Much of our increasingly urban world takes access to clean water for granted, viewing it as an inexhaustible resource. Yet today, hundreds of millions of people will go without clean water and one out of three people will not have access to proper sanitation (WHO & UNICEF, 2015). In 2010, more urban dwellers were without access to water services than in 2000 (De Castro Zoratto & Ivins, 2015), and it is estimated that by 2050 the global demand for water will increase by 55% (WWAP, 2015). Meeting basic water needs will continue to be a challenge.

As people have migrated from rural areas to urban centers in hope of jobs and education, cities have expanded outwards and in many cases have degraded the waterways and wetlands that surround them, resulting in polluted water with the worst conditions felt by the poor and disadvantaged. This cycle of expansion and degradation is seen throughout the world, but is particularly striking in some of the least developed countries where informal settlements and slums have sprawled faster than basic services. Nearly 900 million people will live in slums by 2020 (WHO & UN-Habitat, 2010), and in developing countries 90% of sewage is discharged untreated into water bodies (Corcoran et al., 2010). In many of these informal settlements, pollution, and open sewers contaminate water, resulting in disease and deaths. The UN estimates that approximately 3.5 million people die each year as a result of inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene (UN Water, 2013). Further, these populations are often the most vulnerable to natural disasters, food shortages, and the impacts of climate change.

With 60% of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2030 and 70% by 2050 (Lima-Paris Action Agenda, 2015), many cities are now looking at this challenge as an opportunity. For example, at the recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting, a coalition of cities and regions from five continents, representing almost one-fifth of the world’s population, launched a joint vision “to lock new urban expansion into a new development model towards climate-resilient and low-carbon societies at large scale, leap frogging the old patterns of urban life for a growing population" (Lima-Paris Action Agenda, 2015).With a new model of development in mind, more and more cities are turning to a natural solution: restoring wetlands. Wetlands have long been recognized as oases for fish, birds, and wildlife, and many are now protected by the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (also known as the Ramsar Convention). Recent examples and new approaches are also proving their worth as natural infrastructure for cities and urban areas dealing with water quality, water security, and climate change challenges.

Drinking Water and Sanitation

Managing and restoring the natural landscape surrounding a city can provide urban areas with basic services. Wetlands are natural water filters, catching sediment and pollution as water flows through them. As they absorb and slowly release this water they regulate water flow, preventing floods and retaining water during times of drought. A city that incorporates sustainable management of its wetlands therefore has a better starting point from which it can build. While city planning, built infrastructure, and a stronger understanding of social and economic trends are still critical needs, this nature based approach can make a city more resilient and can save money.

For example, the sprawling City of Kampala, Uganda, population 1.5 million, is separated from its drinking water supply in famous Lake Victoria by wetlands that function as a buffer through which much of the city’s industrial and domestic wastewater passes before being discharged into the lake. Up to a third of the enterprises in the industrial area have no treatment facilities, the high-density settlements and slums on the fringes of the city discharge their sewage directly into the wetlands, and partially treated sewage from the city’s treatment plant receives further filtering from the wetlands (IUCN, 2003). While the wetlands have been degraded by development and pollution, studies have shown that the natural water filtration service of the wetlands are so effective and valuable that the city can’t afford to continue allowing the draining and filling of the wetlands for urban development. Continued degradation would put their drinking water at risk and replacing the wetlands with a wastewater treatment facility is beyond the city’s means. As a result, the Uganda Ministry of Water and Environment and Ramsar Regional Centre for Eastern Africa are looking to enhance this natural filtration service by stopping further draining and filling and restoring the wetland’s health.

Flooding and Climate Change Adaptation

The uncertainty of climate change adds an additional challenge for cities. Even today 90% of deaths from natural disasters are water related, and climate change could further exacerbate floods, droughts, and storms (UN Water, 2012). The urban poor and disadvantaged are frequently at greatest risk, as informal settlements and slums are often built on the least desirable land, land that is exposed and prone to flooding. Again, wetlands can serve as an opportunity to restore natural resilience.

The community of Icidua on the outskirts of Quelimane, Mozambique serves as a case in point. Located in the Zambezi River Delta, all of Quelimane is surrounded by wetlands. Icidua has grown up on a slight rise, fringed by abandoned salt production flats that were once mangrove wetlands. In times past, the mangroves provided some protection from weather and floods, as well as food and fuel. While using built infrastructure to better the conditions of the community has proven both economically and logistically challenging, wetland restoration is offering natural infrastructure that may prove more effective. Two projects, one supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Corporation and the Ramsar Convention and another by USAID, are using mangrove restoration to provide a natural buffer against flooding, storm events, and sea level change. Further, the mangroves are being planted in a way that will filter the urban runoff and pollution that is degrading water quality.

Water Security

For the semi-urban and densely populated rural areas of the world, wetlands can provide additional services, particularly for the people largely reliant on the food they grow and gather. Like cities, these peopled places have little room to expand or move to in times of need; a failed crop or the lack of access to fish and wild foods can result in suffering. The natural ability of wetlands to store and regulate water for irrigation while supplying fish, food, building materials and livestock fodder has made them integral to the lives of thousands of people.

For example, the Jagadishpur Wetland in the densely populated lowlands of Nepal supplies water needed for irrigation and domestic use, benefiting 40,000 people. Through a community-based effort and support from Norway and the Ramsar Convention, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is working to ensure the site can effectively provide water for people. Simple steps have already resulted in significant improvements. By supporting constructive dialogue, the project has created a management structure that more effectively plans for irrigation needs while keeping water in the wetland for the fish and plants that people use and depend on. This success has been enhanced by restoring the wetland’s ability to hold water. Faulty irrigation gates have been repaired, allowing for appropriate control of water usage. Invasive species that clog the waterways have been removed, and the water holding capacity has been restored through the removal of sediment from excessive erosion. Further, the local communities have taken advantage of trainings on alternative farming methods that will improve yields and have less effect on the environment.

A similar project in Nepal’s Beeshazaar Lakes, run by the National Trust for Nature Conservation and Nepal Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, has demonstrated an additional value of wetlands by successfully adding jobs to the local economy through wetland tourism, including recreation and wildlife viewing. A new visitor use fee has already raised thousands of dollars that will be used to employ restoration workers and conduct important outreach and education. Nature guides, souvenir craftsman, and restoration workers are now making a living from this sustainable industry.

Realizing the Value of Wetlands

The majority of wetland restoration projects and the majority of funding opportunities for wetland restoration have been focused on fish, wildlife, and biodiversity, but the above examples and countless others are proving the value of wetlands for the services they provide to people. For wetland restoration to be scaled up in a way that significantly contributes to both biodiversity and human wellbeing, the value of wetlands as natural infrastructure must be realized. Recent international agreements and actions have set the stage for a paradigm shift that could promote this new type of wetland restoration project and provide new sources of funding.

In September of 2015, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which includes the United Nations’ goals for addressing poverty, inequity, and injustice. These Sustainable Development Goals bring together diverse sectors around a common vision, and strive to balance three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental (UN General Assembly, 2015). These goals stress the importance of making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, and highlight the role of wetlands and other natural ecosystems in meeting people’s basic needs (UN General Assembly, 2015). In fact, the Ramsar Convention’s “Wetland Extent Index” will be one of the tools used for measuring and monitoring progress (Dixon, et al. 2016).

Similarly, the agreement reached at the recent UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Paris paves the way for increased funding opportunities for nature-based approaches to addressing climate-related challenges in developing countries, and this will likely bring about the increased use of wetland restoration as a way to provide water services and reduce disaster risk. This landmark agreement was coupled with commitment for action that integrates solutions to multiple challenges. For example, the Cities Alliance, UNEP, UN-Habitat, C40, ICLEI and others launched a joint program to strengthen resilience to climate change within the most vulnerable populations (Lima-Paris Action Agenda, 2015), and a broad coalition of nations, river basin organizations, business and others created the Paris Pact on Water and Climate Change Adaptation to, “make water systems – the very foundation of sustainable human development - more resilient to climate impacts (Lima-Paris Action Agenda, 2015b).”

Further, the private sector and local governments are investing in natural infrastructure because it makes business sense. For example, the Water Fund, first used in Latin America by The Nature Conservancy and local partners, is a sophisticated financial tool that couples investment from water-using companies and municipalities to support wetland and watershed restoration projects as a more economic alternative to costly water treatment facilities.

At its 12th Conference of the Parties (COP12), the Ramsar Convention decided to establish a Wetland City accreditation system. Cities which have a productive relationship with their wetlands can apply for this prestigious accreditation. As cities and urban areas continue to grow, these lessons and new opportunities will hopefully allow for wetlands to be valued as a source of water and a tool to meet the needs of developing cities.

This post was written by Rob Cadmus (Ramsar Convention Secretariat), Chris Perceval (The South Pole Group), and Ania Grobicki (Acting Secretary General, Ramsar Convention Secretariat) and first published in Alliance4Water

Literature cited:

Corcoran, E.; Nellemann, C.; Baker, E.; Bos, R.; Osborn, D.; Savelli, H. (eds). 2010.Sick Water? The Central Role of Wastewater Management in Sustainable Development. A Rapid Response Assessment. The Hague, UN-Habitat/UNEP/GRID-Arendal.
De Castro Zoratto, L.; Ivins, C.P. 2015. Government could cheaply encourage citizens to save water by doing this. The World Bank:
Dixon, M.J.R.; Loh, J.; Davidson, N.C.; Beltrame, C.; Freeman, R.; Walpole. M.;Tracking global change in ecosystem area: The Wetland Extent Trends index.Biological Conservation, Volume 193, January 2016, Pages 27–35.
IUCN. 2003. Nakivubo Swamp, Uganda: managing natural wetlands for their ecosystem services.
Lima-Paris Action Agenda. 2015. Press Release: Cities & Regions Launch Major Five-Year Vision to Take Action on Climate Change.
Lima-Paris Action Agenda. 2015b. Press Release: Paris Pact on Water and Climate Change Adaptation Announced.
United Nations General Assembly. 2015. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for
Sustainable Development.
UN Water, 2012. World Water Development Report. 
UN Water, 2013. Water Cooperation 2013: Water Quality Fact Sheet.
WHO and UN-Habitat. 2010. Hidden cities: Unmasking and overcoming health inequities in urban settings.
WHO and UNICEF, 2015. Lack of sanitation for 2.4 billion people is undermining health improvements.
WWAP (United Nations World Water Assessment Programme). 2015. The United Nations World Water Development Report 2015: Water for a Sustainable World. Paris, UNESCO.