Purpose and issues
The Ramsar Convention is unusual in that it concerns one particular ecosystem: wetlands. Since 1961, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was the driving force behind a geographical and ecological inventory of wetlands that studied the migration patterns and habitats of waterfowl. A second inventory, of peat lands, was also carried out in the same conditions. A decade later saw the signing of the Ramsar Convention. The Convention’s mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.
Wetlands provide fundamental ecosystem services, regulate hydrological regimes and foster biodiversity (the diversity of species, the gene pool, and ecosystems). They also constitute a very valuable scientific, cultural, economic and recreational resource. Finally, they play an important role in adaptation to and lessening of the effects of climate change. Yet wetlands have suffered heavy losses over the past thirty years, amounting to 50% of their surface area.
Article 1-1 of the Ramsar Convention offers a broad definition of wetlands: “marsh, fen, peat land or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres”. In addition to these areas, however, article 2-1 adds that Parties to the Convention may “incorporate riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six metres at low tide lying within the wetlands, especially where these have importance as waterfowl habitat”.
The Contracting Parties shall:
– strive for the wise use of their wetlands through territorial planning, appropriate policies and regulations, management, and raising of public awareness;
– designate suitable wetlands for inclusion in a List of Wetlands of International Importance, and ensure their proper management; and
– cooperate at the international level, especially concerning transboundary wetlands.
Effects and application
To date, some 1,757 Ramsar sites covering 161 million hectares have been designated. However, the 9th Conference of the Parties in Kampala, Uganda (2005), painted a contrasting report of the Convention. At the mid-point of its strategic plan (2003-2008), only 8% of stated goals had been achieved by the contracting States. France, on the other hand, has designated 24 Ramsar sites covering 828,000 hectares (including 3 covering 216,000 hectares in overseas departments). Two other sites are in the process of being designated (the Upper Rhine floodplain and the Grand Barachois Lagoon in Saint Pierre & Miquelon).
On the whole, the Ramsar Convention can be applauded for the way its scope has broadened. Originally, its main mission was the protection of waterfowl, whereas today it addresses wetlands management, since the preservation of vital water resources is crucial for both wildlife and human life. The Convention does not encourage banning water use or isolating certain areas. Rather, it advocates wise use of wetlands; national policies implementing the Convention generally reflect that approach. Thanks to an effective secretariat and a network of experts, the Ramsar Convention has contributed to public awareness regarding the importance of wetlands. While not having the authority to prevent destruction of wetlands, the Convention backs international endeavours in the face of threats (one example being the 2007 protests against a proposed highway project threatening a Mediterranean wetland zone in the El Kala Biosphere Reserve, Algeria).
The Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP) gathers every three years and adopts policies and directives concerning the application of the Convention. Between COP sessions, the Standing Committee (made up of Parties representing the planet’s 6 Ramsar regions) meets annually to orient the Convention’s application. The Convention also has a Scientific and Technical Review Panel that provides guidance on important Ramsar issues. The Secretariat manages daily matters pertaining to the Convention. World Wetlands Day takes place every year on 2 February.
At the national level, each Party designates an administrative authority to act as correspondent responsible for application of the Convention. The Party States are also encouraged to set up National Wetland Committees representing all government sectors responsible for water resources, reserves, biodiversity, and tourism. NGOs and the public are also encouraged to get involved. In France, a government National Wetlands Action Plan and a national research program were implemented in 1995. The Wetlands Plan was complemented by the creation of a National Wetlands Observatory piloted by the Institut Français de l’Environnement and by six relay poles. These bodies are responsible for stimulating and supporting local initiatives promoting sustainable management of wetlands.