For 41 years now, environmental groups or organizations from different parts of the world, celebrate World Wetlands Day every February 2. The Philippines, recognizing as well the ecological value of wetlands, the government in 1999 issued Proclamation No. 74, declaring February 2 as National Wetlands Day.
This year’s celebration of Wetlands Day in the country was marked by back-to-back environmental successes. First, the adoption by 65 governments of the Manila Declaration on Furthering the Implementation of the Global Programme of Action (GPA) for the Protection of the Marine Environment at the recently concluded Global Conference on Land-Ocean Connections (GLOC) and the 3rd Intergovernmental Review Meeting (IGR-3) on the implementation of the GPA. Barely two days later, the Puerto Princesa Underground River or PPUR in Palawan was officially proclaimed as one of the world’s New Seven Wonders of Nature.
With the double success of sorts for our wetlands in particular, and the marine environment in general, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon J. P. Paje then enjoined Filipinos to “take pride for taking the lead in the global effort to protect wetland areas not only for the economic benefits they provide but also the ecological service we are now enjoying, and which we want the next generations to also enjoy.”
Wetlands – benefits and threats
Wetlands are areas permanently or seasonally saturated by water, whether fresh, brackish or salty. They support certain types of vegetation with the ability to survive in saturated soil conditions. The ecological benefits from wetlands all stem from its basic function: to conserve and preserve water, which is essential for the survival of almost all living things.
Wetlands can be either natural (lakes, rivers, mangroves, swamps, marshes) or man-made (fish ponds, reservoirs, irrigated rice paddies). They serve as water purification systems; regulate water flow and precipitation and act as flood control systems; stabilize and protect the shoreline; and serve as reservoirs for biodiversity resources. They also help in climate change mitigation by acting as carbon sinks, and in adaptation by storing and regulating water.
Threats to wetlands are largely caused by human activities. Draining, regulating or diverting natural water flow; conversion for agriculture or aquaculture (e.g., fishponds); over-utilization of mangrove resources; urban development and pollution from land-based activities continue to be the largest threats to wetlands. These areas provide habitat to extremely diverse floral and faunal species. Too much encroachment on these areas from unsustainable tourism or recreational activities may also lead to disturbance of wildlife or damage to the ecosystem.
Weeds, pest animals and macroalgae or phytoplankton may also threaten wetland habitats and species by dominating or competing with them.
Although wetlands have the ability to adapt to changing conditions, an accelerated rate of change in climate also has a profound effect on wetlands and the biodiversity therein. Rising sea levels may lead to increased salinity. Higher temperatures and reduced rainfall may lead to drought and fires. On the other hand, increased rainfall may lead to soil erosion.
The Ramsar Convention
Governments all over the world have recognized the important role of wetlands in the environment. On February 2, 1971, 18 nations adopted the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance in the city of Ramsar in Iran, following concern on the rate of destruction of wetlands particularly in Europe. There are currently 160 contracting parties, including the Philippines, and they meet every three years for a “Conference of Parties.” The Ramsar Convention provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
Parties joining the Convention are obliged to designate at least one wetland site within their territory for inclusion in a “List of Wetlands of International Importance,” following a certain criteria. To date, there are a total of 1,995 sites in the list, covering a total surface area of 192,078,656 hectares.
In the Philippines, there are four sites officially recognized by Ramsar: the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Cebu; the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park in Palawan; the Naujan Lake National Park in Oriental Mindoro; and the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Northeastern Mindanao. The country is also set to nominate the PPUR as an additional site when the Convention holds its Conference of Parties in July 2012 in Bucharest, Romania.
Tourism in Wetlands
For 2012, World Wetlands Day has for its theme, “Wetlands and Tourism”, to focus on the close relationship of the two sectors. Wetlands bring enormous economic benefit to man in that they constitute a big part of tourism and other recreational activities, such as bird watching, swimming and boating. This leads to economic activity that translates to livelihood and income for surrounding communities.
This year’s theme also highlighted the need to maintain sustainable tourism practices so as not to adversely impact the ecosystem – the very essence of ecotourism. These include land use, policy-making, development of infrastructure and other economic activities within and around the wetland. It also urged tourists to be more aware of the benefits of wetlands to biodiversity, and determine which short- or long-term activities or practices can contribute to wetland conservation and health.
The theme was particularly relevant to the Philippines after its recent environmental successes. During the GLOC and IGR-3, tourism was identified as a key sector whose impacts and opportunities were found to be closely interlinked with coastal and wetland areas, along with the marine environment. Also, the PPUR national park, which includes inland and coastal wetland ecosystems, has been a magnet to both foreign and local tourists whose numbers have been steadily increasing.
Wetlands in the Philippines
The DENR, through its Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB), is the lead agency in overseeing the management of wetlands in the Philippines. It is joined by other agencies such as the Laguna Lake Development Authority, the Forest Management Bureau, the agricultural department’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the academe, and non-government organizations.
Along with coral reefs, sea grass beds, mangrove forests, the PAWB counts 216 lakes; 22 major marshes, swamps and reservoirs; and 421 principal rivers spread out around the country, all of which are covered by different laws. Among these laws are:
Wetland conservation efforts are underway to implement these laws. The DENR provides support policies and facilitates the preparation and implementation of sustainable management plans that will be doable for all participating stakeholders. Among its major initiatives are:
- The Revised Forestry Code (Presidential Decree 705) – for mangroves
- Fisheries Development Decree of 1975 (PD 704) – for marine resources and swampy areas
- Marine Pollution Decree (PD 600) and National policy to stop marine dumping (PD 979)
- National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act (Republic Act 7586)
- Philippine Clean Water Act (RA 9275)
PAWB Director Theresa Mundita Lim described wetlands as among the world’s most productive environments. Hence, she said, wetland management should be a collaborative-cooperative-consultative action among all stakeholders.
- Assessment, mapping and management planning of priority wetlands, especially those within key biodiversity areas and which may later be designated as protected areas under the NIPAS Act;
- Active partnership with local government units (LGUs) and other government agencies in implementing the Philippine Component of the ASEAN Peatland Forests Project. Interventions include rehabilitating degraded peatlands in the Leyte Sab-a basin, and the protection of a stunted peat swamp forest in Agusan Marsh;
- Honoring significant accomplishments and best management practices of of individuals, organizations and LGUs with the Philippine Wetlands Conservation Award;
- Updating of the National Wetland Action Plan for the Philippines (NWAPP) to form part of the Philippine Development Plan for 2011-2016;
- Adoption of the Integrated Coastal Ecosystems or ridge-to-reef approach which enables a multi-stakeholder, collaborative and integral approach to managing inland wetlands and coastal and marine environments.
Sources: PAWB; Ramsar.org; Wikipedia
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