increasing pollutant inputs; and changing species composition as a result of disturbance and the introduction of alien species have been established.
In Ghana, some commonly observed human activities that cause degradation of wetlands are, Hydrologic alterations as a result of deposition of fill material for development and this significantly alters the soil chemistry, plant and animal communities.
Pollutants’deposits, because of high inputs of pollution materials that exceed the capacity of the wetlands to absorbing pollutants from the surface water. In addition, diversion of flow to or from wetlands can result in pollutant runoff into wetlands. The primary pollutants causing wet-land degradation are sediment, fertilizer, human sewage, animal waste, salts, pesticides, and heavy metals.
The sources of pollutants are diverse and they include runoff from urban, agricultural, silvicultural, and mining areas. Others such as landfill sites and refuse dumps leak toxic substances into wetlands.
Loss of wetland areas means that we are likely to lose its related ecological services for human beings; the economic benefits will only be for a special group of people who make profits from filling the wetland and put up businesses or other land use forms. Profound changes would be caused by conversion of wetlands into other land use forms with damage from flooding or other indirect influences.
Wetland loss would result in the destruction of spawning and nursery ground for many marine species, while birds would lose their food and shelter with more disturbed habitats. In addition, the buffer function for pollutant degradation, erosion, and land subsidence would drop, with increased risk from storm and flooding, if we lose our wetlands.
Loss of wetlands imply the loss of biodiversity due to the damage of some critical ecosystem services, such as fishery, nursery habitats, filtering and detoxification services. These further contribute to the decline of water quality and increase of harmful algal blooms, oxygen depletion, and mortality of life under water. Loss of wetlands may result in the invasion of exotic species that appear to enhance productivity, but could not compensate for the services by the native species.
The theme for this year’s celebration of world wetlands day,’ Wetlands Action for People and Nature,’ is urging public campaign to save wetlands from degradation and disappearing. The theme is also an appeal to individuals, government, and Non-Governmental Organizations to invest financial, human and political capital to save the world’s wetlands from disappearing and to restore those that have been degraded. Communities are encouraged to conserve and restore wetlands on their property and support local wetlands and watershed protection initiatives by donating in kind, time, or money.
In addition, citizens must work with their local communities or authourities like the, Assemblies, Municipalities and state agencies to develop laws and ordinances that protect and restore wetlands. As citizens we can avoid wetland alteration or degradation during project construction and maintain wetlands and adjacent buffer strips as open space as well as reducing the amount of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides applied to gardens.
Protecting wetlands can protect our safety and welfare.