At NCI’s Natural Capital Summit Valuing our Life Support Systems 2104’ on the 6th & 7th November, there will be a session highlighting positive land and water management case studies. In the run up to the event, Steering Group member Bill Watts asks, why is there a problem in the way in which we currently manage these and what can be done to improve our practices? 

The issue of wetlands and their destruction is hugely important, both because as habitats they are vital, but also because they illustrate bigger issues.

The economic problem is that ecosystem services provided by wetlands are mainly public goods. These goods (unlike private goods such as farmed produce) are not sale-able in a normal market with distinct willing buyers and sellers.  Thus the beneficiary cannot be excluded from benefiting and consequently has no incentive to pay, given they benefit whether they pay or not. If the beneficiary does not know that they benefit from a wetlands’ service, one can add ignorance to incentive to explain poor wetland land management choice.

Thus many wetlands in Europe have been destroyed. This is often through the process of wetland drainage for agriculture and use as waste sinks. Moreover within the East Coast of the United Kingdom (and elsewhere in Europe) we have “coastal squeeze”. Here, the coast line is sinking and the existing inter-tidal wetland margin diminishes as it abuts up against hard flood and sea defences and infrastructure such as port facilities.

What are we losing when wetlands are destroyed? Some of the services are fairly clear. These habitats often have cultural, landscape as well as biodiversity value. There is, however, more.

Iris Möller at Cambridge has demonstrated that Wetlands are often important flood defence buffers, in particular they are good at absorbing wave energy and provide storage for flood water. They allow the flood defence line to be retreated, often shortened and built more cheaply.

Likewise, Chris Adams at East Anglia has shown beneficial Carbon burial and Nitrogen stripping processes, in both existing and new wetland created through “Managed Realignment”. These in turn give both green-house gas and water quality benefits.

Leila Fonseca, formerly at Queen Mary College (now at DEFRA), has demonstrated the value of intertidal wetland habitats as both nurseries, sources of food and places of refuge for fish. This corroborates earlier work in the area by others such as Nixon & Oviatt which show thatthese habitats yield both commercial and recreational fishery benefits.

This list of wetland benefits is not exhaustive, but illustrative. So, what can be done?

The damage done by drainage can be reversed (to some extent) by Managed Realignment, which can be encouraged by the institution of specific payment streams for the various publicly beneficial ecosystem services provided by wetlands; that is “Payment for Ecosystem Services” where public institutions recognise and pay for the benefits arising from wetland habitats.

NB: In producing this note, I draw on material which appears in a series of essays in the forthcoming Ramsar Secretariat endorsed Encyclopaedia of Wetlands, to be published by Springer Press.

Bill Watts is a Principal Economist for The Environment Agency, working on ecosystem valuation and the economics of hazardous chemical regulation, as well as project appraisal issues in the area of Flood Risk Management.