Wetlands are precious.
They soak up floodwater and provide freshwater, store huge amounts of carbon globally, provide food and jobs, and at least 126,000 species rely on freshwater ecosystems beyond the simple need for water itself.
Yet according to the IUCN Red List, 27% of assessed wetland species are faced with extinction worldwide. Pollution, habitat loss and climate breakdown are among the perils facing wetlands and the wildlife dependent on them.
Enter the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the international agreement to protect wetlands, which is 50 years old this year.
During the 1960’s, several nature conservation organisations and governments recognised that an international treaty was essential to protect wetlands. The driving force was the International Wildfowl Research Bureau (IWRB), now called Wetlands International, and it took 8 years for a Convention text to be agreed by international governments and scientists. WWT contributed by documenting the benefits of wetlands in the leaflet "Liquid Assets".
In 1969, Professor Geoffrey Matthews, head of research at WWT, was elected Director of IWRB, and so the headquarters of IWRB moved from the Camargue to be hosted by WWT at Slimbridge, where it remained until 1997, although the two organisations were quite separate.
Everything was ready to go, but a country had to be found to host the conference. In June 1969, the Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Director of the Game and Fish Department for Iran, Eskandar Firouz, visited, and when Geoffrey explained the problem of a venue, over a cup of coffee in the library, the Minister said straight off:
"Well, in that case, Iran invites you".
So the all important convention took place at the coastal resort of Ramsar on the Caspian Sea on 2 February 1971, and it is why this, the first global conservation treaty, is informally named The Ramsar Convention.
There were no global conventions on biodiversity conservation before Ramsar, and it has pioneered international processes and ways of working subsequently adopted by later conventions (such as those on trade in endangered species and on migratory species). As well as its critical importance for wetlands themselves, the treaty has been enormously influential for environmental conservation more widely.
Australia’s Cobourg Peninsula, a tidal and freshwater wetland in the Northern Territory, was the first site to be added as a country to Ramsar's list of internationally important wetlands, in 1974.
The UK adopted the convention two years later, designating 12 wetlands as it joined.
Within 30 years the convention had:
Today there are more than 2,400 Ramsar wetlands covering more than 2.5 million square kilometres – the world’s largest network of protected areas. The convention has been adopted by 171 countries.
The United Kingdom, including the Overseas Territories, now has 175 Ramsar sites, more than any other nation (although some are very small). Seven WWT reserves form part of a Ramsar wetland.
WWT is one of just six international organisations worldwide formally supporting Ramsar to promote the benefits of wetlands, carry out research, improve protections and wetland use. We are helping to turn high-level policy making into on-the-ground conservation through Ramsar’s CEPA programme (Communication, Education, Participation and Awareness). This programme delivers wetland projects in the UK and overseas, by offering technical advice and input.
Among Ramsar initiatives promoted by WWT is World Wetlands Day, a global celebration of all-things wetland held on 2 February each year.
The day showcases the benefits of wetlands and, crucially, the contribution they can make to tackling the climate crisis, saving species and improving human health and wellbeing.
Wetlands have huge economic value: Ramsar estimates that damage to wetlands annually costs more than US$20 trillion (about £14 trillion) in lost benefits.
‘Before the pandemic in 2020 we faced related and escalating crises – climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and our deteriorating wellbeing,’ says James Robinson, Director of Conservation at WWT.
‘These crises are interlinked, and at the heart of them is our loss of connection to the natural world.’
‘The Ramsar Convention is more important now than ever before and we, as a partner, must continue to raise the profile of wetlands, designate and protect more wetlands, and encourage the wise-use principles so that generations to come can benefit.’
The Global Wetland Outlook is a landmark report from Ramsar, published in 2018 to document the global extent of wetlands. The results are a stark reminder of the importance of the world’s only treaty for the protection of its wetlands.