February 2nd is World Wetlands Day. Here, Geography Lecturer Dr Alan Dixon tells us about the importance of wetlands and how recent research in Malawi is developing new ways of sustaining their benefits for future generations…
What have wetlands ever done for us?
A wetland is an ecosystem that is flooded by water. The area might be permanently flooded or flood seasonally. Throughout history wetlands have received a bad press due to their association with diseases such as malaria, cholera or schistosomiasis. This has often been used as a rationale for their drainage and conversion to sites better suited to industrialisation, agriculture and economic development.
Recent estimates suggest that around 60% of the world’s wetland have been lost since 1900, and in response to these losses many global conservation organisations have worked diligently over the last 50 years to protect wetlands and their rich biodiversity.
Over the last two decades, however, debates about wetlands have moved beyond the rather polarised thinking that pits people and society against nature and the environment, and towards greater recognition that wetlands can sustain multiple societal and environmental benefits that support each other.
Many wetland academics and policy-makers have drawn on the concept of ‘ecosystem services’ to showcase how wetlands can regulate climate and hydrological (water) systems, reduce flooding, store carbon, and provide food, water and cultural services for people. Developing ways of managing wetlands that balance these ecosystem services is increasingly seen as key to delivering sustainable development and a win-win outcome for both people and the environment.
Big challenges for people and wetlands in Africa
Nowhere is this need more pressing than in Africa, where wetlands account for around 16 per cent of the continent’s total area and have, for millennia, directly supported the livelihoods of poor people in marginal areas.
While evidence suggests that in many parts of Africa wetlands have been used sustainably by people for generations, pressures on wetlands have increased significantly in recent years. This is largely as a result of inappropriate government policies that have failed to recognise their multiple benefits, but also due to population pressure and environmental change.
The effects of climate change are already being felt by the poor and vulnerable across sub-Saharan Africa, and in the coming years it is likely that wetlands will assume an even greater importance for people and environmental systems. Without action to address these growing pressures, the loss of wetland ecosystem services could spell disaster for those whose livelihoods depend on them.
What can be done?
Here at the University of Worcester we have been working closely with local communities and non-governmental organisations in several sub-Saharan African countries to explore how wetlands can be managed in a sustainable manner for the future. Our focus has been on local people themselves and understanding how local knowledge and community-based grassroots organisations can be enhanced to build positive adjustments (called "adaptive capacity") in wetland management. This ensures that communities can become resilient and self-sufficient, and not dependent on external assistance to fulfil their livelihood needs.
In our recent three-year study of the Kankhulukulu catchment in northern Malawi we worked with a group of 20 farmers to find out how they used wetlands but also, critically, how they wanted to improve their wetland-based livelihoods for the future. Among other things, we found that farmers understood the linkages between different wetland ecosystem services, and the need for sensitive resource use in the wetland and catchment. With this in mind, we supported farmers in developing and implementing environmentally friendly agriculture techniques and soil and water conservation measures. We also helped farmers establish their own monitoring systems, community byelaws, a village bank, and a knowledge-sharing scheme that facilitated visits to other wetland communities.
By the end of the project most of the farmers taking part felt they had significantly enhanced their livelihoods through the acquisition of skills, knowledge, wider social networking and finance, and that this had resulted in them having more food and income, as well as becoming more resilient to social and environmental shocks and pressures. This was all achieved without any negative environmental impact or loss of wetland ecosystem services. It was also achieved through the actions of farmers themselves; our role was merely to bring people together and facilitate this process.
This approach to wetlands and their management isn’t really rocket science; rather it combines and applies ideas, concepts and knowledge from a range of different disciplines and field practice. Community-based natural resource management, participatory action research and sustainable livelihood approaches, for instance, have been a mainstay of international development for many year. The concepts of the two forms of environmental planning: catchment management and integrated watershed management date back to the 1980s. Yet, it seems that within the field of wetland management itself, divided ideas have hindered the emergence of more holistic ways of thinking about and managing wetlands. We need to move on from this. The global environmental challenges we face are increasingly complex, non-linear and interconnected, and they demand inter- and transdisciplinary solutions that consider environment-society inter-relationships at different scales with multiple stakeholders. As our research has shown, albeit on a small scale, this route offers significant potential to achieve sustainable development.
If you’d like to read more about our recent wetlands research in northern Malawi click here.
Dr Alan Dixon is a Principal Lecturer in Geography and teaches on our BSc Geography and BA Human Geography courses. Each year Alan takes geography students on a two-week residential Malawi Field Course where they have the opportunity to talk to farmers and learn first-hand about wetlands and livelihoods.