Precious wetlands in the Murray Darling Basin have largely disappeared, a sign of ecological crisis in the making in Australia.
The country has failed to deliver on its obligation under the international Ramsar Convention to protect its wetlands, says Max Finlayson, a senior wetland ecologist and environmental scientist at Charles Sturt University (CSU).
The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was the first modern inter-governmental treaty between nations aiming to conserve natural resources. The signing of the Convention on Wetlands took place during 1971 in the small Iranian town of Ramsar.
Under the Ramsar Convention a wide variety of natural and human-made habitat types, ranging from rivers to coral reefs, can be classified as wetlands. Wetlands include swamps, marshes, billabongs, lakes, salt marshes, mudflats, mangroves, coral reefs, fens, peat bogs, or bodies of water - whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary. Water within these areas can be static or flowing; fresh, brackish or saline; and can include inland rivers and coastal or marine water to a depth of six meters at low tide. There are even underground wetlands.
Countries that joined the convention had agreed to protect the ecological character of listed sites, include wetland conservation within their national land-use planning and also establish nature reserves on wetlands and promote wetland training.
Australia currently has 65 Wetlands of International Importance listed under the Ramsar Convention covering approximately 7.5 million hectares.
Max Finlayson, a professor of Ecology and Biodiversity and Director of CSU's Institute for Land, Water and Society, said that since the Australian Government signed the convention in 1975, the condition of the nation's wetlands had continued to decline while some had vanished.
"Australia played a big role in developing Ramsar. By signing the Convention it agreed to look after all its wetlands, not just those listed as internationally important under the Convention. Australia's governments have failed dismally," Professor Finlayson said.
The Wetlands for Our Future
report, published on 22 October by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Inland Rivers Network, highlights the terrible state of wetlands around Australia, particularly in the Murray Darling Basin.
"According to the report, nearly 90 per cent of wetlands in the Basin have disappeared since Australia signed up to Ramsar, while the remainder are in poor or critical condition, including some Ramsar sites," he said.
"We need to look again at how we manage our wetlands, including the ecosystem services that wetlands provide to people, those surrounding the wetland and further afield.
"Wetland managers have tried and at times succeeded in maintaining the biodiversity of some wetlands, but to maintain the ecological character of a wetland, we must also maintain the ecosystem services, whether it is providing food or timber for local people, regulating storm water and floods or recharging groundwater."
Professor Finlayson has called for more consultation and involvement of wetland users and those who benefit from them.
"We will still need to make major trade-offs - make some real decisions about wetland use, benefits and values. For example, many river regulation and flood plain levees have been built without conscious and open consultation with those that are negatively affected. Just ask graziers downstream of the Queensland water harvesters of the need for consultation and the need to consider their needs and livelihoods!"
The call by the 'Wetlands for our Future' report for a National Wetland Initiative echoes demands by scientists to establish a national authority that cuts across state boundaries, that can rapidly improve wetland management, support private wetland managers, advise on policy and legislative changes to support these actions and to make effective use of the best available knowledge and expertise.
"And we should also add the need to identify ecosystem services and its wider values to Australian society to the initiative, which means better information to enable us to make the hard decisions about the values and trade-offs needed in working with landholders and community groups," the professor said.
"To do this, I believe we need to move out of our environment or agricultural or water resource 'boxes'. We need to consider land, people and biodiversity together - we need to consider conservation issues in agricultural management and agricultural issues in conservation management.
"We must not only halt the loss of our wetlands, but we need to support our land, our agriculture and our people in the process," he concluded.