Wetlands for Sustainable Livelihoods, Harare’s story

Ken Irvine

Today is World Wetlands Day; the 2016 theme is ‘Wetlands for our Future: Sustainable Livelihoods’. This theme is selected to demonstrate the vital role of wetlands for the future of humanity and specifically their relevance towards achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals.

World Wetlands Day is celebrated every year on 2 February. This day marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Since 1997, the Ramsar Secretariat provides outreach materials to help raise public awareness about the importance and value of wetlands.

Livelihoods from fishing, rice farming, travel, tourism, and water provision all depend on wetlands. And wetlands are vital to us in many other ways. They host a huge variety of life, protect our coastlines, provide natural sponges against river flooding, and store carbon dioxide to regulate climate change.

We all depend on wetlands to supply freshwater for our daily needs, but more than one billion people around the world depend directly on wetlands to earn an income through activities such as fishing, rice growing, selling water, construction, weaving, medicine, transport and tourism. For these people, healthy wetlands are essential for their livelihoods and vital for their wellbeing.

Situation: a vicious circle

Despite all the jobs and other vital benefits that wetlands provide, 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900.

The wetlands that still remain are often so degraded that the people who directly rely on wetlands for their living – often the very poor – are driven into even deeper poverty. In addition, by 2025, it is estimated that 35% of people will directly face declining water supplies. This is the result of a point of view that mistakenly sees wetlands as wasteland.

Solution: a virtuous cycle
Enabling people to make a decent living while ensuring that wetlands will always provide drinkable water, biodiversity, food and their many other benefits, do not have to be conflicting goals. In fact, the new UN Sustainable Development Goals underline that reducing poverty requires us to protect and restore ecosystems such as wetlands.  

Refer to these links for more information on wetlands and World Wetlands Day.

Harare wetlands

Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, has a problem with water supply. Often unavailable, and grossly polluted, it costs millions of dollars a year to treat. Yet, Harare, nestled within a natural wetland has the gift of nature of easy access to plentiful and clean water – as long the source area is protected.

Walking on wetlands near the Central Business District two weeks ago was a reminder that the value of, and the threat to wetlands, is an everyday occurrence. Alas, city development puts increasing pressure on the remaining wetlands that circle the city and lie alongside an expanding suburbia.

Because the wetlands are seasonal, and dry in the winter, some economic interests even dispute their definition as wetlands. But, the reality is that Harare’s water crisis is by and large a self-made one.  It is, however, increasingly understood that by working with the wetlands as part of nature’s natural capital, they can help the city provide its much needed sustainable water supply.

The bit-by-bit erosion of wetlands that serve Harare so well, is a common global story. The piecemeal fragmentation of wetlands is ongoing, a little here and a little there (1), driven by multiple pressures (2) and insufficient understanding of how wetlands can be part of the solution to sustainable water supply, flood relief, mitigation to climate change, and a host of other services.

The global importance of wetlands is highlighted by Sustainable Development Goal 6, Target 6.6 calling for the protection and restoration of water-related ecosystems, including wetlands (3). The Ramsar Convention (4), a global treaty from 1971, now with 169 contracting parties, promotes the Wise Use of Wetlands.

As global needs for water, energy and food production require dramatic increases of efficient use of resources to meet demand, wetlands have an important role to play. We destroy and neglect them at our own risk.


(1) Davidson, N. (2014). How much wetland has the world lost? Long-term and recent trends in global wetland area. Marine and Freshwater Research, dx.doi.org/10.1071/MF14173.

(2) Asselen SV, Verburg PH, Vermaat JE, Janse JH (2013) , Drivers of Wetland Conversion: a Global Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 8(11): e81292.

(3) An excellent overview of the Sustainabale Development Goals.

(4) The Ramsar website.

This article was originally published in UNESCO-IHE and has been republished with authors permission.

Ken Irvine is Chair of Aquatic Ecosystems at UNESCO-IHE

Featured image: Monavale wetlands satellite imagery/source: Ramsar sites information service

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