Sadly, not many people understand the importance of wetlands. They think these areas are just wastelands that have to be repurposed into something “beneficial”.

It’s appalling to see wetlands being converted into commercial spaces or industrial buildings. For me, it’s like leading humanity to perdition the merry way. But, I’m not one who would just sit back and passively look at the destruction of these ecosystems. I would rather try to take this marshy issue clear. Having said this, may I lay down the roles of wetlands.

What exactly are wetlands?

Contrary to what some people believe, wetlands are ecosystems. They are land areas that are high in biodiversity. These lands may either be seasonally or permanently covered by shallow water. You can find them everywhere and in varied sizes. And you may call it by different names, such as:

● Coastal wetlands. These include the estuaries, coral reefs, lagoons, mangroves, and saltwater marshes.
● Inland wetlands may refer to billabongs, fens, lakes, marshes, ponds, rivers, swamps, and other similar land areas.
● Fishponds and rice paddies are classified as wetlands, too.

A salt pan, which can be found in some regions, are also considered as a man-made wetland.

All these forms of wetlands are equally important ecosystems for some logical reasons. Here’s how:

  1. Wetlands protect us from the impure and polluted water. To a few privileged sectors, the scarcity of clean drinking water may still be a remote idea. But for many people across the globe, it’s already a clear reality. Truth is, most of our sources of clean water are polluted. Harmful chemicals, pesticides, silt, nitrates, and other elements contaminate them. But, thanks to nature! It has its way of purifying our waters through the wetlands. Wetlands have the ability to improve the general condition of our drainage basins. They trap the sediments and remove the pollutants carried by the water from upstream. How do they do this? As soon as the water passes through a wetland, the bacteria found in its soil break down the impurities, clearing the water going downstream.

  2. Wetlands provide us with fresh water. Each person needs between 20 and 50 liters of water every day - for drinking, personal sanitation, and cooking. We usually draw our sources of water from streams, lakes, or rivers. Since the impurities that may have been carried by these bodies of waters are filtered out by the freshwater wetlands, we get a better water quality. Wetlands also help replenish our groundwater aquifers.

  3. Wetlands are natural shock absorbers. The wetlands along riverbanks absorb the excess water from the river when it overflows. The tree roots and other vegetation control the speed of flood water. And they distribute the excess water evenly over the floodplains. The wide surface pools that the wetlands create from the excess water eventually become a buffer against long dry spell or drought.

The coastal wetlands, on the other hand, have the ability to reduce the height and speed of storm surges. Its tree roots are strong enough to protect the shorelines and resist erosion caused by the waves and wind. And not only the shorelines do they save. Wetlands also protect the people and their properties in the coastal areas from natural disasters.

  1. Wetlands are carbon sinks. The wetlands’ soil, algal activity, and dense vegetation efficiently absorb carbon and control the anaerobic decomposition. This decomposition process generates methane and nitrous oxide. Thus, keeping the greenhouse gases away from the earth’s atmosphere and slowing down the effects of global warming.

Compared with the forests, wetlands have the better ability to store carbon. According to the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel, wetlands occupy only 9% of the earth’s land surface. And yet, they store an estimated 35% of terrestrial carbon. While all the forests in the world, even if you combine together all the boreal, temperate, and tropical systems, store only around 31% of carbon in the biomass.

Sadly, studies have found that many of the world’s wetlands have been filled in, drained, and re-purposed. And the quality of the existing ecosystems continues to decline. When we destroy our wetlands, a substantial amount of greenhouse gases is released into the atmosphere. Thus, compromising the wetlands’ ability to serve its purpose to the communities around them, to say the least.

  1. Wetlands are seats of biological diversity. Thousands of wildlife species depend on wetlands. Their number even keep on increasing all the time. Amphibians, birds, crustaceans, reptiles, and many other organisms head to the wetlands for food and shelter. Birds fly to them for breeding and migration. While fish and shellfish use the marshy lands for spawning and feeding. Wetlands provide the varied species nutrients and water, especially during droughts and hot seasons. Most of these ecosystems are even home to endemic species.

  2. Wetlands are sources of food for humans, animals, and insects. Wetlands guarantee our food supply - like rice and fish, among many other staples. Billions of people across the globe eat rice. They mostly depend on the varieties that grow on wetland paddies. Likewise, since wetlands are home to many species of fish, they can readily supply man’s needs. Studies show that humans eat more than 20 kilograms of fish each year.

And of course, other creatures like, insects, get their sources of nourishment from these ecosystems.

  1. Wetlands are sources of livelihood. Sustainably managed wetlands provide a lot of livelihood and useful materials to mankind. In fact, over 600 million people across the globe earn their living from aquaculture and fishing on these ecosystems. Wetlands can supply timber for building, vegetable oil, medicinal plants, and other stuff. The leaves and stems of trees can be made fodders for animals, handicrafts, or for weaving.

In Uganda, for example, the locals turn to the wetlands for varied reasons:
a. water for domestic use and for their livestock
b. food. They get their supply of fish, vegetables, yams, and wild geese from these ecosystems.
c. medicine
d. dry season agriculture. The water in wetlands sustains their crops
e. building materials
f. raw materials for handicrafts

Having said all these, I hope that, as inhabitants of the Earth, we become more conscious and responsible for the wetlands around us. Let’s not allow these ecosystems be drained, filled in, and repurposed for agriculture or commercial structures. Please be vigilant and report to the authorities when you notice violations against the wetlands and other environmental laws.