A new article puts transboundary wetlands on the map
In occasion of World Wetlands Day, Zoe Rosenblum (PhD Candidate, Oregon State University, in collaboration with IHE Delft) and Susanne Schmeier (IHE-Delft) present the findings of their recent article on the Transboundary Wetlands Database, putting transboundary wetlands on the map and highlighting where more research is needed to bridge gaps between water governance and wetlands.
The main subject of transboundary water governance research and practice has long been rivers. We’ve all heard of the Nile, the Danube, the Mekong… but where do wetlands fit into the mix?
Positioning wetlands in the transboundary water discourse
Managing water resources that cross country borders is complex. Laws, interests, priorities, capacities, politics and languages vary, and can pose barriers to having conversations about how to manage shared resources. However, shared waters pose an opportunity for countries to build trust and share the burdens and benefits of management (Wolf, 1998; Sadoff & Grey, 2002).
Inspired by the many benefits that wetlands offer, including the provision of food, fuel and fibers (Revenga et al., 2000), mitigating climate change and sustaining species and ecological functions (MEA, 2005), we embarked on research to understand the scope of transboundary wetlands and identified many potential avenues for further research.
Putting transboundary wetlands on the map
Following the work of Oregon State University’s Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database (TFDD), which hosts spatial and tabular datasets on the world’s international river basins, treaties, river basin organizations, and events, we compiled and added to the TFDD a database on transboundary wetlands. We then mapped out this data and conducted a spatial analysis. Mapping wetlands is not a straightforward task (Gallant, 2015), so we limited our analysis to wetland sites recognized by the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Even with this limited subset of wetlands, our mapping exercise identified more than 200 wetlands that are situated within international river basins.
Opening the door for future research
Wetlands are found on every continent except Antarctica. Despite recognition of their many benefits, about 35% of the world’s wetlands have been lost since 1970. This fact leads us to believe that the world needs more support for wetland conservation. Recognizing the importance of institutions, such as river basin organizations (RBOs) for governing international river basins (Schmeier, 2013), our research presents a database of transboundary wetlands showing their situatedness in international river basins and indicating the presence of RBOs. We see this as a first step to ensuring the sustainable management of transboundary wetlands in the future, with many possible directions for future research.
First and foremost, our research highlights the need for better integration between water governance and wetlands. While one might assume that RBOs, tasked with integrated water resources management, would inherently deal with wetlands, it is not evident to what extent RBOs are integrated or interact with the Ramsar Convention and related commitments or wetlands more broadly. Further research could take a deeper dive into RBO mandates and actions to understand to what extent RBOs are involved in wetlands governance.
Second, our research is at the global scale, providing a global overview of transboundary wetlands and their governance. Further research could explore specific details through case studies – perhaps selected from the Transboundary Wetlands Database – to understand whether and how institutions (treaties, RBOs, others) are making a difference for wetlands or the communities that rely on them. This field-based research is essential for better understanding how institutionalized cooperation mechanisms work in practice and building a thorough understanding of how the governance of wetlands can be integrated with transboundary water management more broadly. This can help realize the benefits of sustainable transboundary wetland management and regional cooperation.
Third, this initial research focuses only on a narrow portion of the world’s wetlands: those recognized as Ramsar Sites. Only 13-18% of wetlands globally are on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Significance. Thus, while our research shares the most exhaustive list of transboundary wetlands, there are most certainly more out there. Future research could work towards identifying these wetlands using remote sensing methods or through compilation of existing GIS data on wetlands. Such research would offer a more complete picture of the extent of the world’s transboundary wetlands, offering additional opportunities for case studies to further explore the intricacies of wetland governance.
Finally, further research should investigate community-based and voluntary efforts around transboundary wetlands governance. While institutionalized cooperation over international rivers promotes resilience and sustainability, more research must be done to understand whether the same is true for transboundary wetlands.
Wetlands are simultaneously vulnerable to and resilient against the impacts of climate change. Integrating water governance research and wetlands may help uncover useful tools to help us sustain the numerous benefits wetlands offer.
You can read our full article on transboundary wetlands here.