Why Wetlands are Essential for Life on Earth

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The wetlands of the Kashmir Valley are rapidly shrinking due to the massive siltation and encroachment.

Bilal Bashir Bhat

Wetlands were once widely considered as unproductive wastelands full of disease and danger. But now wetlands are considered the planet’s most productive ecosystems, supporting immense biodiversity, beneficial for people in number of ways. These benefits, also called ecosystem services include water purification and waste treatment, flood control and storm protection, carbon storage and sequestration. They are essential for our survival and has huge economic value.

Habitats that are rich in plant life are also important stores of carbon. But wetlands are particularly efficient at locking it away. When the plants die, rather than decomposing, the carbon buries in the mud layers of wetlands rather than releasing their carbon content into the atmosphere. Many of us are aware about the functions of wetlands, but much less are aware about the fact that wetlands play a key role in climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration. The role of wetlands in capturing and storing carbon is often underestimated. Wetlands are some of the largest carbon reservoirs on earth.

All types of wetlands are ‘Sleeping Giants’ of carbon sequestering systems (carbon sinks), that means that wetlands have the ability to store excess carbon (via photosynthesis) from the atmosphere,  one of the primary components of greenhouse gases and a driver of climate change. Wetlands play a major role in climate change adaptation, through capturing and storing carbon to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases, and providing resilience to hazards such as flooding, storm surge and coastal inundation.

Wetland soils also function as carbon sinks and can store carbon produced by upland agriculture and other land uses. As carbon, in the form of organic material (such as eroded soil, leaves, and tree debris), is washed into low lying wetland areas, it is deposited into wetlands where it becomes part of the wetland sediment through decomposition or burial. Wetlands are estimated to store more than one-third of the world’s terrestrial carbon. Their destruction often results in major releases of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

If wetlands are drained, burned or cleared, they release carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon emissions from drained and burned peatlands equate to about 10% of global annual fossil fuel emissions. Drainage and degradation of wetlands can release significant amounts of this stored carbon back into the atmosphere in the form of methane and reduce the ability of wetlands to sequester additional carbon.

Despite the immense value of wetlands, we are losing these productive and carbon sequestration sinks at an alarming rate. Up to 87% of global wetlands have been lost since 1700, with the largest proportion during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Agricultural, urban and industrial development, introduction of invasive species, pollution, over exploitation, siltation & eutrophication all contribute to the degradation of the productive and carbon sinks all over the world.

The preservation of these wetlands is critical for mitigating global warming and climate change. Through conservation and restoration of these Wetland systems could be an important component of reducing Carbon emissions. If the Wetlands are not protected, they could release huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which are the main cause of global warming and climate change….

On this wetland day (2020), we call scientists, NGOs, policy makers and volunteers to increase the awareness on the importance of these productive systems & their wise use. Protecting wetlands is vital for the rich biodiversity and preservation of these rich carbon sequestration sinks and for the survival of life on earth.

  • Author is associated with the Climate Change Centre J&K and can be reached at: bhatbilalb32@gmail.com

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