The world’s cities rely on the world’s wetlands.

By Martha Rojas Urrego, Secretary General, Ramsar Convention
& Stuart Orr, Lead Freshwater Practice, WWF

Mai Po wetlands in Hong Kong. © WWF Hong Kong

One half the world’s population live in cities. And, 1.4 million more people flood into our rapidly expanding urban areas every week — energizing their economies, but also straining their services and sustainability. And population increases also result in significant land use change, which often heightens the risk from natural disasters.

Today as we mark World Cities Day, Venice — one of the world’s most iconic cities, which has water at its heart — is being swamped by the worst floods in a decade. In recent years, catastrophic floods have hit cities on all continents. Yet, while many cities have experienced flooding, others have faced unprecedented droughts and severe water shortages. Over the past ten years, natural disasters have affected more than 220 million people and caused US$100 billion worth of economic damage per year.

Without urgent efforts and significant investment to make cities more resilient, natural disasters — intensified by climate change — could cost cities three times as much by 2030, while devastating the lives of tens of millions more people.

When cities become more resilient, they prevent hazards from becoming disasters. One way for cities to build resilience is through protecting and restoring their wetlands since healthy wetlands — from floodplains to marshes to mangrove forests — provide the best natural defence against extreme floods and storm surges. But healthy wetlands are also critical to the other half of today’s theme — Building Resilient and Sustainable Cities — because they supply and filter water for people and businesses, provide food and livelihoods for millions, and make cities more liveable — and sustainable.

Healthy wetlands are our cities’ life support systems.

Tunisian city of Ghar el Melh, which inspired the Ramsar Wetlands City Accreditation scheme. © WWF Sana Mzoughi

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands now makes it possible for cities to make strong commitments towards the protection and wise use of their most important wetlands through the new Wetland City Accreditation scheme. In a boisterous ceremony at the 13th Conference of the Parties to the Ramsar Convention (COP13) in Dubai last week, the world was introduced to the first Ramsar Wetland Cities. Eighteen cities from seven countries — China, France, Hungary, Madagascar, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Tunisia — received the prestigious accreditation.

Increasingly, cities are demonstrating leadership in the fight against climate change. This scheme encourages cities in close proximity to and dependent on wetlands — especially designated Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance — to champion the conservation and wise use of urban and peri-urban wetlands, as well as sustainable socio-economic benefits for local people. These cities provide an example for how other cities can fight to halt the loss of the world’s wetlands for their own benefit– and the planet’s.

For centuries, the graph charting wetland losses has been heading downwards: around 87% of wetlands have disappeared since 1700 — many of them lost because of rapid urbanisation. And as the new Global Wetlands Outlook report makes clear, we continue to degrade and destroy the world’s wetlands at an alarming rate. And with them our hopes of a sustainable future.

Just yesterday, the launch of WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 highlighted the catastrophic fall in freshwater species populations — an 83% decline since 1970. The only way we can reverse that trend is by halting the destruction of the world’s wetlands, which also happens to be the only way that we can ensure a resilient and sustainable future for the world’s cities — cities that will house two-thirds of humanity by 2050.

London Wetland Centre. © WWT London Wetland Centre

We firmly believe that the world can turn the tide. Ramsar COP13 once again underlined the commitment of 170 nations to the protection and wise use of wetlands, while the leadership shown by the first Wetland cities promises real progress at the local level. WWF has witnessed this at first hand, working with the city authorities and communities in the Tunisian city of Ghar el Melh, which inspired this transformational initiative, and in three of the six Chinese cities — Changde, Changshu and Haerbin, which boast a combined population of over 18 million.

The eighteen Wetland Cities are pioneers and have taken exceptional steps to safeguard their urban wetlands and should be celebrated. Changde, for example, has already protected 70% of its wetlands and aims to increase that to 80% by 2030.

The city of Liverpool in the UK will host the main event on World Cities Day — a city famous for its pivotal role in the industrial revolution and the expansion of global trade, its football team and the Beatles. But importantly, it also boasts a wealth of important areas of biodiversity, including 5 European Special Protection Areas and 384 Local Wildlife Sites — and 4 Ramsar sites covering the Mersey, Dee, Ribble and Alt estuaries. Might Liverpool become the UK’s first ever Wetland City?

This World Cities Day, we hope that the first eighteen Wetland Cities inspire others to join their prestigious club and to start treating their wetlands as prize land and not waste land. Our appeal today is for mayors to pick up the phone and call one of their peers from a Ramsar Wetland City and find out why they did it and how they did it. We will be glad to provide a phone number! And know that WWF stands ready to provide support to cities in building a more resilient and sustainable future.

Healthy wetlands are essential for resilient, sustainable cities. © WWF Hong Kong

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.

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