On 9 April 2012, Peter Bridgewater, immediate past Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention and current Chair of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, gave a public presentation at the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies in Yokohama.
The seminar, “Water, Water everywhere nor any a drop to drink—the Ramsar Convention turns 40”, aimed to link the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (known as the Ramsar Convention) to the current water debate, which Dr. Bridgewater identified as the “number one key environmental issue”. While climate change and biodiversity loss are often raised as imminent threats to the planet at large, he said, “the combination of biodiversity loss and climate change is promoting an emergency in terms of humanity’s water security and, in effect, the planet’s water security”.
Dr. Bridgewater began by describing the unique and prescient qualities of the Ramsar Convention. Its creation was originally driven by concerted action among NGOs — unlike UN conventions, which typically have had their beginnings in action led by major states. The original text was signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971 and entered into international law in 1975; it placed emphasis not only on the establishment of protected wetland sites, but also on the “wise use” (a concept originally equated with “sustainable use”) of such sites. While it was perceptive of the founders to include this concept, in today’s context Dr. Bridgewater distinguished “wise use” from “sustainable use”, defining the former as “the maintenance of ecological character through applying an ecosystem-based approach”. He also stressed the importance of the relationship between humans and wetlands, declaring that “many wetlands would not exist without human intervention”. Still, the Ramsar Convention continues to be considered by some as being primarily focused on bird conservation.
The convention’s mission promotes the conservation and wise use of wetlands “as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”, and requires all contracting states to examine and nominate at least one wetland of international importance as a “Ramsar site”.Dr. Bridgewater pointed out, however, that nominations have become less based on migratory birds and increasingly on other factors, including cultural significance. So while it may have begun as a treaty on birds and wetlands, the Ramsar Convention’s coverage has been broadening to cover areas such as water allocation and cultural values of wetlands. This move from “wetlands for birds” to “water for people”, however, has not been received enthusiastically by some parties who perceive it as “a move beyond its [the convention′s] competence”.
Dr. Bridgewater also linked the issue of the convention’s expanding boundaries to the problems of global governance. Comparing the international landscape to global landscapes, he noted that “the international landscape has become more fragmented, replete with redundancy, and ultimately less resilient”. Although a plethora of organizations are talking about water issues — creating overlaps in governing bodies and agreements —there is not much action on the ground. While the excess in international governance is problematic, Dr. Bridgewater reiterated Ramsar’s central role in human security, reminding the audience of the interlinkages between wetlands and ecosystem services, and that “ensuring continued provision of ecosystem services is at the heart of water and security”.
He concluded his presentation by recommending that the Ramsar Convention do what it was originally set out to do, and does well: “Integrate the concerns for the conservation of the spoonbill into the broader environmental agendas”.
For more information about the seminar and a video podcast, see The Ramsar Convention and water for all page of the UNU-IAS website.
Dr. Bridgewater is also a Visiting Professor at UNU-IAS, where he teaches an elective course on Wetlands Management and Governance for the institute’s Master of Science in Environmental Governance with Specialization in Biodiversity programme.