Africa’s wetland ecosystems are estimated to cover more than 131 million hectares. They deliver a wide range of ecosystem services that contribute to human well-being such as nutrition, water supply and purification, climate and flood regulation, coastal protection, feeding and nesting sites, recreational opportunities and increasingly, tourism.
What are wetlands?
Wetlands are land areas that are completely, partly or temporarily inundated, such as floodplains, swamps and marshes, peatlands, lakes, mangroves, and river deltas. According to the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands, the inundation of a wetland is a maximum of six meters (see right).
Wetlands exist in every country and in every climatic zone, from the polar regions to the tropics. They are distributed around the world and cover an area that is 33% larger than the USA. Africa has 131 million ha of wetlands, varying in type from saline coastal lagoons in West Africa to fresh and brackish water lakes in East Africa. Wetlands are found in most African countries (see box). For a description of all wetland sites in Africa, go to A Directory of African Wetlands by R.H. Hughes et al.
African wetlands are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the continent. They are home to over 2,000 known species of indigenous freshwater fish live in African wetlands. For example, the Zaire River Basin, probably the most diverse area in Africa for its fishes, has over 700 identified species of which 560 are endemic to the basin (Hails, 1996). African wetlands are also home to aquatic mammals, such as dolphins and manatees, as well as terrestrial mammals such as monkeys that live mangrove forests. They provide habitats for mollusks and a wide variety of insects, reptiles such as crocodiles, and amphibians. Read more
Africa is an arid continent with the lowest river flow per unit area of any continental landmass. Most African countries outside of the rainforest zone receive little rain for most of the year. Wetlands, with their abundant supply of fresh water, generally fertile soils, and high productivity, therefore play a central role in the economy of all river basins and coastal zones. They provide fish, water for agriculture, household uses and transport.
Additionally, many distant communities as well as entire cities and regions benefit from wetlands. High mountain peatlands and paramos store the excessive runoff water from the mountains and glaciers thereby prevent flooding of lower lying areas, all across the river basin. Coastal wetlands such as mangroves absorb wind and swell waves, storm surges and tsunamis and withstand some degree of sea level rise. Thereby they protect extensive inland areas from flooding and salt water intrusion. According to an estimation by IWMI, the total value of wetland services in Africa amounts to US$5.5billion.
Despite their importance, human activities and the changing climate are degrading wetlands faster than any other ecosystem. Few African governments have specific national policy, and are influenced by policies from different sectors, such as agriculture, national resources and energy.
Increasing population in conjunction with efforts to increase food security is escalating pressure to expand agriculture within wetlands. Wetlands are actually considered by some as the ‘new frontier’ in agriculture. Many floodplains and tidal wetlands have been reduced in size and their productivity declined. IWMI indicates that 66% of all listed African wetland are used for agriculture, and this wetland agriculture is valued at US$1.1 billion. For example, agricultural development has reduced the Mfolozi swamp in South Africa to 43% of its original size.
Another threat to wetlands is natural resource extraction. Industrial and urban water demand use of water For example, mining threatened the Wakkerstroom swamp in South Africa, and oil spillage, gas flaring, uncontrolled exploitation of forest resources, over-fishing and poorly planned and managed (oil) infrastructure development are heavily impacting the Niger Delta in Nigeria.
Additionally, climate changed related events, such as unpredictable and decreasing rainfall, are expected to reduce the water stored in wetlands and exacerbate their overexploitation and fuel further conversion into agricultural lands. Thereby also the other important services that wetlands deliver are lost.
What we do
Wetlands International Africa works with communities, national governments and multilateral institutions such as river basin authorities to promote sustainable development that includes the improved management of wetland ecosystems. Read more