Saturday, February 05, 2011

Message from Dr Wari Lea Iamo, Secretary of the Department of Environment and Conservation, on World Wetlands Day

The International World Wetlands Day falls on the 2nd of February each year.

 It marks the day the Ramsar Convention was signed in the Iranian City of Ramsar in 1971.
This year the theme is Wetlands and Forests – forests for water and wetlands in celebration of the United Nations International Year of Forests.

As the secretary of the department responsible for protection and the sustainable use of natural resources I launch this day as a significant day for us to remember that wetlands and forests are important for our economic and social wellbeing.

Papua New Guinea as a sovereign country signed up to the convention and became a member on the 16th July 1993.

 PNG, being a member to the convention, shows that it is committed to raising awareness locally, in the region and globally that PNG has very significant areas of wetlands that are important to its people.

By being a signatory it has enlisted two sites as significant wetlands in PNG: Tonda wildlife management area in Western province and Lake Kutubu wildlife management area in the Southern Highlands province.

Wetlands are all about water, the continuous supply of water and its natural resources. Recognising   wetlands and its importance is very essential for the supply of fresh water, maintenance and use of biodiversity, mitigation of the effects of climate change and the hydrological cycle of water, livelihoods of communities who depend on all wetlands ecosystems from coral reefs, coastal ecosystems, peat lands, and swamps to lakes and rivers to alpine wetlands.

There are many benefits that we all derive from these wetlands.

Simple things that we do everyday involve water.

In PNG, these wetlands provide for us tremen­dous economic and conservation benefits through fish­eries production, flood control, maintenance of shoreline stabilisation, estuarine systems for our coastal fisheries, water quality and provision of rec­reational opportunities and large quantities of varieties of food.

We wash or fish in the seas or rivers or reefs or look for crabs or shells or dig for mud crabs in the rivers, mangroves, mudflats, marshes and sea grass beds.

Wetlands also house extensive biodiversity, ranging from corals, sea grasses, fishes of all sorts from small ones to very huge whales and sharks in the deep oceans, crocodile in our rivers, shorelines and swamps, crustaceans, mollusks, from microscopic organisms as  bacteria, algae and lichens, mosses to varieties of mushrooms to higher plants, thousands of insects, varieties of birds that fly in the sky or on the ground, water snakes that use the wetlands to breed, all kinds of animals that also live in the wetlands and in the forests. These animals also are a significant part of the wetlands ecosystem.

The 2nd of February, however, should have special meaning for everyone in this country. For anyone who has ever jumped into the river on a hot day, paddled a canoe through some mangroves to collect crabs or shellfish from mudflats, dived or snorkeled over a brightly coloured coral reef, or simply stood by to see a reef heron awaiting the arrival of its next meal, or watched a sooty oyster catcher search for its meals on the shoreline or a masked lapwing in the swamps or flocks bar tailed godwits in their thousands using our wetlands on their way to the north of Siberia where they breed .

 In fact, for every Papua New Guinean, the 2nd of February is a time to celebrate a very special part of our natural environment – the "wetlands".

So for us we can focus on all types of forest, those that are often or always wet, such as mangroves, flooded forests, peat swamp forests and lowland rainforests often inundated with water for most part of the year.

 What better occasion for us to look at the importance of these forested wetlands, whether we live near them or not, because of the many benefits they bring?

It is also a good opportunity to focus on the many threats they face too.

 As we reflect on the immense economic, social and ecological value of our wetlands, we are also painfully aware of the rapid rate at which many of our wetlands are being degraded and disappearing.

 Impact projects occur mainly in our wetlands also as too often we wrongfully think of them as wastelands.

 In other parts of the world they are used as waste dumping grounds resulting in toxic and harmful substances entering the waterways and ocean, or they are used as landfills for housing projects.

 Furthermore, wetlands tend to be over-used through excessive withdrawals of water for townships or cities or through the removal of key species from the area, thus losing biodiversity species that are importance to maintain healthy waterways.

Losing our wetlands means losing the valuable services they provide and this almost always impacts negatively on humans.

Tourism, food security and coastal protection are often the most-obvious losers when wetlands die.

In small islands, marginalised people, often live very near to and depend directly on wetland ecosystems for their livelihood.

 They are also the least able to cope with the impacts of wetland loss. 

Climate change adds another dimension to the continuing destruction of our wetlands but it brings a greater concern for their preservation.

 Across the country, there is growing evidence that climate change is resulting in more frequent cyclones and storm surges, coastal erosion, loss of fish breeding grounds and reduced water quality on many small islands resulting in loss of community's livelihoods.

However, it is also becoming clear that better management and protection of our wetland ecosystems could help our most vulnerable communities whether coastal and inland; build resilience and adapt better to the impacts of our changing climate.

 Strong mangrove areas, for example, act as highly-effective buffers against storm surges and cyclonic waves; healthy coral reefs and seagrass beds provide breeding grounds for fish and other marine animals, thus strengthening food security of coastal dwelling populations; healthy and strong coral reefs are also the first line of defense against storm surges and waves associated with the changing climate.

 The interaction between healthy coral reefs and healthy mangroves can therefore not be discounted as a major defensive asset of our islands, and one that we need to protect.

Protecting and conserving the diversity of life, including conserving our valuable wetlands and adapting to and building resilience to climate change impacts are inextricably interlinked.

Our mandated role as a government agency recognises that we cannot realistically address one without the other and, more importantly, that human activity is as much to blame as climate change for the continuing destruction of our natural ecosystems especially focusing on the impacts of logging on forests.

This year, the International Year of Forests, presents us with an opportunity to take stock of our ongoing contribution to nature conservation and work towards building resilience to the ever-increasing impacts of climate change.

It may seem all too simple, but if we strengthen our commitment to conserving mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass beds; improve waste management and prevent marine pollution; and reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and destruction to forests, we have hope that we can save our forested wetlands and possibly set our communities in preparation to withstand the impacts of climate change.

This World Wetlands Day, I challenge every one of you, no matter who you are or what you do, to take stock of what is happening around you and make a change in your life for the well-being of the unique water-based environments in which half of the population of Papua New Guinea lives.

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