Managing wetlands

Ensuring sustainable use of wetlands
Achieving integrated management of wetland areas

Wetlands are simply lands covered by water. They include a wide range of inland, coastal and marine habitats such as lakes, rivers, swamps, marshlands, estuaries and mangroves. Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems on Earth. They provide many important diverse goods and services such as coastal fisheries, natural flood, storm and erosion control, biodiversity, and water supply. Yet, they have been and are still neglected and undervalued, and suffer environmental degradation from demographic, disease control, and developmental pressure such as development assistance. Activities include draining or reclaiming for agricultural, fishery or industrial purposes and dam and port construction. As a result, the world's wetlands have been reduced by over fifty percent over the last century. Wetland loss continues despite the existence in most countries of institutions responsible for their management. There is, however, a growing awareness that wetlands are more valuable in their natural or quasi-modified state and need to be managed accordingly. Well managed, these productive ecosystems can help meet the needs of a rising population, while their degradation and loss can worsen the situation of local populations.


A major obstacle towards effective integrated wetland management in most countries is the division of wetland resources among different agencies. In Brazil, however, the Inter-Ministerial Commission on Marine Resources has proved very effective in coordinating national and state activities to manage coastal wetlands.

The most comprehensive wetland assessment procedure so far is the Adamus system for temperate North America, which describes on site biological characteristics and their functional value. The first regional methodology for economic evaluation of wetland ecosystems is being prepared for Central America by the Tropical Agricultural Research and Training Centre (CATIE).

One of the most progressive growths of institutional understanding of wetland value and associated investment in conservation has occurred in the USA, though not before losing eighty-seven million hectares of wetlands since colonial times. The USA [Clean Water Act] regulates dredge and fill of wetlands, and legislation of the [Food Security Act] of 1985 prohibits subsidies for wetland drainage. Similar changes in perception are occurring worldwide. In Sri Lanka, concern for the countries coastal wetlands has encouraged government institutions and NGOs to prepare a management plan for the country's mangroves. On a regional scale, the Southern African Development Coordinating Conference (SADCC) is preparing a programme for conservation and management of wetland in Southern Africa, while in Southeast Asia the Mekong Secretariat is preparing a similar initiative for the wetlands of the Mekong basin. Other examples of regional cooperation in wetland management and conservation include the [North American Waterfowl Management Plan] (Canada, USA), the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (Americas), and the Wadden Sea (Netherlands, Germany, Denmark). On a global scale, a range of international organizations are expanding wetlands activities, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau (IWRB) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

IUCN established the IUCN Wetlands Programme in 1984 to conserve wetland resources for the benefit of wildlife as well as people by developing means of sustainable utilization of wetlands. The union collaborates with members and partners, in particular with the [Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat] ([Ramsar Convention]) Bureau and IWRB. The Wetlands Programme mainly focuses upon a series of field projects which develop methodologies for wetland management, in particular in developing countries where wetlands are used intensively by local communities. Related policy initiatives draw upon project results and present their conclusions in a form useful to decision-makers. In the field, IUCN supervises and develops regional programmes and field projects in Southern Africa, Eastern Africa, West and Central Africa, Central America, South America, and South and South-East Asia. They are aimed at building local, national and regional institutional capacity to manage wetlands sustainably. For instance, IUCN and WWF worked with the government of Zambia over the course of 1985 and 1986 to manage the wetlands of Kafue Flats and Bangweulu Basin, and in mid-1986 the WWF-Zambia Wetlands Project began. Other examples of IUCN participation in wetland management include the Koshi Tappu Reserve in Nepal and the Xuan Thuy wetlands in Vietnam.

In recent years, IWRB has become increasingly involved in the broader issues of wetland management as a means of conserving waterfowl populations and has established a Wetland Division.

IUCN, IWRB, WWF and the International Committee for Bird Protection (ICBP) have since 1988 joined forces with the Ramsar Bureau in a formal coordinating mechanism, to support the [Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat] 

(Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention)) and to enhance integration of their own wetland activities. The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention) (1971), Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat, is the principle intergovernmental forum for the promotion of international cooperation for wetland management and conservation. The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention)) gives explicit recognition to the internationally shared nature of many wetland benefits, such as migratory wetland species and their territory. The establishment of an independent Bureau for the Convention in 1987, has significantly enhanced international cooperation. The number of Contracting Parties to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention)) have increased from 23 in 1980 to 55 in 1990. Examples of management obligations of contracting parties to the Ramsar convention include implementing planning so as to promote conservation of wetlands listed on the Convention's List of Wetlands of International Importance, making environmental impact assessments before wetland transformations, increasing waterfowl populations on appropriate wetlands, and training personnel competent in wetland management. As of 1990, 30 million ha of wetlands throughout the world had been listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention))

Sites on the List of Wetlands of International Importance which are considered to have undergone, to be undergoing, or to be likely to undergo change in their ecological character brought about by human action may be placed on the Montreux Record and may benefit from the application of the Ramsar Management Guidance Procedure and other forms of technical assistance

One proposed approach to wetland management is through experimental management. Since each wetland has unique characteristics, it is suggested this can be the most rapid, reliable, and often the only way to determine which wetlands are both productive and sustainable at a level of human intervention. Another approach advocates that the most effective way to manage and maintain wetlands is to involve local people, which use its resources, in management activities. This would facilitate much needed local support. In both cases, it considers that successful management would need to base itself on a detailed level of understanding of the ecological and related social and economic issues

The aesthetic value of wetlands is gaining increasing recognition for recreational fishing, boating, bird-watching, and observing the reflection of clouds changing patterns on the landscape.


Apart from very few cases, the appreciation of wetland services (such as nutrient pools, regulation of water supply and quality, flood control, or pollutant filters) is absent. The understanding of these values and their economic and social implications can determine decisions affecting their management.

Land type/use
Sustainable development
Type Classification:
D: Detailed strategies