Second chance to save Australia's wetlands

Posted 30 October 2008

Professor Max Finlayson

Since Australia signed the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1975 the condition of our wetlands has continued to decline. Many of them have vanished and many others are degraded. This isn't new news. The signs have been here for decades. WWF-Australia highlighted the problems in a national campaign in the 1980s. Scientists and environmental NGOs did likewise in the 1990s. Australia has played a big role in the Convention, we have not been inactive when it comes to debating what is needed, but where is the dividend for our wetlands? Did we misinvest? Did we fail to grasp the opportunities once we left the debating room? Or did we just flaunt the capital or underestimate and not appreciate that wetlands and rivers are valuable and return dividends to society?

By signing the Convention, Australia agreed to look after all its wetlands, not just those listed as internationally important under the Convention. We agreed to conserve and make wise use of ALL our wetlands. It is a big task and we have failed dismally. The evidence abounds whether looking at coastal wetlands or those in the Murray-Darling Basin. The iconic sites such as the Coorong and Lower lakes, the Macquarie Marshes and Barmah-Millewa Forest in the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) are under pressure - great pressure with some staring down the barrel at what is termed 'irreversible ecological change'. We can argue about what that exactly means in scientific terms, but in landscape terms it means we have a mess and may lose these iconic sites and their biodiversity. In financial terms it will cost a lot to reverse the situation, if it is even possible. It is not as simple as just throwing more money at the problem. Even if we are able to address the primary cause, if we change the state of the wetland it may not come back to what it once was; it's been pushed too far while we watched.

We need to look again at how we are managing our wetlands. As part of this we need to look at the ecosystem services wetlands provide to people, both close by and further afield. It is not enough to just look at the biodiversity which is what we usually do. In fact, the existing situation which has mainly focused on a traditional biodiversity approach to conservation has failed. We have undertaken to maintain the ecological character of our wetlands. To do this we need to also maintain the ecosystem services; whether for providing food such as fish, or for timber, or for regulating storm or flood flows or recharging groundwater.

To maintain uses we need to work with the users and those who benefit. At times we will need to make real trade-offs - real decisions about wetland use and beneficiaries and values. As an example, most of our river regulation and flood plain levies have been built without conscious and open consultation with those who have been negatively affected. Ask the landholders downstream of the Queensland water harvesters about consultation and consideration of their needs and livelihoods!

The report Wetlands for Our Future (WFOF), released by the Australian conservation foundation on 22 October, calls for a National Wetland Initiative. This echoes calls by scientists for a truly national wetland authority; an authority that can and will make decisions and cut through the pathetic bleating by various states about rights and wrongs and present a truly national vision and outcomes for OUR future. The report calls for water for wetlands with rapid action, management planning with teeth, support for private wetland managers, and various policy and legislative changes to support such actions. All of this is needed but so is a greater effort on ecosystem services and identification of wider values for society. For this we need better information, not more of the biodiversity and conservation information that we have pursued in the past, but information that enables us to make hard decisions about the values and trade-offs needed in our landscape. We also need processes to ensure those working in the new national initiative use this information and work with landholders and community groups.

A way forward is to move out of our biodiversity or agriculture or water resource 'boxes' and establish an eco-agricultural approach to our agricultural lands and rivers; an approach that is about people, land, water and biodiversity. Our iconic sites can still be set aside but our landscape is more than icons. We need to ensure that ecological issues are inserted into agricultural management and agricultural issues are inserted into conservation management.

If we want proof that the past approaches have not worked the figures provided in the WFOF report make it perfectly clear. Ninety per cent of wetlands in the MDB have disappeared! This seems an extreme claim but even if it is half that amount it is too high. We are running down our future by running down our wetlands and rivers. Our future is ecological, and it's agricultural and it's water, and water means wetlands and rivers. Not only do we need to stop the loss of our wetlands, we need to reverse this trend and support our land and our agriculture and our people in the process. This is a big, national issue.

Further tokenism is too late. In fact it's an insult! And it's dumb when you look at the climate change forecasts. It is time for a change - a national change to get around the blockages we have seen in our constitutionally correct way of managing our national natural resources. We don't need more of the same thinking that caused the problems. ACF/IRN is to be congratulated for bringing this issue to the fore. It's time for the water revolution to spill out further and embrace a national eco-agricultural approach to ensure we recover and maintain the services that we all enjoy from our rivers and wetlands - and many of these are free of charge and not even taxed! The rivers and wetlands belong to all of us and they are valuable - we don't need the holes or the drains - we benefit from the wetlands and the rivers.

The Ramsar Convention is meeting from the 28 October to the 4 November. Can Australia's delegation take this call to the Convention and trumpet Australia's resolve to turn around the situation and despite the drought and global financial crisis establish a truly national initiative? At the Convention there will be talk about a establishing an international mechanism to look at biodiversity and ecosystem services in the same way that climate change has been addressed globally. Can you imagine the bureaucratic wrangling and hand wringing and posturing this could cause? We have pontificated enough and sat by and let our rivers and wetland wither away in front of us. We knew it was happening and let it happen. For once we could get ahead of the game and support this new international process through our own actions, show what we can do and help others at the same time. Wetlands for Our Future has provided the impetus. The opportunity is staring us in the face. We were late, very late, in signing the Kyoto protocol on Climate Change. Can we get out in front and stay there on this one?

This opinion was written in response to the report Wetlands for Our Future released by the Australian Conservation Foundation on 22 October 2008.

Professor Max Finlayson is a senior wetland ecologist and director of Charles Sturt University's Institute for Land, Water and Society.


Charles Sturt University

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