A call to action for wetlands

Mark Carlin

Mark Carlin

As 2022 begins, many are looking back at COP26, analysing the agreements reached and trying to understand or interpret the messages it sent. For me, and many others, the limited success achieved merely reinforces the urgency of the global climate crisis, the need to look forward, and the growing imperative to transition more quickly to a net zero economy and lifestyle. Whilst dramatically reducing our carbon emissions is fundamental, so is the need to enable the power of nature to help us achieve our goals. One way we could do that is to preserve and progressively restore the world’s wetlands and peatlands.

Taking action to save and restore the world’s wetlands

February 2nd has been designated World Wetlands Day with the aim to raise global awareness about the vital role wetlands can play in tackling climate change by acting as carbon sinks. Wetlands are land areas that are saturated or flooded with water either permanently or seasonally. Inland wetlands include marshes, ponds, lakes, fens, rivers, floodplains, and swamps. Coastal wetlands include saltwater marshes, estuaries, mangroves, lagoons, and even coral reefs. Sometimes referred to as ‘blue carbon ecosystems’ these coastal wetland areas are some of the most carbon-rich habitats on earth.

Wetlands have a remarkable capacity to sequester carbon despite covering less land area (5-8% of the terrestrial landscape) than other ecosystems like forests. They can store carbon in vegetation above ground and underground, in sediment beneath live plants, and in dead plants such as leaf litter. The carbon currently stored in wetlands globally is estimated at 225 billion metric tons (MT), a catastrophic amount if it were to be released into the atmosphere giving us an urgent reason to save these ecosystems from being drained or encroached upon further by development.

Sequestering carbon is among one of many ecosystem services provided by wetlands worldwide. Aside from their role in providing hotspots for biodiversity, they act as natural stores for fresh water and provide water filtration services for free.

Investing capital in ecosystem services makes commercial sense

In 2018, Anglian Water unveiled its first wetland treatment site on the River Ingol in west Norfolk. Created in partnership with the Norfolk Rivers Trust, the site works as a natural treatment plant for millions of litres of water a day. Used but treated water passes through the wetland to be further filtered and cleaned by the wetland plants before being returned to the River Ingol. This additional natural filtering process further improves the quality of water being returned to the river. This is done by removing ammonia and phosphorus, which benefits the whole of the river. Anglian Water will be monitoring the wetland over time to see if it also removes nutrients such as nitrates and other substances such as metals and microplastics. Aside from having a practical purpose, the wetland is a huge biodiversity asset attracting breeding birds, amphibians, bats, and water voles to the local environment.

Deemed a success by the company, and subject to the approval of the industry regulator Ofwat, Anglian Water has unveiled proposals for dozens of further wetland treatment sites as part of its future business plan.

“We need to find more natural ways to treat [water] rather than adding more chemicals in our treatment processes or building carbon hungry infrastructure, which is unsustainable, and would have an impact on customer bills too…so the wetland is a great solution.”

— Chris Gerrard, Natural Catchment and Biodiversity Manager, Anglian Water

The wetland treatment site at Ingoldisthorp, the first of its kind in England, recognises the value of natural capital and works with nature to avoid real processing costs and achieve an outcome that benefits a wider stakeholder group.

It’s a great example of a company acting along its value chain, upstream and downstream — literally!

Photo by Tyler Butler on Unsplash.

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