Wetlands of The World—Ecological Treasures Under Attack
THE Indians called it the Father of Waters. Geographers call it the Mississippi. Whatever you call it, it took its revenge on those who had squeezed it tight in a corset of dikes and levees, robbing it of its wetlands. Swollen by weeks of heavy rains, the river burst through the estimated 75 million sandbags that had been piled up against it and breached 800 of the 1,400 levees that had sought in vain to hold it in. The torrential floodwaters swept along houses, roads, bridges, and sections of railroad tracks and left many towns under water. “Probably the worst ever to wash over the United States,” The New York Times, August 10, 1993, reported.
The Times summarized some of the damage: “In its two-month rampage, the great Midwest flood of 1993 cut an awesome destructive swath. It took 50 lives, left almost 70,000 people homeless, inundated an area twice the size of New Jersey, caused an estimated $12 billion in property and agricultural damage and stirred anew a debate over the nation’s flood-control system and its policies.”
Leaving intact the natural flood-control system of wetlands bordering the banks of the Mississippi would have saved 50 lives and 12 billion dollars. When will people learn that cooperating with nature is better than trying to subdue it? Wetlands adjoining a river serve as floodplains that draw off and store the excess water of rivers swollen by prolonged heavy rains.
But serving as natural flood-control mechanisms is only one of the many marvelous services rendered by the earth’s more than 3,300,000 square miles [8,500,000 sq km] of wetlands—which are currently under destructive attack worldwide.
Wetlands, Nurseries of the World
From the vast salt marshes of the coast to the small freshwater swamps, marshes, bogs, and fens inland, to the prairie potholes of the United States and Canada, the primary architect of wetlands is water. Wetlands are areas where the land is covered with water year round or covered only in time of flooding. Another type is coastal, or tidal, wetlands. Since most wetlands are characterized by a prolific growth of vegetation—grasses, sedges, bulrushes, trees, and shrubs—they support a variety of plant, fish, fowl, and animal life throughout the world.
A number of shorebirds and waterfowl make their homes in wetlands. More than a hundred species of them depend on these shallow oases during their spring migration. Many wetlands are nurseries for an immense population of geese and ducks—mallard, teal, and canvasback. These areas also provide food and shelter for such animals as alligator, beaver, muskrat, mink, and moose. Other animals, including bear, deer, and raccoon, use wetlands. They serve as spawning and nursery grounds for most of the fish that support America’s three-billion-dollar commercial fishing industry. It is estimated that 200 kinds of fish and large quantities of shellfish depend on wetlands for all or part of their life cycles.
In addition to being exceptional nurseries of life, wetlands have many ecological virtues. They are natural filters for removing waste and pollutants from rivers and streams and for purifying underground aquifers. They store water during rainy and flooding seasons and later release it slowly into streams, rivers, and aquifers. Tidal wetlands protect shorelines from erosion by waves.
Because of the very nature of their often prolific plant life, wetlands perform significant, essential functions. In the process of photosynthesis, for example, all green vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide from the air and returns oxygen to it. This is necessary for sustaining life. Plants in wetlands, however, are unique in that they are especially efficient in this process.
For centuries many countries have recognized the inestimable value of wetland management for food production. China and India, for example, lead the world in rice production, with other countries of Asia not far behind. Grown in wetlands called paddies, rice is one of the world’s most important food crops. About half the world’s population eat rice as their chief food. The United States and Canada began in time to realize the importance of wetlands and bogs for their production of rice and cranberries.
Wildlife too share in the feast provided by the wetlands. Not only are seeds and insects in abundance for the birds but they also feed the fish and crustaceans that spawn and grow to maturity in the wetlands. Ducks, geese, and other waterfowl in turn feed on these underwater creatures swimming in abundance in these oases of life. The current ecology balances matters to some extent by serving up a variety of fowl to the four-footed creatures who may wander into the wetlands looking for a meal. In the wetlands there is something for everything. They are truly nurseries of the world.
The Race to Destroy Wetlands
In the United States, the man who became its first president opened the floodgates of mass destruction of wetlands when in 1763 he formed a company to drain 40,000 acres [16,000 ha] of the Dismal Swamp—a wild marshland, a haven for wildlife—on the Virginia-North Carolina border. Ever since then, America’s wetlands have been viewed as a nuisance, a roadblock to development, a source of sickness and disease, a hostile environment to be conquered and destroyed at any cost. Farmers were encouraged to drain wetlands and use them for cultivated land and were compensated for doing so. Highways were built where wetlands teeming with exotic life once were. Many became sites for urban development and shopping centers or were used as convenient shallow depressions for dumping garbage.
In the last few decades of this century, the United States has been destroying its wetlands at the rate of 500,000 acres [200,000 ha] a year. Today, only about 90 million acres [40,000,000 ha] remain. Consider, for example, the pothole region of North America. In a 300,000-square-mile [800,000 sq km] arc of land that stretches from Alberta, Canada, to Iowa in the United States, thousands of prairie wetlands were the breeding grounds for millions upon millions of ducks. It is said that in flight they would darken the sky like dense clouds. Today their numbers have dwindled alarmingly.
The long-range problem, however, is this: When the wetlands are destroyed, the feeding grounds are gone. Without adequate food, ducks lay fewer eggs, and the hatching rate of those that are laid is notably affected. As their habitats are destroyed, more ducks flock to the few that remain, thus becoming easier prey for foxes, coyotes, skunks, raccoon, and other animals who dine on them.
In the United States, 50 percent of the pothole region’s wetlands have disappeared. Canada trails by less than 10 percent, but her destructive attacks are growing. Parts of North Dakota in the United States were 90 percent dry, Sports Illustrated magazine reported. Many farmers view wetlands as unproductive and a nuisance that gets in the way of their farm equipment, ignorant of their ecological value.
The hue and cry, however, to save the wetland habitat of wildlife is today being sounded loud and clear by concerned individuals and wildlife organizations. “The potholes are absolutely crucial,” said one concerned official. “If we’re going to harbour any long-term hope for ducks, we must preserve the wetlands.” “Waterfowl are a barometer of the ecological health of the continent,” said an official of the conservation organization Ducks Unlimited. The magazine U.S.News & World Report adds its voice: “[The ducks’] dwindling numbers reflect assaults on the environment on many different fronts: Acid rain, pesticides, but most of all, the destruction of millions of acres of priceless wetlands.”
“Ninety percent of California’s coastal salt marshes have been destroyed,” reported the magazine California, “and every year 18,000 more acres [7,000 ha] disappear. The tule elk survive only in a few scattered places. The ducks and geese return in smaller numbers each year to their ever-shrinking wintering grounds. Many wetland species are close to extinction.” In silence these whose lives depend on the world’s wetlands for survival cry out for help.
The Water Crisis
A terrible thing has happened on man’s way to destroying earth’s wetlands. He has affected his most valuable and critical resource—water. Water is essential for every living thing. Many of the world’s scientists have predicted a time when pure water will be earth’s scarcest resource. “Either we manage to limit the waste of water or by the year 2000 we shall be dying of thirst,” proclaimed the UN World Conference on water in 1977.
With these ominous warnings of the potential shortage of this valuable resource, conventional wisdom should dictate a respectful management of earth’s waters. In man’s race to destroy wetlands, however, he has seriously jeopardized this most necessary resource. Wetlands help in the purification of surface water—rivers and streams. Some aquifers are no longer being recharged with pure water but are now contaminated with waste and pollutants, all to man’s detriment. Water that was once there in multitudes of wetlands has been drained, adding to the shortage.
Will responsible men hear the frantic cries for help of wetlands-dependent life? Will action be taken to save such life before it is too late? Or will men remain deaf to these cries, with ears open only to the wails of the greedy?
The Attack Is Worldwide
At the opening of a worldwide campaign promoted by the United Nations to save wetlands, threats to Brazil’s Pantanal ecosystem were cited. It is one of the world’s largest wetlands. The magazine BioScience stated: “The Pantanal, with its extraordinary diversity and abundance of wildlife, is a threatened region. Deforestation; expanding agriculture; illegal hunting and fishing; and pollution of the water with herbicides, pesticides, and by-products of fuel alcohol production have caused a progressive deterioration of the natural environment, placing at risk one of Brazil’s most important ecosystems.”
The New York Times pointed out the threat to the wetlands along the coast of the Mediterranean. “The loss of wetlands has quickened in the last three decades as the Mediterranean coasts have become more coveted than ever and large stretches of coastline have been covered with concrete in the name of sun worship, comfort and profits. United Nations studies cite major losses in Italy, Egypt, Turkey and Greece.”
The wetlands of Spain’s fabulous 125,000-acre [50,000 ha] Doñana National Park become an avian airport in spring as hundreds of thousands of birds en route from Africa to Europe stop off at its swamps and woodlands to nest and breed and feed. But the rash of hotels, golf courses, and farmlands surrounding the park are siphoning off so much of the water that the park’s survival is threatened. In the past 15 years, such projects have already pumped so much water that the water table has dropped 6 to 30 feet [2-9 m], and several lagoons have dried up. “Any more growth here,” the park’s research director says,” will be the death sentence for Doñana.”
State of the World 1992 reports: “Mangroves, one of the most threatened and valuable types of wetlands, have suffered heavy losses in Asia, Latin America, and west Africa. Nearly half of these protective swamp forests in Ecuador, for example, have been cleared, mostly for shrimp ponds, and plans call for the conversion of a like proportion of the remaining areas. India, Pakistan, and Thailand have all lost at least three fourths of their mangroves. Indonesia seems determined to follow suit: in Kalimantan, its largest province, 95 percent of all mangroves are to be cleared for pulpwood production.”
The value of mangroves is highlighted in Thailand’s Bangkok Post of August 25, 1992: “Mangrove forests are made up of diverse tree species which thrive in upper tidal zones along flat, sheltered tropical shores. The trees have [thrived] in the harsh environment of brackish water and changing tides. Their special adaptive aerial roots and salt-filtering tap roots have established rich and complex ecosystems. Besides protecting vast areas of coastline from erosion, they are vital to inshore fisheries, wood-products industries, and wildlife.
“In the mangrove forest life abounds. One can find shorebirds, crab-eating monkeys, fishing cats and mud-skipper fish that skim across the swamp mud to make their way between water holes at low tide.”
What Will Be the Outcome?
The crisis is worldwide. International Wildlife magazine states: “The bogs, fens, bayous, mangrove swamps, salt marshes, prairie potholes and lagunas that once covered more than 6 percent of the Earth’s landmass are in deep trouble. So many have been drained for farming, destroyed by pollution or filled in by developers that about half the planet’s wetland acreage has disappeared.”
Will people make peace with the earth? So far the signs are not encouraging. Yet, some struggle valiantly and claim that they will succeed. Jehovah, the earth’s Creator, says they will fail. He promises to step in and stop the assault on his marvelous earthly creation. He will “bring to ruin those ruining the earth,” and in their stead he will leave upon it those who will “take care of it.” To such appreciative ones, he will present it as a gift: “You are the ones blessed by Jehovah, the Maker of heaven and earth. As regards the heavens, to Jehovah the heavens belong, but the earth he has given to the sons of men.”—Revelation 11:18; Genesis 2:15; Psalm 115:15, 16.
[Picture on page 15]
Wetlands in Switzerland
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
Far left and above: Wetlands in the United States
H. Armstrong Roberts
Left: Mangrove forests in Thailand
By courtesy of the National Research Council of Thailand
Residents of wetlands: crocodile, bullfrog, dragonfly, box turtle digging hole to lay eggs