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02 February 2023

Wonderful wetlands and their importance to biodiversity

On World Wetlands Day, I wanted to share some thoughts and insights on the importance of wetland areas as part of complex nature-based solutions.  

Of course, all nature-based solutions involve water to some degree: the solution would hardly be nature based without it. Often, however, water presents its own problems – something that is particularly evident in urban and peri-urban environments which due to human population density can reap a particularly high human and financial cost when water management fails. 

Why do we need wetlands? 

Wetlands can range from huge deltas such as the Danube to artificial rain and bog gardens in your local community space. These all have one thing in common: they are dynamic, and that is because water is dynamic.  

Many of the most obvious environmental challenges we face because of water stem from how it behaves and particularly how it behaves in relation to our impact on the landscape. If we think of the landscape in 3D terms, wherever we alter the landscape, we alter the way that water moves through or across it.  

When we plan this properly, we can make sure we realise the benefits – directing water to where we need it and away from where we don’t want it. This can create habitats, carbon sinks and areas of amenity. When we fail to consider water, however, there can be catastrophic implications, including flooding, drought, habitat destruction and species loss.  

Creation, not control 

Our traditional approach to managing water has been to attempt to control it. Historically, hard engineered solutions such as revetments, bunds, redirection of rivers have all considered biodiversity as an afterthought. Although this has changed in recent years and hard engineered solutions do have a place, taking a nature-first approach to water is critical. The creation and restoration of wetlands in urban and peri-urban areas is key to the fight against biodiversity loss and climate change as well as having huge value for the people living in the local community.  

Water is a precious resource. Only last year, the UK suffered a severe drought. According to the European Forest Fire Information System there were 151 wildfires burning over 20,000Ha of land in the UK in 2022 – an increase of over 200% from 2021. Many of these were in urban areas, so could a nature-based approach to water management and wetland restoration have mitigated at least some of these problems? 

In urban areas, water is typically diverted rather than being captured. Hard surfaces encourage run off – where does the water go when it leaves a rooftop, driveway or car park? As long as it is not flooding our infrastructure who cares?  

We all should. Surface run off gathers pollution from hard surfaces. In fact, a report from the Greater London Authority states there are more than 300 different chemical pollutants in run off water. This water often runs directly into our already heavily polluted rivers. It harms wildlife, contaminates water and can cause eutrophication – the enriching of the environment with nutrients which can lead to algal blooms, oxygen depletion and over abundance of negative indicator species. 

Darrick marsh prior to wetland restoration

How can wetlands help? 

So, how can wetlands help? Well, they act as buffers, filters and storage systems for water while creating habitat, carbon sinks and potentially valuable areas of recreation. Using wetlands to intercept surface water before it has an opportunity to reach the wider environment can improve the ecological health of the surface water thus reducing the harm it may otherwise cause. 

Wetlands can also store and slow water down. This is a critical component of flood alleviation. Indeed, the traditional approach of dredging water courses to increase capacity as a technique to alleviate flooding is flawed for this very reason. Dredging and de-silting can serve to speed up water flow, increasing erosion and increasing flood risk downstream. Slowing the flow and increasing storage has the opposite impact.  

Nature-based planning and development 

How does taking a nature-based solutions approach to designing, planning and implementing development align with wetlands? Should all developments accommodate a wetland? Some would certainly advocate this although this is clearly not feasible.  

We need to consider water at a landscape level when planning any development and take responsibility for it rather than diverting it to be someone else’s problem. How can we as landscape managers, planners, engineers and ecologists control our impact on water in urban and peri-urban areas, not only to minimise harm but to actively improve our environment?  

There are many measures – ranging from very simple to very complex – which often just need the will to implement, and the inclusion of experts from the early planning stages. Water retention systems such as green roofs, permeable hard surfaces, well designed sustainable draining systems, green spaces with diverse habitats can all minimise the water leaving your site, while improving value to people and nature.  

Specialist advice and management  

On a landscape level prioritising water and wetlands in urban planning, and shifting the perception of water as a problem to treating it as a priority, is critical as is ongoing management. Wetlands are dynamic habitats which under natural circumstances are often a temporary habitat. To ensure they deliver for people and nature in the long term managers must ensure that they are managed by specialists.  

I would urge anyone reading this to take ownership over your water. Whether that be the water running off your roof or driveway and into the urban drainage system or the millions of litres flooding down from our uplands each winter. By embracing the opportunity that wetland creation can provide not only for nature and recreation but for services to the wider economy and public health we can reduce the need for large, expensive and carbon hungry hard infrastructure in favour of sustainable nature-based solutions. 

Where’s your nearest wetland? Why not visit it this weekend and see the benefits for yourself?