World Wetlands Day commemorates the signing of the Convention on Wetlands on February 2, 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea. This international treaty, now ratified by 158 countries, protects 1,742 wetland sites, totaling more than 165 million hectares.
Known by its French name "Grands affluents," the second largest protected wetland area in the world covers 5.9 million hectares and surrounds Congo's only previous Ramsar site.
Congo has designated four Wetlands of International Importance to mark World Wetlands Day. (Photo by Denis Landenbergue, WWF International)
This enormous area lies along the Congo River, which with its tributaries represents the most important hydrological system in Central Africa.
The newly protected wetland includes the river basins of the four major Congo River tributaries - the Oubangui, Sangha, Likouala-Mossaka, and Alima rivers.
The lakes, ponds, marshes, flooded and swampy forests, and permanent and temporary rivers of the Grands affluents wetland host endangered species - the forest elephant, gorilla, and hippopotamus - and offer refuge to migratory fish and bird species during periods of drought.
A wide variety of plant species, macro invertebrates, fishes, birds, reptiles and aquatic mammals are found here, according to Ramsar's Evelyn Parh Moloko's description of the area, which is based on information compiled by Gilbert Madouka, the Ramsar focal point in Congo, and Gilbert Mbati.
Some 300,000 people live in the Grands affluents protected area. "Fishing and exploitation of palm wine - a drink of traditional and cultural symbolism - are major socio-economic activities by the riverine population," Moloko says.
The Congo River is marked in blue (Map courtesy Wikipedia)
The rivers offer an important transport network for local movement as well as transportation of goods between Central Africa and the Atlantic coast, and so are important for the socio-economic development of the region.
In the absence of a management plan, resource exploitation is partially controlled by respect for the hunting seasons, restriction of exploitation of certain zones to clan residents only, and other local practices and beliefs.
Two of the other newly designated wetlands are partially mangrove sites on the Atlantic coast in Congo's Kouilou province, the first covers half a million hectares near the border with Gabon and the second, covering 15,000 hectares lies farther southeast near the border with the Cabinda exclave of Angola.
Finally, the fourth newly protected wetland, located near Congo's northern border, covers the river Libenga with its marshes and floodplains.
The four new designations have been jointly supported by the Swiss Federal Office for Environment through the Convention's Swiss Grant for Africa and by WWF International's Freshwater Programme.
WWF calls the new Congolese designations "a clear sign of the world's increasing interest in the green heart of Africa."
Abou Bamba (Ramsar), Denis Landenbergue (WWF International), and Gilbert Madouka, Ramsar focal point, Direction Générale de l'Environnement of Congo (Photo courtesy Ramsar)
WWF International's wetlands manager Denis Landenbergue, a veteran of the long and challenging process of achieving the declarations, said they were "an outstanding achievement" of the governments and agencies concerned.
"This will help secure water and livelihoods for millions of people and the conservation of important water features, forests and habitats," he said. "Areas of these wetlands are particularly important dry time refuges for elephants, hippopotamuses and buffalos and for many migratory bird species."
Richard Holland, WWF's freshwater director, said, "WWF lauds the effort in this, the second driest continent, to secure clean and abundant water for millions of people. Wetlands are a critical source of water and other countries would do well to take Africa's lead."
The newly protected wetlands are intended to be part of a series of new Ramsar designations throughout the Congo Basin leading up to the creation of the CongoWet regional initiative.
This initiative has been under development as a result of the Declaration by the Council of Ministers of the Commission Internationale du Bassin Congo-Ougangui-Sangha, with which the Ramsar Secretariat has a memorandum of cooperation.
WWF International Director General James Leape said, "This underlines the importance of the Congo region as an area that is vital to global climate regulation, biodiversity, and the rights and welfare of indigenous peoples."
Ramsar Secretary-General Anada Tiega says, "For this year, 2008, we have suggested the theme of Healthy Wetlands, Healthy People, an especially appropriate one for us because that will also be the theme for Ramsar's 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties later in the year in the Republic of Korea."
"We are trying to emphasize that the strong relationship between healthy functioning wetland ecosystems and human health underlines the huge importance of management strategies that support both the health of wetlands and the health of humans," said Tiega. "And that the costs of poor management can be high - wetland-related diseases, for example, claim the lives of more than three million people every year and bring suffering to many more."
"Whether we are talking about swamps and bogs, peatlands, rivers and lakes, estuaries and coastal zones, coral reefs or rice paddies," Tiega said, "we understand that wetlands are essential for the supply of fresh water, maintenance of biodiversity, mitigation of the effects of climate change, groundwater recharge and flood control - and so many other so-called ecosystem services - and we want to get that message out to decision-makers and citizens in our communities."
For the record, the world's largest Ramsar wetland is the 6,278,200 hectare Queen Maude Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Canada.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.