Spotlight on wetlands
Okavango Delta, Botswana © prezz/Flickr
Wetland ecosystems, and the hydrological processes that govern them, are fundamental to the maintenance of life on Earth and provide a wealth of essential services on which humankind depends. Waterbirds represent one of the most obvious indicators of the health and diversity of these critical ecosystems and provide a sobering insight into the scale of the threats they face. Around the world the BirdLife Partnership is contributing to global efforts to safeguard wetlands for people and wildlife. From assisting the implementation and development of national legislation to training, field research, water resources planning, awareness-raising and site management on-the-ground.

Wetlands encompass a wide diversity of landscapes, such as rivers, marshes, lakes, peatlands and mangroves. Birds are a conspicuous presence at many wetland ecosystems—gathering in truly spectacular numbers at some key sites (Congregation at particular sites is a common behaviour in many bird species). This is especially evident during migration, when the world’s major stopover sites can host many millions of individual birds (The flyways concept can help coordinate global efforts to conserve migratory birds).


On 2nd February—World Wetlands Day—the Ramsar Convention celebrated its 40th anniversary.



Unfortunately, around the world wetland habitats are disappearing, and the birds they support, including many once considered common, are in sharp decline. Today, 17% of waterbird species are considered globally threatened (Waterbirds are showing widespread declines, particularly in Asia). Ever-expanding and intensifying agriculture and unchecked development pose the greatest threat (Threatened birds indicate the consequences of unchecked infrastructure development). Few of the world’s freshwater environments have escaped human modification. Dams, barrages, embankments and canals now affect a high proportion of river systems, disrupting hydrological processes and impacting both biodiversity and people (Large dams and barrages are an increasing threat to wetland-dependent birds, Large dams threaten one of Africa's most important wetland ecosystems). Wetlands are further degraded through unsustainable exploitation (Commercial shellfisheries can negatively impact migratory waterbirds), invasive alien species and the pollution associated with agriculture, forestry and industry (Pollution from agriculture, forestry and industry has significant impacts on birds). Ultimately, climate change, the impacts of which are already being felt, may prove the most serious threat, with many hydrological processes likely to be profoundly altered. Low-lying coastal wetlands will be particularly at risk as sea levels rise (Sea level rise poses a major threat to coastal ecosystems and the biota they support).

Healthy, bio-diverse wetlands provide numerous ecosystem services upon which all human societies ultimately depend. They are an integral part of the hydrological cycle, which is central to the maintenance of life on Earth; they provide us with food and water (both to drink and to sustain our agriculture and industry), they have a fundamental role in the carbon cycle and they contribute to the regulation of both local and global climate (Safeguarding wetland ecosystems is vital for local communities). The conversion of wetland habitats makes no economic sense once these currently unmarketed services are taken into account (The perverse economics of habitat conversion). As a result, BirdLife is at the centre of efforts to develop robust and inexpensive methods to help quantify the economic and social importance of intact wetland ecosystems (Ecosystem services demonstrate the socio-economic value of IBAs).

BirdLife’s Important Bird Areas (IBA) programme has identified those wetland sites around the world that are of greatest ornithological importance. These sites invariably harbour high levels of other biodiversity as well (To date, more than 10,000 Important Bird Areas have been identified). The IBA inventory has made a crucial contribution to identifying places in need of international protection and in many regions has been adopted as a ‘shadow list’ for identify potential Ramsar sites (wetlands of global importance designated under the Ramsar Convention) (Most countries have ratified key international treaties although significant gaps remain, Many IBAs are recognised under global or regional conventions, but many remain neglected). International agreements, like Ramsar, are key to safeguarding coherent networks of transboundary protected areas (International agreements can be used to make transboundary ecological networks a reality).

BirdLife is an International Organization Partner (IOP) to the Ramsar Convention and through its Memorandum of Cooperation works closely with Ramsar to safeguard wetland habitats. A recent example of this is the Wings over Wetlands (WOW) project, which ran from 2006 to 2010. This project brought together conservationists from the BirdLife Partnership, Ramsar, Wetlands International and the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) to protect wetlands and migratory waterbirds along the African–Eurasian Flyways. The initiative led to the creation of the Critical Site Network Tool—a web portal providing a wealth of data on wetlands and waterbirds across 118 countries (A network of critical sites for migratory waterbirds is being identified across Africa and Eurasia). Also, as part of the initiative a number of successful conservation projects were implemented by national BirdLife Partners ('Nature-friendly' fish-farming techniques in Hungary bring economic benefits, Collaboration between conservationists and local religious leaders can safeguard IBAs). For example, through community participation, BirdLife and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (BirdLife in Nigeria) have succeeded in restoring a section of the Hadejia-Nguru Wetlands, an Important Bird Area and Ramsar site in the north-east of the country (Community led wetland restoration in Nigeria).

Around the world the BirdLife Partnership is contributing to global efforts to safeguard wetlands for people and wildlife. The Upper Bay of Panamá is one of the most important areas for migratory shorebirds in the Americas. Panamá Audubon Society (BirdLife in Panama) has provided wetland management training to Local Conservation Groups in the area. Mangrove restoration, as part of an integrated coastal management plan, has contributed to local poverty alleviation by improving fish, molluscs and other mangrove forest resources (Mangrove ecosystems provide numerous benefits including protection against sea level rise). In Lebanon, the Society for Protection of Nature in Lebanon (BirdLife in Lebanon) is championing the revival of traditional management practices to empower local communities and protect important wetlands (The traditional approach of Hima: conserving Important Bird Areas and empowering local people). Likewise, at the globally important Koshi Tappu wetlands, Bird Conservation Nepal (BirdLife in Nepal) are working alongside local communities to promote sustainable livelihoods—alleviating the pressure on wetland resources and providing tangible benefits to local people (The sustainable use of wetland resources can benefit both wildlife and local communities).


BirdLife International and the Ramsar Convention

BirdLife has worked closely with Ramsar since the Convention’s inception and, in 2011, renewed and refreshed its Memorandum of Cooperation. To find out more about how BirdLife Partners are supporting governments worldwide to implement Ramsar, see the leaflet BirdLife International and the Ramsar Convention.



To access further case studies on wetlands and waterbirds, please click on the following links.


Ramsar Convention
The Critical Site Network Tool 

Compiled 2011

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2011) Spotlight on wetlands. Presented as part of the BirdLife State of the world's birds website. Available from: