Water and biodiversity

Cornerstone of life in the islands

By David Sheppard*

May 2013

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Biological Diversity or ‘Biodiversity’ refers to the variety of all living things on Earth—all species, genetic resources and ecosystems, and how they function and interact. Biodiversity is the cornerstone of life in the Pacific—our plants, animals, and ecosystems are essential for livelihoods of Pacific people. It has helped shape our culture and traditions.

In our region, it is becoming increasingly clear that biodiversity, associated ecosystems and the services they provide, is one of the best “front-line” responses to a changing climate and rising sea levels.
Biodiversity is important for the protection of important ecosystem services such as the provision of clean water, which is the most vital resource on which all life on earth depends.
Due to its wide-ranging importance across all sectors of society, the United Nations has declared 2013 as the Year of Water Cooperation—recognising that partnerships are vital to the ongoing protection and management of water resources to satisfy both human and developmental needs.
However, it is increasingly obvious that water is one of the major limiting factors for our life in the Pacific. In 2011 and 2012, we saw dramatic droughts and water shortages in our region, resulting in the declaration of a State of Emergency in Tokelau, Tuvalu, and the northern islands of the Cook Islands.
Climate change is likely to make this situation worse. Our scientists predict that convergence zones—the zones where flows of weather meet and interact—will shift northwards, resulting in less rainfall and more unpredictable rainfall patterns throughout much of the Pacific.
It is thus essential that we in the Pacific better value, better manage and better conserve our wetlands and water resources. Management of biodiversity affects the supply and quality of water resources. For example, removal of forests from steep slopes will cause land to degrade as there will not be enough forest cover to protect the land from erosion, which in turn can cause multiple poor water quality and limited water supply for human consumption.
We need to better understand the relationship between water and biodiversity, in particular the role biodiversity plays in the overall water cycle process. This will better inform policy, planning and decision-making processes regarding the management of water resources.
What does this mean for our region? Pacific Islands environments are fragile and vulnerable to a variety of natural and human-made threats and our leaders have noted that climate change poses the major challenge. Our biodiversity and water resources are highly susceptible to these threats, as well as to contamination from pollution.
A number of activities led by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) addresses water and biodiversity issues in the Pacific.
SPREP works closely with the Ramsar Convention to identify and manage important wetlands in the Pacific. There are many outstanding Ramsar sites in our region, including Lake Lanoto’o National Park in Samoa, Upper Navua Conservation Area in Fiji and Lake Ngardok in Palau.
Pacific Ramsar sites protect important watershed areas for our towns and cities and demonstrate the values and importance of water and wetland areas for our survival.
The Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change (PACC) project, a joint initiative between SPREP and UNDP, is assisting countries with the installation of water tanks in Tuvalu and Niue to cope with water issues caused by drought.
SPREP also promotes ecosystem-based approaches to ensure a holistic approach to the sustainable use and management of water and biodiversity, taking into account other critical factors and threats such as those posed by extreme events and climate change.
Earlier this year, on February 2, World Wetlands Day was commemorated throughout the world and in our region.
The theme for this day was ‘Wetlands take care of Water’, highlighting the important role of wetland ecosystems in controlling and mitigating flooding and the storage and provision of water for the needs of our societies.
SPREP supported the Samoan Government’s national activities for World Water Day, which focused on Water Cooperation. Associated activities emphasised that all levels of society must work together to address problems of water scarcity, water quality and unnecessary wastage in our islands environments.
Similarly, on May 22, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will celebrate its International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB) and the theme is “Water and Biodiversity”, highlighting the important role of water in sustaining healthy and resilient species and habitats which in turn, provide vital ecosystem services upon which humans depend.
SPREP will continue to promote the conservation and management of the biodiversity of the Pacific to ensure water is available to sustain life and livelihoods of our peoples.

• David Sheppard is SPREP’s director-general and he is based in Apia, Samoa.

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