Wetlands are a source of wellbeing: A celebration of World Wetlands Day 2024

Posted: 2nd February 2024

Photo: Lake Khanchali by Giorgi Drachiashvili

Healthy wetlands buffer coastal areas from storms, absorb and store carbon, filter our water, and provide habitat for many rare and endangered species. Yet, wetlands are often fragile and overexploited habitats that are being drained for agriculture, overfished, and harvested for peat. World Wetlands Day is celebrated each year on the 2nd of February to raise awareness about wetlands. This year’s theme – Wetlands and Human Wellbeing – is especially relevant to two Endangered Landscapes and Seascapes Programme (ELSP) planning projects that are developing large landscape restoration initiatives. Below they explain why restoring wetlands is vital for human wellbeing.

Oxbow Lake & Alluvial Forest by Milos Balla

Latorica Oxbow Lake & Alluvial Forest by Milos Balla

The Latorica River Floodplains

This year, World Wetlands Day coincides with the commencement of Wetlands International Europe‘s ‘Reconnecting the Latorica river floodplain in a transboundary context‘ project in Slovakia and Ukraine. The Latorica river highlights the interconnection between healthy wetlands and human wellbeing as it flows from Ukraine into Slovakia, forming a unique landscape of oxbow lakes, soft and hardwood floodplain forests, old river meanders, grasslands, and meadows – that still maintains much of its natural character from centuries ago. Not only is it important for rare and threatened bird and indigenous fish species, but it is also an inhabited landscape of villages and farms, with livelihoods, economy and culture historically supported and shaped by the river.  

In the past, wide floodplains served as natural sponges, providing defences against floods and droughts by soaking up excess floodwaters and recharging groundwater. This also created outstanding habitats for unique European nature to thrive. But now, after decades of dike building and drainage, the negative consequences for both wetlands and people have become evident. Despite protected area designations, including a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance on the Slovakian side of the border, the landscape is facing many threats and challenges.  

European Bee-Eater Birds by Milos Balla

European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) by Milos Balla

Floods are restricted between narrow dikes, and the wider floodplain essential to nourishing the health of the landscape is disconnected. At the same time, the climate is changing, with current trends of lower spring floods and higher temperatures in summer. This is drying out wetland habitats, along with lowering groundwater levels and drying out of wells in villages. Flood risks are also increasing as, in much of Europe, there is a higher likelihood of extreme summer precipitation events that channel copious amounts of floodwaters quickly downstream – without sufficient floodplains to absorb and reduce peak flows – towards larger towns.  

Under the new project, partners in Slovakia and Ukraine – the governments, civil society, knowledge institutes and the private sector – are coming together to start the process of co-creating knowledge and understanding. This is the basis to establish active transboundary cooperation which has been lacking between the countries and will lead to the co-development of a shared vision for the landscape’s future.  

We are hopeful that this planning process comes at the right moment to envision a healthier and more climate resilient landscape. The restoration of floodplain wetlands is a multi-benefit, nature-based solution that has the potential to bring back nature, increase protections against both floods and droughts, improve water quality and drinking water security, and create more prosperous and sustainable livelihoods that sustain cultural traditions – benefiting wetlands and human wellbeing.

Latorica Wetland by Milos Balla

Latorica Wetland by Milos Balla

Javakheti Plateau and its diverse communities

The Javakheti plateau is situated at the heart of the South Caucasus in Georgia at an altitude of 2,000m. This is a landscape of lakes and marshes with a harsh climate that includes up to 100 days of snow cover and a very brief summer.

Lake Khanchali by Paata Vardanashvili

The Doukhobor people who live in this inhospitable environment have fostered a unique bond and deep appreciation for the landscape. Understanding those special connections could pave the way for a much-anticipated positive change for these wetlands. The planning grantRestoring the Javakheti wetlands for people and birds’ aims to demonstrate restoration is not only possible but is also in everybody’s best interest. 

While degradation from past mistakes and current non-sustainable practices has resulted in the loss of wetlands and related biodiversity, over the past decades the landscape’s human population is also losing its diversity. These two processes are not mere coincidences. According to some estimates, only about 150 families of the Doukhobors, a Russian-speaking religious minority, remain in Javakheti.

The Doukhobors of Javakheti by Natela Grigalashvili

The Doukhobors were members of the pacifist movement that emerged in Russia in the 18th century. Perceived as a threat to Czarist authority, they were persecuted and eventually exiled from Russia. Many ended up in Siberia, while others emigrated to Canada or to the highlands of Javakheti in Georgia (then part of the Russian Empire), with the aid of their famous protector Leo Tolstoy. In Javakheti, the Doukhobors built eight villages, the largest of which was Gorelovka. The Georgian Doukhobors consider Javakheti a holy land, “the Doukhobor Land,” and for some, the village of Gorelovka is the centre for all the Doukhobors scattered around the world. They established a well-organised commune and, despite the harsh Javakheti climate, soon became one of the richest communities in the entire Caucasus.

Great white pelicans (Pelicanus onocrotalus) at Lake Khanchali by Paata Vardanashvili

Doukhobor society is based on equal rights for men and women, and they strongly believe in peaceful and respectful coexistence with nature. They have always appreciated their environment and have a spiritual relationship with waterbirds, primarily depicted by the special care shown towards white storks which are welcomed every spring as they return to their huge nests on electric poles in the villages, the roofs of people’s houses, and church bell towers.

Living in one of the country’s least hospitable highland plateaus is undoubtedly challenging. However, there is a glimpse of hope for these once extremely isolated communities. These people have, for centuries, found ways not only to cope but to thrive there by developing a special connection with their landscape. In light of recent positive changes, with local communities becoming more open to integration into wider Georgian society and with many Georgians rediscovering the beauty of the Javakheti plateau, there is a wonderful opportunity for conservationists to facilitate changes in Javakheti that could benefit both the wellbeing of the people and the wildlife.

The celebration of World Wetland Day 2024, which will take place in Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi, will be a step towards acknowledging the minority populations of the plateau and will draw the attention of decision-makers to this unique landscape. It will bring representatives of local communities to celebrate the most crucial feature of their landscape, the wetlands of Javakheti. The event aims not only to demonstrate the simple fact that wetlands are the source of human wellbeing but, more importantly, to recognise that wetlands and the services they provide cannot be taken for granted.

White storks (Ciconia ciconia) Nesting by David Samkharadze

White storks (Ciconia ciconia) Nesting by David Samkharadze

In addition to our Planning Grant projects in the floodplains of Latorica and the Javakheti plateau, several ELSP Restoration Landscapes Projects are currently in the process of harnessing natural processes to demonstrate ways of restoring degraded wetlands. These projects include the Danube Delta, Cairngorms National Park, Mura-Drava-Danube, Polesia, and the Koitajoki Watershed, which are all striving to work with local communities to restore wetlands for the benefit of nature and human well-being.

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