But even as we celebrate we must check our own reflection. UK wetlands are in a parlous state. Only a fifth of our rivers and streams are in good condition, while sensitive habitats like peatlands are burnt and drained to the edge of destruction. This is terrible for wildlife and the environment. Wetlands make up 3% of the UK’s land surface, but support around 10% of our species. So, every time we pollute a river or grant a licence to burn, the damage we do to nature is multiplied. But the consequences are serious for livelihoods here in the UK too. Our connections to wetlands are rarely as direct as in other countries where WWT works, like Cambodia and Vietnam, where a polluted river can mean severe poverty and lost lives.
Nevertheless, protecting and restoring wetlands makes sense for UK society. Though it may not be obvious as we deal with winter flooding, we really are better off wetter. Improved water management brings healthier wildlife, safer communities and millions of pounds of value in “natural wealth” and economic benefit.
In the uplands, restoring peatland helps “sponge up” water, slowing the flow and reducing flooding. It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best answers to flooding is more wetlands. Natural England must urgently review is licensing policies. In our farmland, reducing agricultural pollution that’s choking our rivers would reduce water bills.
This year, Government must spend every possible penny of the Common Agricultural Policy to reward farmers to improve the environment. In our coastland, cleaner water is great for our fishing industry, and managed wetland projects like WWT’s Steart Marshes and RSPB’s Wallasea safeguard communities against rising sea levels. Natural coastal defence should surely be part of the remit of the National Flood Resilience Review. In our cities, wetlands siphon away water as well as improving quality of life.
As the Housing and Planning Bill goes through Parliament, we would be crazy to pave the way for 300,000 new homes a year, without making sustainable drainage a mandatory part of every development. You can find many of these ideas in Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Blueprint for Water.
It’s easy when we look at international deals like Ramsar, the Paris climate agreement, or the Sustainable Development Goals, to pass judgement on the rest of the world, but forget to check our own record.
I hope you’ll join me today in making a splash for World Wetlands Day and that this year policymakers around the world – and here at home – can take that spirit forwards with action to get our wetlands working for people and for wildlife.
Member of the Blueprint for Water Working Group
Head of Government Affairs Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust
Find me on Twitter at @RichardSBenwell
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership
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