By Serge R. Nakouzi*

Role of wetlands in safeguarding food security

February 3, 2017 - 17:0

On the 2nd of February 1971, the international Convention on Wetlands was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar. As we commemorate today the forty-sixth anniversary of the adoption of the convention, it is noteworthy that the wetlands in the country which first drew global attention to the need to safeguard these important geographic land areas harboring distinct ecosystems, are facing unprecedented challenges.

At a time when climatic changes are having severe adverse impacts on the environment and on natural resources, rising temperatures and continued reduction of groundwater, coupled with the man-made activities, are contributing to the draining and loss of these areas. The peril caused to wetlands is becoming ever more acute and its ramifications are being increasingly felt on both the environment and its biological diversity heritage. The characteristic vegetation of aquatic plants adapted to the unique hydric soil of wetlands as well as the biodiversity in both the animal and plant life sheltered in these areas are being endangered by the often rapid depletion of wetlands. Nature is being deprived of the essential roles played by wetlands in fostering and enriching the environment, notably in terms of  water purification, flood control, carbon sink and shoreline stability. These reflections on the environmental degradation resulting from the dwindling of these vital land areas tend to overshadow our primary thoughts when considering the effects and consequences of the sapping of wetlands. However, a consequence that is not commonly attributed sufficient reflection is the critical role played by the wetlands in food production.

Throughout the history of man’s interaction with nature, wetlands have provided a nurturing and fertile habitat for cultivating essential crops for their staple food requirements. These areas have enabled people to grow rice and secondary crops, such as maize, cassava, soybean, sweet potatoes and peanuts.

Increasingly cognizant of the challenge of striking an appropriate balance between conservation and sustainable use of natural resources especially in endangered wetlands, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) identified “Sustainable management of land, water and genetic resources and improved responses to global environment challenges affecting food and agriculture” as one of the eight pillars of its 2010-2019 Strategic Framework. 

The potential contribution of wetland or inland valley resources to food security is vast and varied. Mobilizing this potential depends largely on people's ability to understand and wisely use the many interactions (social, physical, hydrological, chemical and biological) which ultimately determine the functions of a wetland. Agro-technology development and transfer can effectively benefit the sustainable utilization of wetlands only if these resources are appropriately characterized and classified for different uses.

Information gathered from hundreds of projects and programmes implemented by FAO and its partners over the past decade has furnished an in-depth understanding of the correlation between food production, use of natural resources as well as the preservation of a diversity of ecosystems and such needs as energy. The rich base of lessons learned from such activities have not only underscored the need of striking an appropriate balance in optimizing the equilibrium between natural resources and the enhancing of productivity in the quest of attaining food security, but they have also allowed for the forging of best practices in this respect. 

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) had identified agriculture as the major cause of wetland degradation and loss. Consequently, scoping Agriculture–wetland interactions (AWIs) became crucial as rising demand for food production exacerbated pressures on wetlands. As highlighted by the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (CA) that was conducted in the recent past, pressures on wetlands will undoubtedly increase, with the prospect of serious loss of wetlands and their ecosystem services. Acknowledging that wetlands provide essential ecosystem services for the functioning of river basins, the maintaining of ecological flows and the sustainability of agricultural production, FAO and partnering institutions have worked on the formulation of a sustainable multiple-response strategy to address this challenge whilst pursuing the quest to end global hunger and ensure food security for all. 

The adoption of the multi-response strategy is a reflection in itself of the complexity in redressing the challenge faced by depleting wetlands and the interdependence of the issues that lie at the root cause of such environmental degradations. The pursuit of integrated intervention programmes is indispensable if a sustainable solution is to be realized.

We in Iran are but too well aware of the significant adversities resulting from the degradation of the country’s wetlands.  We should strive to apply  multi-faceted and a range of complementary Sustainable Land Management (SLM) technologies and approaches in wetland areas not only to safeguard the nation’s precious natural resources but also to maintain its achieved national level of food security. 

*The FAO Representative to Iran and to ECO

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