[This was written by Fran Siebrits and published online by Wild Magazine http://www.wildcard.co.za/, 2012] 

Every year on the second of February ecologists, conservationists and nature lovers pay homage to the giant natural sponges that are so beneficial to our planet’s functioning. Find out why wetlands are such important places.

Unlike the dry Cape at this time of year, the north-eastern parts of South Africa have been experiencing frequent flooding. Wetlands have a huge part to play in balancing the surface water in both dry and wet areas, soaking up excess run off during heavy rains or releasing water in dry spells.

The word “wetland” is a general term incorporating ecosystems that include mangrove swamps, marshes, seeps, depression plains, flats, coastal lakes, estuaries, springs, rivers, meandering floodplains, valley bottoms and lakes.

The importance of wetlands extends far beyond that of a giant earthy sponge. They are extremely important in nutrient control, something that is crucial for the delicate balance within ecosystems.  

Through this balance, wetlands enhance water quality, erosion control, water storage and stream flow regulation, as well as maintaining biodiversity. They trap many pollutants, including sediment, heavy metals and disease causing organisms.

Some wetlands, such as estuaries, serve as important breeding grounds for oceanic fish. Other wetlands, such as floodplains, can be used as grazing areas, if done on a sustainable basis.

And then, of course, there are the obvious benefits of wetlands solely for our human pleasure. Birders appreciate the beautiful and often unique feathered friends that wetlands attract. Because of the rich bird life promoted by wetlands, a number of predators can also be spotted on a sight-seeing trip.

Wetlands often incorporate large areas of land and provide resources such as food, water, fuel and medicine surrounding communities, which often rely on them for their livelihood.

Why a World Wetlands Day? 
Why a World Wetlands Day?

On 2 February the international community celebrates wetlands. But are they really important enough to set aside a day of international awareness?
If you needs an economic reason, then rest assured that wetlands are of huge monetary value and make enormous, direct contributions to economies. Wetlands process water and regulate run-off. Without water, the entire world would come to a stand-still and an inevitable destruction.

But wetlands are also undeniably important for the health of the planet, thereby affecting not only humand, but the wellbeing of all plants and animals too.

Human interference has destroyed the delicate balance of many areas, including the seemingly tougher parts of nature such as wetlands. Overgrazing, invasive alien plants, burning and waste disposal are the main factors threatening wetlands, and have either destroyed or converted 50% of our precious wetlands. 

To add to this, only 10% of our wetlands are protected and 8% partly protected. Conservation efforts are even more hindered by the lack of wetland information and understanding, hence the need for global awareness.
The importance of wetland systems in a nutshell
– Temporary storage of floodwaters and attenuation of flood peaks
– Water quality improvement
– Baseflow maintenance downstream of large wetlands
– Erosion control (through sediment trapping and storage)
– Biodiversity support
– Fishing, grazing and land for subsistence agriculture
– Reed and medicinal plant harvesting
Visit one of these pristine wetlands preserved by the Wild Card conservation partners.