Wetlands: A new paradigm

“People need to manage wetlands themselves”
IWMI’s Matthew McCartney is one of the editors of Wetlands Management and Sustainable Livelihoods in Africa, published this week. In this book, the editors argue for a paradigm shift in the way African wetlands are considered and stress the need for Integrated Water Resource Management and landscape approaches to ensure sustainable use of wetlands.
In this interview McCartney talks about the book’s key messages, challenges and trade-offs in wetlands management and who should be ultimately responsible for good management of wetlands.

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Matthew McCartney

IWMI: The key message of your book is “putting people at the center of wetland management”. Why is a shift towards a more people-focused approach necessary?
MMC: We argue that the focus currently is too much on wetland conservation for conservations sake, i.e. ecology, without consideration of peoples’ livelihoods and development needs. Because in Africa, wetlands are vital for peoples’ livelihoods particularly the contribution to agriculture much more focus of wetland management needs to be on the people and how wetlands can be utilized to their benefit, while at the same time conserving other important ecosystem services.
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You argue that “wetlands remain the new agriculture frontier in Africa”. In what ways can wetlands play a role in agriculture?
In many places in Africa, wetlands are vital for smallholder agriculture. Because rainfall patterns mean that water is scarce for much of the year they are an important source of water for crops. Also they tend to be more fertile than surrounding uplands. They are also often important for dry season watering and grazing for livestock. As populations rise and uplands become, increasingly degraded, in many places, the importance of wetland agriculture is increasing.
When enhancing agriculture in wetland systems even further doesn’t it require trade-offs between economic development and environmental protection? How to avoid or manage them?
Yes there are trade-offs. The first thing is to recognize this and to make the trade-offs explicit. It is not sustainable to try and protect wetland ecosystems by excluding people who have few alternatives to better their livelihoods. The need is to make people aware of the range of benefits that they get from wetlands, for instance the different ecosystem services, and what they gain and lose as a result of conversion of a wetland for agriculture. The hope is that once they are aware they themselves will be happy to conserve parts of the wetland. Furthermore, the benefits lost depend to some extent not just on how large an area of a wetland is converted but which parts. Conserving the central portion of a wetland may conserve more ecosystem services than conserving the fringes. The overall point is that people need to manage wetlands themselves, which means that policies that promote self-regulating and self-enforcing incentives for sustainable management are therefore required.
What is the biggest challenge in managing wetlands in a balanced way?
There are many challenges. Getting a balance is very difficult because these are complex dynamic social-ecological systems that are changing all the time. Wetlands change physically in time and what people and societies value changes over time. There is also generally a lack of information and data on which to base good decisions. People cannot even always agree on what constitutes a wetland and they are widely dispersed throughout the landscape. This all makes management difficult.
Won’t climate change make it difficult to balance various interests?
Climate change is likely to make things more difficult. In some places wetlands will become more attractive for agriculture but at the same time many of the other ecosystem services that they provide will also become more important. So balancing competing interests will be more even more complicated.
Who is ultimately responsible for the good management of Africa’s wetlands?
Local people. With few exceptions, for large very ecologically important wetlands, it is basically impossible to regulate and impose governance structures from outside. Hence local people must be responsible for the management of most wetlands.

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Feature

African Wetland Policies Should Focus More on Local Livelihoods

When Malawi, a small southern African country, faced persistent droughts a number of years ago, Samuel and his wife Chancy* were under pressure to feed their family.

They knew a little bit about dimba farming in seasonal wetlands from friends and relatives, but had never practiced it. So they experimented. Their vegetable garden eventually paid off so well that they acquired pigs, bought a bicycle to take produce to a roadside market and eventually built a new house.

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Chancy told researchers the wetland was like milking a cow – “you must treat it well and then it will produce benefits for you.”

The authors of the new book “Wetland Management and Sustainable Livelihoods in Africa” say that wetlands are becoming the continent’s new agricultural frontier and can be used sustainably– if policies become more people-focused.

“While there has been a growing awareness among policy makers of the environmental importance of wetlands, too often there is a view that local people are destroying the wetlands,” said co-editor Matthew McCartney, an IWMI researcher.  “This thinking needs to change – especially given the livelihood challenges facing Africa in the 21st century.”  (see accompanying interview)

In an era marked by the continent’s rising population, land degradation and climate change, wetlands have a critical role to play in reducing poverty and contributing to sustainable development, said co-editor Adrian Wood, professor of Sustainability at the University of Huddersfield in the United Kingdom and director of  Wetland Action  http://www.wetlandaction.org/.

“This does not mean the indiscriminate exploitation of wetlands should be tolerated,” Wood said. But neither should there be an expectation that all wetlands can be conserved in a pristine condition, with people excluded, he said.

Rather, the researchers advocate an appropriate balancing of economic, social and environmental interests in wetland policies and management – while urging that communities be given more power and incentives to manage local resources for future generations. The book – which explores nine case studies – refers to instances where wetland use has been so attractive that over time the resources have been degraded and the benefits lost. But the opposite is true where sustainable use has occurred over decades.

As with all human development, there are inevitably trade-offs between the environment and human interests, McCartney said. But there are ways  to strike an appropriate balance. For example, preserving the core of a wetland, while allowing more agricultural development on the fringes, is an approach that is applicable in some places.

Wood stressed that wetlands, particularly seasonally-flooded wetlands, can provide dry-season cropping and grazing, can produce crops quickly in response to food shortages and may help to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The book cites Uganda as a country where policy makers have recognized the importance of the wetlands since the mid-1980s, but haven’t provided adequate support for such policies. “It is not uncommon to find local governments without wetlands officers and where they are present, their budgets are too limited to support any operational costs,” say the chapter’s co-authors Barbara Nakangu and Robert Bagyenda.

As a result, wetlands have become degraded or converted into extended urban developments.  There may be some short-term development gains, but the rural poor suffer in the long term.

An examination of four wetlands in Tanzania and Zambia illustrated the value of wetland agriculture to communities. However, villagers didn’t identify negative environmental impacts from wetland use as much as socio-economic constraints in their use. The study also found that, not unexpectedly, better -off households reaped more benefits than the poor.

Researchers concluded that wetland policies can only be effective when community institutions are developed which promote equity and prevent local elites from capturing resources.

Lake Chilwa in Malawi serves as an example of the challenge of managing wetlands in Africa.

The wetland  is estimated to contribute, directly or indirectly, to the livelihoods of most of the 1.5 million people who live within the basin, and millions more outside. The wetland also supports 183 species of birds, earning a designation in 1996 as a Ramsar wetland site of international importance.

When water levels are high, Lake Chilwa is one of the most productive lakes in Africa, with fishing occurring across the inundated floodplain as well as the lake. During the dry season, when water levels recede, the floodplain is used for small-scale vegetable and rice cultivation, and livestock grazing.

In all, more than 85 percent of the households in the area depend on the wetland for their livelihoods, according to a 2010 study, and surplus fish and crops are trucked to the urban areas of Malawi.

But the poverty rate remains high and, in recent years, cropping  in the catchment area has expanded, researchers say, causing sedimentation in the wetland.

Wetland management is patchy. Malawi’s Environmental Affairs Department worked on a wetland management plan in the 1990s with foreign donor assistance, but for various reasons the plan hasn’t been implemented.

Researchers note some small successes in community-based management. But there also are cases where local leaders have used their authority to control access to resources and irrigation systems to the detriment of poor people.

“Ultimately, the communities that live within the basin and depend on its resources need to be more involved in wetland management plans,” said IWMI senior researcher Katherine Snyder. “Mechanisms need to be put into place that help local communities improve their livelihoods while also serving as stewards of the Lake Chilwa wetland ecosystem and its resources.”

*The anecdote of the Malawi couple was collected by Adrian Wood of the University of  Huddersfield and the couple’s names have been shortened to adhere with a university confidentiality policy.

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