Today is World Wetlands Day. It is one outcome of an extraordinary agreement signed in Iran in 1971 at a city on the Caspian Sea – the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, also known as the Ramsar Convention, after that city.
Despite being the lifeblood of just about everywhere, wetlands have been under immense pressure over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900. In some cases entire seas have collapsed, such as the Aral Sea. In other (in)famous circumstances, wetlands have been drained as measures of war, such as the Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq. Reflooding of these wetlands has demonstrated the resilience – and limits – of these natural and human systems.
Australia signed up to the Ramsar Convention in 1975. All around us now are wetlands protected by this Convention and by federal and State environmental laws. There are 65 Ramsar sites in Australia, covering freshwater, marine and coastal wetlands, surface and groundwater systems, temperate and tropical areas, wetlands in remote Australia and in cities. Alongside these emblematic places, it is worth remembering that wetlands across Australia have been lost or impaired by activities such as drainage schemes, over-extraction and pollution from mining operations, inappropriate development and poor land-use practices.
EJA has a long and proud history of litigation and law reform in support of our wetlands and the communities who stand up to protect and restore them. These places are, in their proper ecological functioning, hugely important to well-being and livelihoods. For Aboriginal Nations they are central features of Country and culture. They are resilient ecosystems and can thrive in support of nature as well as multiple economic and social uses.
We are continuing to strive for ways in which the law can better protect wetlands. With the Yarra Riverkeeper Association we are working on ideas and models for the design of a proposed Yarra River Protection Act. This builds on earlier work we have done on community involvement in water governance. EJA is also a key participant in the Australian Panel of Experts in Environmental Law and its project to consider and develop the ‘next generation of environmental laws’ – a movement for stronger and more effective environmental laws will be fundamental to achieving the ambition of wetland protection and restoration. It will be fundamental to achieving, in practice, the ambitions originally laid down by the Ramsar Convention.