Dr. Shane Mc Guinness, conservation biologist, is the Deputy Coordinator of the WaterLANDS project at the University College Dublin (UCD). Waterlands is a recent European Green Deal project launched to lead largescale restoration of European wetlands. Below he responds to questions from the Tour du Valat concerning wetlands restoration.
- What are the main obstacles preventing effective wetland restoration in Europe?
Wetlands are extremely important ecosystems, for the carbon, water, and amenity value they provide, not to mention the incredible biodiversity they support. Although not as biodiverse as tropical rainforests (and some might say less charismatic!), the wetlands of the world store significantly more carbon than rainforests and sustain significantly more livelihoods. However, 35% of global wetlands have been lost since 1970, while in Europe the majority of our wetland losses occurred significantly before this time. One major issue is public perceptions. Although wetlands store and capture vast amounts of carbon, most of this is locked up under the ground or water. Similarly, most of the fish nurseries, coastal protection or water filtration go unseen and unnoticed. As a consequence, there is much less support for wetland protection or restoration, as these areas are still often seen as unproductive or inconvenient. Several key barriers emerge from this. First, this means that those already socio-economically disadvantaged communities are much less likely to engage in protection, over drainage and clearance, as an immediate path to income is unclear. Second, because of this low priority, there is insufficient stakeholder engagement and a related lack of government support. Third, there is a lack of finance to achieve large-scale restoration, as other restoration priorities often take precedent. Fourth, there is agricultural policy has also been an obstacle preventing wetland restoration, as well as having a negative impact. Finally, there is a lack of knowledge exchange platforms due to this lower priority, in comparison to the well-developed knowledge bases for forests or marine resources. Because of the above, the majority of wetland restoration to date has been either small-scale in nature, limited to a single landowner, or has been conducted for conservation alone.
- How can we overcome these obstacles?
The key to overcoming these obstacles is ‘perception change’; by demonstrating these ecosystem values, leading to support (community and political) investment in conservation and instilling transformational change in economic systems, governance structure and financial incentives. This is not an easy task, however, and it requires a combined understanding not only of the ecology at play, but existing community values, supporting (or not) governance structures and the drivers of potential future investment. For example, forthcoming reform of the CAP might see landowners receiving more supports for enhancing natural assets such as wetlands, but trends for an intensification of output continue, including in those important spaces between wetlands and in the wider catchment.
- What role can civil society play in wetland restoration?
It would be naïve to think that all communities can restore their local wetlands alone, or that all private owners would want to transition land use back to more natural states. Yes, elements such as ‘citizen science’ and ‘community stewardship’ are powerful additions to a restoration system, which instill powerful local support and political advocacy. However, these should remain complementary to large-scale commitments from governments and private investors. This is where civil society can really shift the trajectory of wetland restoration, by demonstrating to local decision-makers that their wetland is valued, that they envisage tangible economic benefits from their wetland and that the slow progress in restoration currently underway is no longer a viable solution. Additionally, the ownership of many wetlands is highly fragmented across numerous stakeholders. Collaboration across civil society is therefore fundamental to upscaling restoration and ensuring that it is done at a landscape level: watersheds do not stop at fences!
- Can you explain how the new Horizon 2020 project “WaterLANDS” plans to contribute to upscaling wetland restoration?
In order to achieve this required transformational change, a coordinated response is required that transcends ecology, community or governance change in isolation. The WaterLANDS project has been designed to achieve exactly this. This project, coordinated by University College Dublin, involves a total of 32 partner organisations across 14 countries, spanning civil society, academia, government bodies, environmental non-profits, and commercial entities. It is highly ambitious in nature and aims for long-term, scalable restoration. The project is 96%-supported by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Green Deal fund, with a total budget of €23.6 million, and fundamentally aims to upscale restoration by co-creating a new model for wetland restoration which considers the challenges (and opportunities) of ecology, community, governance and finance. By exploring the upscaling of wetland restoration, WaterLANDS will enable a scale at which nature-based solutions and cumulative benefits can be realised. This will coalesce the knowledge of 15 ‘Knowledge Sites’ across Europe, and apply these lessons to 6 ‘Action Sites’, where tangible restoration will occur. This action is not simply limited to blocking drains, re-wetting, or removal of invasive species, but intends to co-create a new paradigm for wetlands at each site, by educating communities, influencing policy and mobilising finance. In other words, it transcends ecology alone. This is intended to have lasting effects beyond the life of the project (2026) by, amongst other elements, incubating catalytic funding to support diversified economic activities, and better capitalise on the ecosystem services provided by these vital habitats.
More information on WaterLANDS can be found at www.waterlands.eu or by following us on Twitter at @WaterLANDS_EU .