Wetlands are key to human survival

In photo: Dense mangroves grow in the Bakhawan Eco Park that is being run by the Kalibo Save the Mangroves Association Inc. in New Buswang, Kalibo, Aklan. The eco park is a popular tourist destination in Kalibo.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reached out to communities near the Tullahan River north of Manila last weekend as its way of marking the celebration of the World Wetlands Day (WWD).

The activity, according to Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu, aimed to raise awareness to the value of preserving wetlands and their importance to ecosystems.

Mangrove trees, with their exposed roots, in the Bakhawan Eco Park in New Buswang, Kalibo, Aklan.

Through the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB), the DENR targeted two Quezon City barangays—Santa Lucia and San Bartolome—in conducting an educational outreach activity to highlight the theme “Wetlands for Sustainable Urban Future—Making Urban Cities Livable.”

“We at the DENR are reaching out to the two barangays near the Tullahan River because of its relevance to their livelihood. As one of the most polluted waterways in Metro Manila, the river deserves no less than to have reduced pollution for the benefit of the residents within the area,” Cimatu said.

Wetlands and WWD

The World Wetlands Day is celebrated every February 2, marking the date of adoption of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1971. The convention was named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where the international treaty was adopted.

The Ramsar Convention was established to raise awareness about the value of wetlands for humanity and the planet.

WWD was first celebrated in 1997 and has grown remarkably since then. In 2016 WWD was celebrated in at least 59 countries, including the Philippines.

Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the DENR-BMB said the DENR has adopted the Ramsar definition of wetlands—which are areas of marsh, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salty, including areas of marine water, which depth at low tide does not exceed 6 meters.

Ecosystem services

Underscoring the importance of wetlands, Lim said they “provide ecosystem services which are essential to everyday living.”

The ecosystem services, range from the most basic and common necessity of humans and other species—food and potable water.

Wetlands provide raw materials for medicine, handicrafts and fuel.

Like forests, wetlands are carbon sinks that help in sequestering or absorbing carbon dioxide—an essential aspect in climate-change mitigation.

“Inland wetlands act as natural sponges. They absorb rainfall, create wide surface pools and ease flooding in river basins. The same storage capacity safeguards against drought and in the face of rising sea levels,” Lim told the BusinessMirror in a phone interview lastMonday.

Meanwhile, coastal wetlands reduce the impact of typhoons and tsunamis. Coastal wetlands can be in the form of salt marshes and mangroves that act as buffers. Their roots bind the shoreline and help resist erosion.

Wetlands also provide opportunities for recreational activities, which, in turn, help the local community through tourism, Lim added.

National Wetland Policy

The DENR-BMB is stepping up the effort to put in place a National Wetlands Policy in the form of a department administrative order (DAO). It is crafting the National Action Plan for Wetlands.

Lim said the action plan would boost existing policies, including laws that are meant for environmental protection and conservation in general. A technical working group in the DENR took off from a 2013 draft, but was not pursued because of the change in leadership from the Aquino administration to the Duterte administration at the national level and at the DENR.

Laws protecting wetlands

While there’s no specific law that promotes the protection and conservation of wetlands in the Philippines, there are policies and environmental laws in place that cover wetlands.

For the International Policy Framework, the DENR-BMB chief said the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, or the Ramsar Convention, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which were ratified by the Philippine Senate on November 8, 1994, and October 8, 1993, respectively, are in place.

On the other hand, water and wetlands-related laws and policies include Republic Act (RA) 8371, or the Indigenous Peoples’ Right Act of 1997; RA 8550, or the Fisheries Code of the Philippines; RA 7686, or the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act (Nipas); RA 9072, or the National Caves Resources Management and Protection Act; RA 7160, or the Local Government Code of 1991; and RA 9275, or the Philippine Clean Water Act of 2004.

Other policies include Presidential Decree 1067, or the Water Code of the Philippines; Executive Order (EO) 111 Establishing the Guidelines for Ecotourism Development in the Philippines; EO 578 Establishing the National Policy on Biological Diversity, particularly in the Sulu Sulawesi Marine Ecosystem and the Verde Island Passage Marine Corridor;

EO 533 Adopting Integrated Coastal Management as a National Strategy to Ensure the Sustainable Development of the Country’s Natural Resources; DAO 2016-12 Adopting the Philippine Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (2015-2028) and RA 9729, or the Climate Change Act of 2009.

According to Lim, existing laws and policies “protect our wetlands through the implementation of conservation, sustainable use or conversion for development or economic purposes for water resources, water quality management, fisheries and aquatic resources, wildlife and their habitats, protected areas, land-use development and environmental-impact assessment.”

Wetlands and biodiversity

According to Lim, wetlands are important to biodiversity conservation as they increase ecosystem productivity.

“Since each species have a role to play in an ecosystem, wetlands are very important. Greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms. Having a diverse ecosystem means greater variety in food resources,” she said.

More important, Lim added: “A healthy ecosystem can better withstand and recover from a variety of disasters.”

Programs and projects

The DENR, being the lead agency managing the country’s environment and natural resources, implements various programs and projects in relation to wetlands.

These include the Small Water Impoundment Project, which, Lim said, is a mechanical measure to effectively promote the maximum utilization and conservation of soil and water in upland areas.

Meanwhile, the DENR, through the BMB, is implementing the Sustainable Coral Reef Ecosystem Management Program, while the streambank rehabilitation is being implemented by the DENR’s River Basin Control Office.

On top of these, the DENR also has an ongoing program for creeks or rivers, called Adopt a Creek/River Environment Management Bureau’s Pasig River Rehabilitation since 1996.

The DENR also implements the community-based Mangrove Rehabilitation Project and the Manila Bay Project to implement the Operational Plan for the Manila Bay Coastal Strategy (2000-2015).

Ramsar Convention commitment

As a contracting party to the Ramsar Convention, the Philippines is committed to supporting the goals and targets of the Ramsar Strategic Plan for 2016-2024, Lim said.

“Another responsibility is to identify wetlands within the country that fits the criteria designated as a Ramsar Site,” she added.

According to Lim, the Philippine government is pouring valuable resources for its Ramsar sites.

“Through the DENR-BMB, in partnership with the local government unit [LGU], all Ramsar sites in the Philippines are well supported by means of funding and technical assistance. All of these are monitored by the Ramsar Convention through the submission of the Ramsar National Report every year,” she said. The Philippines has seven Ramsar sites with a surface area of 244,017 hectares.

These are the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, Tubbataha Reefs National Park, Naujan Lake National Park, Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area, Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary and the Negros Occidental Wetlands Conservation Area.

Real threats

As they are very important ecosystems, wetlands being potential sources of freshwater supply that are key to human survival, the DENR is bent on addressing the various threats—including improper waste management, pollution, wetland conversion and reclamation, overfishing and illegal fishing and overcrowding of fishery structures.

Other serious threats to wetlands are the proliferation of invasive alien species, poaching and illegal wildlife trade and climate change, Lim said.

“In the implementation of the National Inland Wetland Conservation Program, partnerships with [LGUs], non-governmental organizations, people’s organizations and other stakeholders for the management and wise use of wetlands is the current strategy adopted by the DENR,” Lim added.

The environment department also conducts lectures, forums and information dissemination in schools and communities within wetland areas and the distribution of informative and educational materials to the public, such as brochures, leaflets, fact sheets and booklets.

Wetlands management goals

In the short term, the DENR official said they aim to conduct an assessment of identified priority wetlands, process the proclamation of priority wetlands as critical habitats, key biodiversity area, Ramsar Site and protected area.

In the long term, the goal of the DENR is to ensure that the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are met, particularly the goals pertaining to clean water and sanitation (SDG 6); climate action (SDG 13) and life below water (SDG 14).

The DENR’s long-term goals for wetlands are consistent with the goals of the National Economic and Development Authority, particularly the Philippine Development Plan, which aims to triple real per capita incomes and eradicate hunger and poverty by 2040, if not sooner.

Lim said the DENR is also looking at identifying an appropriate set of milestones to guide the successive medium-term development plans.

“This goal shall be achieved through the wise use and conservation of wetlands since maintaining a healthy ecosystem will result in increased food production and possible poverty alleviation through sustainable livelihood provided by wetlands,” she noted.

Image Credits: Lyn Resurreccion

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