We're a wet country, so why aren't we more interested in our wetlands?
Brent geese: regulars at Dublin's North Bull. illustration: michael viney
ANOTHER LIFE:There has to be the occasional day at this time of year when Ireland, seen from space at the right angle to the sun, would glitter all over, like one of those Victorian diamond brooches people take to Antiques Roadshow. From ditches, dune slacks, reedy lakes, estuaries, sandy bays and flooded fields, our February dykes catch the light in a generous, even excessive, celebration of water.
Last Saturday, indeed, was World Wetlands Day, anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an intergovernmental treaty adopted in a small Iranian city on the coast of the Caspian Sea on February 2nd, 1971. Signed up to by 164 countries, it had as its main concern the conservation of the planet’s migratory waterbirds.
About 2,000 wetlands across the world were picked as especially important, 45 of them in Ireland. A typical one is the North Bull in Dublin Bay, where amiable brent geese do their best to ignore the traffic and the great flocks of waders that swirl against the sky.
In four decades since the signing, the importance of watery ecosystems has been extended to much more than geese, swans, ducks and waders. The Ramsar organisation, based in Switzerland, is still pressing ecological imperatives for “wise use” of wetlands, urging governments to report on progress, and spread the word to the world.
This month’s World Wetlands Day sought “to highlight ways to ensure the equitable sharing of water between different stakeholder groups and to understand that without wetlands there will be no water.”
Last summer, Bucharest, in Romania, hosted the big Ramsar conference of “contracting parties”, held every three years to fix policy. It drew almost 900 people from governments and NGOs in 143 countries.
All the big guns were there – Russia, Australia, the US, Japan, the UK, Brazil – and most of the little, even quite poor, ones. Among the absentees – Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Belize – was the Republic of Ireland. Nearly all the governments had duly filed reports on what they had done for wetlands, but the update on Ireland’s inventory remained filled with question marks.
Heavy in procedure and endlessly attentive to the concerns of far-off places – Panama, Senegal, the Islamic Republic of Iran – the conference wouldn’t have been much of a junket.
Even Ramsar’s new focus on tourism as an “ecosystem service” from wetlands could hardly have prompted Irish minds to anything but envy, as tropical beaches and coral reefs flashed up on the screen. (Wetlands, in Ramsar’s wide scope, include “areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters” – this along with fish ponds, rice paddies and salt pans.)
If Ireland doesn’t “do” Ramsar conferences, it could be just because we’re broke. And as our best wetland sites – coastal bays, bogs, lakes, winter-flooding rivers and so on – are all protected in response to the EU’s habitats and bird directives, this is where the legal authority is seen to lie.
But our failure to report to Ramsar must irk the Irish Ramsar Wetlands Committee ( irishwetlands.ie), an umbrella group set up with government financial help to spread the gospel on wetland and water issues, not least from 20-odd handbooks of Ramsar wisdom. This Irish team, drawn from NGOs, academic experts, heritage officers and local authority engineers and planners, is chaired by Karin Dubsky of Trinity College Dublin.