A Blue Recovery

We want the new normal to be a recovered natural world, for people and wildlife. Placing wetlands at the heart of our plans will help us get there.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was facing a climate crisis, a nature crisis and an emerging wellbeing crisis. These crises are driven partly by the loss of habitats including wetlands; England alone has lost around 90% of its freshwater wetlands in the past 500 years.

These wetlands are incredibly important to our declining biodiversity, but they’re more than just homes for wildlife or beautiful places to enjoy. They also function as critical sources of ‘natural capital’, the stocks of natural assets ranging from water to all living things, that underpin our economy and wellbeing. We are depleting these natural resources at a rate faster than they can replenish.

Yet we have a precious opportunity to build back better. This is why WWT support a 'green recovery' that protects public health, rebuilds the economy and repairs our environment.

But we want to go one step further and propose a ‘blue recovery’ too: by creating 100,000 hectares of wetlands to function as vital blue infrastructure that renews local communities and builds our resilience for future challenges.

100,000ha is a big and ambitious figure - but it needs to be if we are to meet the challenges we face. It is also a credible one, recommended to the UK Government by its own advisers, the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), as part of a Nature Recovery Network: a national network of 500,000 hectares of additional wildlife habitat, that lies at the heart of their 25 Year Environment Plan. The Committee notes the benefits costs ratio of such wetland creation can be as high as 9:1.

A carbon storage network, creating coastal wetlands to absorb and store carbon

Proposal 1 - A carbon storage network

We have only a decade left to limit global warming to a maximum safe limit of 1.5°C. The UK is legally committed to bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 however, we are not on track to meet this. In 2021 we can help address climate change through the use of nature-based solutions. Wetlands – particularly peatlands, saltmarshes, mangroves and seagrass beds – play a key role in limiting the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

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Saltmarsh creation such as at WWT’s reserve on the Steart Peninsula in Somerset, stores more carbon, more quickly than other terrestrial ecosystems.

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The science is clear. Wetlands are the most effective carbon sinks on our planet.

Martha Rojas Urrego, Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, January 2019

A flood protection network, creating wetland features to reduce the risk of flooding

Proposal 2 – A natural flood protection network

Climate change is significantly increasing the severity of extreme rainfall events and flood risk is now one of the UK’s top climate change risks. The Government has prioritised the creation of flood defences, however traditional ‘hard engineering’ can only go so far in addressing this new reality.

Natural flood management works with the landscape to hold water in the uplands and slow its flow downstream, with the added benefit of creating wildlife habitat. There is significant potential to increase the use of these wetlands so that they play an important role in the UK’s future flood defences.

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WWT’s Government-backed project in West Somerset demonstrates how natural flood management interventions are a proven, effective and low-cost way to help reduce flood risk.

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Storms Ciara and Dennis – and communities that have suffered repeated flooding events in recent years – have highlighted to me the importance of making nature’s power part of the solutions we urgently need to tackle the challenge of flooding.

Environment Secretary Rt Hon George Eustice MP, February 2020

An urban wellbeing network, creating accessible wetlands to improve wellbeing

Proposal 3 – An urban wellbeing network

Spending time in blue spaces - such as WWT’s - can be even more beneficial for your wellbeing than being in green spaces. The Government aims to connect more people with green and blue spaces in their everyday lives to improve their wellbeing, however, access to such spaces is very unequal, with some ethic groups and low-income families particularly disadvantaged.

Wetlands can provide blue spaces that are especially beneficial to wellbeing, helping people to adopt healthy and more sustainable behaviour (e.g. active travel), inducing positive mood and reducing stress.

We’re working with local communities to create beautiful urban wetland sanctuaries for people and wildlife, like restoring the Salt Hill Stream in Slough.

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We know that a blue environment can be as good or even better for you than a green one: living near or visiting the coast, rivers and lakes increases people’s reported levels of mental health and wellbeing.

Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive, Environment Agency, September 2020

A water treatment network, creating wetlands to restore biodiversity

Proposal 4 – A water treatment network

The world faces a biodiversity crisis. Freshwater species and the wetlands they depend upon are being lost at an alarming rate. The UK is committed to improving water quality, however current targets are highly likely to be missed.

By removing nutrients, pesticides, sediment and pollutants, wetlands help restore water bodies. They’re versatile and can perform a range of functions from treating sewage, stormwater and agricultural waste to handling landfill leachate, mine drainage and road runoff.

WWT have been creating treatment wetlands for a wide range of purposes for 30 years. They include our Five Acre wetland at WWT Slimbridge, treating water affected by sources ranging from agriculture to industry. These wetlands remove up to 10% of total phosphorous, 60% of ammonia and 40% of nitrate.

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The EA's latest water body classification results showed that 16% of waters overall and 14% of rivers are at 'good' ecological status… more needs to be done and we need to go further and faster.

Rebecca Pow MP, Environment Minister, September 2020

How we can secure a Blue Recovery

Process

WWT are experts in wetland creation. We work in the UK and overseas – on the ground and via global professional networks – to lead efforts. We are doing this through:

  • Delivery: Restoring and creating wetlands
  • Capacity building: Supporting organisations and individuals to create wetlands
  • Community engagement: Helping local people value and look after their wetlands

Partnership

We will create as many hectares as we can ourselves as well as support others through capacity training and community engagement. 100,000 hectares of wetlands is a big figure – we cannot achieve this alone. We want to work in partnership with everyone across Government, business and wider civil society. Whether you wish to protect your livelihood, improve your neighbourhood or enhance your quality of life, we want to work with you.

Policy

To create 100,000ha wetlands, we must secure a policy framework. We want to work with the UK Government, devolved administrations and local authorities. We can help them develop and adopt the policies and plans that will provide the information, strategic approach and funding mechanisms people need to create and benefit from wetlands in their communities.

Full Report

Four Blue Infrastructure Proposals for the UK's Recovery

For more detail on each of these proposals.

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Join us, and together we can secure nature's future.

Our Policy & Advocacy team work to further WWT’s priorities in the UK and internationally in support of WWT’s conservation programmes.

For further detail on our four proposals please contact Tom Fewins, Head of Policy & Advocacy, WWT via email at tom.fewins@wwt.org.uk