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Save Vanishing Wetlands

by Deborah Mitchell
The Challenge

Wetlands are reportedly the number one threatened ecosystem in the world today. Destruction of these valuable regions is out of control in many areas of the world and is endangering human, plant, and animal life at an alarming rate

Wetlands, which make up 6 percent of the Earth's surface, are regions that are saturated or inundated by ground or surface water at least part of the time, and which support life that has adapted to such conditions. This loose definition encompasses regions such as floodplains, marshes, peat bogs, swamps, shallow lakes (e.g., ponds, volcanic crater lakes), estuaries (deltas, salt marshes), and coasts (e.g., beaches, mangroves). Although the exact definition of "wetlands" changes depending on their location, the fact that they are invaluable to life on Earth and that they are disappearing is not.

The main reason wetlands are destroyed is to create agricultural land, while industrial and residential construction, mining, and oil and gas production also contribute to their demise. In the US alone, more than 80,000 acres of wetlands are destroyed every year. Over the last century, half of the world’s wetlands have been lost or destroyed, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In Indonesia, peat bogs are rapidly disappearing due to massive burning to make way for farming. Because peat bogs store vast amounts of greenhouse gases, their destruction is contributing to global warming. River flooding in Europe and China are becoming more severe in recent years as their wetlands continue to vanish. And in southern Iraq, military actions are taking a toll on its marshlands.

Loss of wetlands has a devastating impact on the millions of trees, plants, birds, fish, amphibians, and insects that depend on these regions for their existence. Freshwater wetlands help sustain more than 40 percent of the world’s species and 12 percent of all animal species.  Migratory birds around the world depend on the existence of healthy wetlands as havens for feeding, resting, and breeding. Wetlands are natural water filters, absorbing pollutants and contaminants from water before it flows into rivers, streams, and lakes. They also absorb excess water after heavy rainfall, which helps prevent flooding, and then release the water slowly back into groundwater, lakes, and streams during dry periods.

The role of wetlands as buffers against extreme weather conditions is especially critical. This became apparent in Louisiana when hurricane Katrina hit the state in 2005. More than 148,000 acres of Louisiana wetlands had been destroyed due to construction during the last decade alone, weakening the inland’s defense against the storm. Katrina caused the loss of an additional 30 square miles of wetlands during its 36-hour assault.

Wetland restoration and preservation is a priority of many government and non-government organizations around the world, and they can use your help. When you do, you'll be assisting in the preservation and restoration of some of the most biologically diverse and sensitive areas of the world.

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  • Join a unique opportunity with Global Volunteer Network in Ecuador, where you can spend a minimum of two weeks at the Congal Biological Research Station. The Station was founded to help protect the wetlands, mangroves, estuaries, beaches, and wet tropical forest habitats. Wetlands volunteers participate in a variety of activities, ranging from helping restore mangroves to planting native flora, mapping restored areas, managing aquaculture ponds, taking inventory of plants, and cleaning up the wetlands.
  • In the Philippines, you can volunteer to help prevent destruction of the mangrove forests in Aklan. The Bakhawan Eco-park covers an area of 106 hectares of mangrove forest, and much of it needs to be replanted. This volunteer opportunity is made available through Hands on Manila Volunteer Vacations.
  • The endangered mangroves of San Teadoro in the Philippines need to be reclaimed, and Hands on Manila Volunteer Vacations needs your help. Along with mangrove tree planting, volunteers may also help with biodiversity inventory and monitoring and propagation of planting materials.
  • In Thailand, the Krabi Province has some of the oldest mangrove forests in the country, and they need to be preserved and protected from continued deforestation. Note that this volunteer opportunity involves diving, and everyone who participates will receive dive training and become PADI divers. In addition to mangrove reforestation, volunteers may be involved in beach and reef cleanup and exchanging data with local scientific organizations.
  • If you want to help preserve wetlands in the United States, the Ballona Wetlands in California are just one area that can use your help. Volunteers are needed to help with restoration, planting and transplanting, cleaning the area of debris, and other tasks for short-term or ongoing projects. 

Before you take off on your trip, you can learn more about the many facets and the vast biodiversity of wetlands at various websites, including Wetlands International, the International Wetlands Conference, the Environmental Protection Agency's wetlands site, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service "National Wetlands Inventory." 

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