Life interlaced with wetlands and people

Wetlands and Human Well-being!

Prepared by Dr. Rahanna Juman,

Deputy Director / Wetlands Ecologist

Institute of Marine Affairs

Wetlands and people have been intricately connected throughout human history. Human well-being is irrevocably tied to the state of the world’s wetlands. For thousands of years, people have established settlements near wetlands for access to fish, shipping and trade, establishing tourism, freshwater for crops and livestock and other food sources. Wetlands are considered the Earth’s kidneys as their silt-rich soil and plants naturally filter and store freshwater, on which human existence relies.

 

Wetlands helped support the development of civilised communities in the inundated and fertile floodplain environments of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates Rivers, and played a major role in supporting large populations of people in Asia and humid areas of the world via rice production in lowlands. Evidence of rice cultivation dates to the earliest age of humans, long before the era of historical records, and rice was the staple food and the first cultivated crop in Asia (Grist, 1975).

 

Today, wetlands remain central to food security. More than half of the world relies on wetland-grown produce for their staple diet and more than 1 billion people worldwide rely on fish from wetlands as their primary source of protein. Moreover, according to a study by Walker et. al (2022), they contribute an estimated US $42 billion dollars to global fisheries, and rice paddies feed 3.5 billion people annually (www.ramsar.org). About 1 in 8 people (more than 1 billion worldwide) make their livelihoods from wetlands in ways that also deliver food, water supplies, transport and leisure.

 

Wetlands remain our most valuable ecosystem, contributing unrivalled services for climate mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity and human health worth more than US $47.4 trillion dollars a year according to a 2019 publication of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

 

Here in Trinidad and Tobago, our coasts were once lined with large mangrove trees supported by massive, entangled roots teeming with wildlife –a familiar setting where our grandfathers and fathers hunted crabs to put in the Sunday callaloo, and harvested oysters that were sold in spicy sauce around the Queen Parks Savannah. Back then, we did not fully understand nor appreciate the importance of these coastal forests, so as much as 50 % were cleared to build houses, businesses and ports.

 

Similarly, our nearshore west coast was covered by extensive seagrass meadows that provided homes for diverse species including starfishes, urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs, conchs and many fishes including sea horses, and nurseries for commercial species such as snappers, grunts and shrimp, but they are all gone. As we reclaimed lands to build cities, ports and industries, we buried these precious resources. Today, the very sparse seagrass areas that remain are subjected to land–based pollution and sedimentation.

 

In Tobago, the magnificent coral reefs which form the natural infrastructure for the tourism sector, are being degraded due to land-based pollution, unsustainable harvesting, and marine invasives such as the lionfish. This makes the reefs more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change such as ocean acidification, coral bleaching and diseases.

 

As coastlines erode, frequent coastal flooding occurs and fisheries resources become depleted which is reflected in higher prices in the markets. Policy makers and planners are now realising the importance of wetlands and must therefore take steps to revive and restore these precious resources.

 

We are all dependent on these life-sustaining ecosystems, however they must be healthy if they are to continue to provide us with water and food, support biodiversity, provide livelihoods, protect against extreme weather events, and mitigate against climate change.

 

As Trinidad and Tobago joins the rest of the world to commemorate World Wetlands Day on February 2nd we are reminded by the Ramsar Convention with these three main messages which we must internalise and act on now to conserve our wetlands -

  • Investing in the sustainable use of wetlands means investing in the future of humanity.
  • Wetlands can provide cities and their residents with multiple economic, social and cultural benefits that support human wellbeing.
  • Wetland restoration is essential to overcoming the climate-biodiversity crisis and to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals for the benefit of all people.

 

Join the IMA, as we work towards providing the science we need to sustainably manage our wetlands so they can provide their multiple benefits to current and future generations. IMA continues to monitor wetlands throughout Trinidad and Tobago, and has partnered with private sector to help rehabilitated degraded coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove forests through community engagement.