A recent story in the BBC news (www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24770379) caught my eye and for a number of reasons I found it encouraging, not least because it talks about the role of wetlands in absorbing flood waters and thus playing an extremely important role in mitigating floods and the huge amount of damage that can be caused by those same floods. Did you know that larger undisturbed wetlands can potentially store 60 days of floodwater? (Source: EPA: http://water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/flood.cfm). I've just quoted a rather extreme example of the Mississippi but it still illustrates the role wetlands can play.
Wetlands are the ultimate in multifunctional ecosystems, but they are underrated, underappreciated and their economic and ecological benefits have long been overlooked by broader society. Worldwide they've been drained and modified to yield wonderfully productive farmland and attractive coastal development areas. Let's be clear though, these productive farmland and attractive coastal development areas are inherently at risk. They are still exposed to the water that has flowed in and out in varying extremes for an age. And without the buffer that these spongey wetlands provide, the broader surrounding areas are also dangerously exposed.
There are many directions that I could take this blog post, talking about the habitat that wetlands provide and the richness of biodiversity they support or the incredible water filtering function they perform. But I will stay with the following three points:
1) Where and how people choose to build and farm is a big driver of the amount of damage inflicted by natural disasters. We can be much wiser with land use planning and building codes and help ourselves in this way. This point was also emphasised recently at Swiss Re's 150Y anniversary event in New York, by Karen Clark, our invited expert on 'Managing climate and natural disaster risk' (check out the output of the fascinating discussions that took place here: http://150.swissre.com/events/150/newyork_am.html).
2) In order to live with natural catastrophes (we must!) like floods, restoring, recreating and leaving existing wetland areas to 'do their thing' could easily be part of a multi-pronged strategy to manage risk - with multiple additional benefits as a knock on effect.
3) The economic benefits of wetlands to society are massive. Scientists and economists have been struggling with naming a figure for years and years with wildly differing results. For that reason I won't quote figures here - but if you add up what's not being spent on flood disaster recovery and damage + added fish stocks from all the fish that had a place to breed + cleansing water of sediments and nutrients from fertilisers and sewage + recreational areas available for all sorts of activities + ...the list goes on..... you get to a very big figure.
So there you have it. Wetlands - wow. Should they be one way society manages the flood risk with which it's faced? I say yes. Should we be looking at multiple ways to manage and live with risks so that we ensure resilient societies? Yes again.
Category: Climate/natural disasters
Location: United Kingdom