IWMI at the Ramsar COP

Bucharest, Romania 6-13 July 2012


Every three years the signatories to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, better known as the Ramsar Convention, attend a Conference of the Parties (COP) to assess progress, share knowledge and experience on technical issues, and plan work for the next triennium. This year’s COP in Bucharest, Romania, was attended by Matthew McCartney and Lisa-Maria Rebelo of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

Matthew McCartney
Matthew McCartney

Why is IWMI Here?
The main focus of Ramsar at the beginning was conservation of birdlife, but it has evolved over time into an agreement to use wetlands in a “wise way”. So, it has moved beyond simple conservation to be more about sustainable development. Ramsar is now interested in how wetlands benefit human beings as well as protecting biodiversity and ecosystems. We are something of a latecomer to Ramsar – thirty years ago (The original Ramsar Convention was signed in 1971) this would perhaps not have been a natural place for IWMI to be, but now we are one of the Convention’s five International Organization Partners (IOPs). The previous four IOPs had a major focus on nature conservation. IWMI joined in 2005 and we got involved because of this shift to a broader agenda and the recognition that agriculture is both a threat to wetlands and one of the major benefits they provide. Wetland agriculture supports the livelihoods of many, many people, so the new focus on natural resource management led to IWMI being invited to become an IOP.

So you wouldn’t see any contradiction between nature conservation and practicing agriculture in wetlands?
It’s basically a trade-off. You can’t just push people off wetlands – it’s no longer acceptable to simply say to people “stay away.” So you have to find ways of getting the balance right. We need to find ways to let people manage wetlands in ways that preserve biodiversity, and particularly the ecosystem services that biodiversity provides and allow them to utilize wetlands for things like agriculture. And I think people recognize that now.

What influence has IWMI had?
I think IWMI has had an important role. The thinking was already changing but I think IWMI’s involvement has enhanced that – maybe made it a bit more rapid. We’ve been involved in drafting some resolutions, we’ve provided advice. We come with a scientific or evidence-based approach, as an honest broker if you like. We don’t advocate but we come with a focus on livelihoods, people and poverty alleviation. The other IOPs, even though their focus is also changing, still have biodiversity conservation as their core mission.

Does that work both ways? Are IWMI and the CGIAR also moving to a more sustainable and ecosystem sensitive approach?
Absolutely. A lot of the ecosystem services thinking has come from the wetland community. There is a more holistic thinking and integration of ideas in the development sector as people recognize the importance of ecosystems and biodiversity.

And what is your main focus at this COP?
We are particularly involved in a resolution on reducing the use of pesticides in rice cultivation. There is also a big debate going on about how the Scientific and Technical Review Panel (STRP) will operate and how science is actually translated into action. We need to explore how we get science across to practitioners and that mirrors a lot of what is being discussed at IWMI about how you get science to have impact.

A modified form of this resolution was adopted by the COP.

Lisa Rebelo
Lisa Rebelo


Why do you think IWMI should be involved in the Ramsar COP?
Wetlands are very important for reasons way beyond the conservation and biodiversity. In terms of agriculture and fisheries, wetlands support millions of people across Africa and Asia. The biodiversity they support as well as the ecosystem services they provide are what we need to maintain to continue to support agricultural productivity which is higher if the natural systems are intact than if they are degraded.

You’ve been involved in the side event here. What was that about?
It was organized by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and had presentations from JAXA, the European Space Agency and from myself on wetlands mapping from remote sensing. There is still a lot that we don’t know about wetlands. We don’t have a comprehensive global map of wetlands ecosystems, we don’t really know where the wetlands are in the world – we know the major systems but we don’t have a comprehensive map. It is a challenge to produce this from remote sensing data but it is the best source of information to do this. So, we have an international collaborative project run by JAXA called the ALOS Kyoto and Carbon Initiative and I am currently coordinator for the wetlands theme within that. JAXA provides a group of international scientists with the data and through this at IWMI I have been able to map wetlands in the Nile and Zambezi basins and to look further at the ecosystem services they provide and the agriculture and fisheries uses.

And what levels of detail can we now get with remote sensing?
The most significant thing about the JAXA data is that it is long wavelength radar so it is not like the kind of images you see on Google Earth for instance, which is optical data typically used for mapping land cover. Wetlands are often cloud covered at peak times of flooding, so you can’t actually map what is happening optically. Plus, in a lot of wetlands the water is below the vegetation canopy and optical data only sees the top of the vegetation. The radar data, on the other hand, is long wavelength microwave-based so it penetrates the vegetation and clouds and that means we can map ground cover, water and vegetation under all conditions. For wetlands, it is very important to look at the seasonal cycles of flooding, so this data is critical. We can go down to spatial resolutions of about 25 meters.

It seems extraordinary that we don’t yet have a global wetlands map. Is this just because of the data and seasonality issues that you mentioned?
Partly. The definition of wetlands is very broad so trying to produce a single map that encompasses all wetland types is a big challenge. But there is also a data challenge due to the seasonality issues. We need the high resolution data to accurately map these systems, that means that we lose out on the high temporal resolution data because you then have a longer revisit period. So, until we have a constellation of satellites that can provide us with both high spatial and high temporal resolution it is always going to be a trade-off.

Read about JAXA and Ramsar and see images of the wetlands mapping here

Global Environmental Monitoring by ALOS PALSAR;
Science Results from the ALOS Kyoto & Carbon Initiative