Wetlands do vital work. They recharge groundwater, keep rivers and lakes clean by filtering out pollutants, and provide habitat for birds and wildlife. Wetlands also mitigate the impacts of droughts and floods, a function increasingly important as the world experiences more weather extremes under a changing climate. They act like a sponge, absorbing and holding heavy rains, and then release that water more gradually to surrounding streams and aquifers. In this way they can lessen damage from both floods and droughts.
The question of whether to drain a wetland to make way for a shopping mall, or to instead leave the wetland intact, often seems like a no-brainer: the “development” options have a clear dollar value, but the wetlands themselves do not.
But therein lies a big problem.
The problem is that most of the time no one pays for the services wetlands provide. Lacking tangible, market or “dollar” value, they are drained, filled and lost to other uses.
According to a new study in the journal Global Environmental Change, the global area of freshwater wetlands and floodplains shrank by nearly two-thirds between 1997 and 2011, from an estimated 165 million hectares (408 million acres) to 60 million hectares (148 million acres).
The study team, led by Robert Costanza, a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University in Canberra, examined changes in the area covered by different ecosystem types, or biomes, over this period. Then, using the best estimates they could assemble from the literature of the value of the services performed by each of these ecosystem types, they calculated the change in value.
For freshwater wetlands and floodplains, that amounted to an estimated loss in value between 1997 and 2011 of some $2.7 trillion per year (in 2007 dollars).
Financial estimates are useful for raising awareness about the value of ecosystems to human welfare and the global economy – and the foolishness of allowing them to be whittled away at such a rapid rate.
Excerpts from a recent NationalGeographic.com article, Published: 24 June 2014. Read more at:
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.
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