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COLUMN: Canada’s wetlands need to be conserved and restored

Like landscape-sized water treatment plants, wetlands store and filter the water that we depend on.

Friday, Feb. 2 is World Wetlands Day. While many of these beautiful places are frozen over this time of year, this occasion gives us a chance to reflect on their importance and the never-ending services they offer to set our own communities up for a hopeful future.

Canada is home to one-quarter of the world’s wetlands. Bogs, peatlands, marshes, rivers, lakes, deltas, floodplains and flooded forests cover 15 per cent of our country’s landmass, and we are failing to protect these places. An estimated 70 per cent of southern Canada’s wetlands have been lost: paved over, ploughed through or otherwise destroyed. That figure rises to a nearly 95 per cent loss near densely populated areas.

Every time we convert or degrade a wetland, we destroy the environmental benefits these ecosystems provide: filtering water, storing carbon, protecting nearby communities from spring melts and summer droughts, and providing homes for hundreds of plant and animal species.

Wetlands are amazing for all what they do for us. Like giant sponges, they absorb and hold water around our cities and farms, acting as buffers from floods and droughts. Coastal wetlands dampen storm surges by absorbing the wave energy and abating shore erosion. During heavy rains, these giant sponges hold water and release it gradually. Wetlands also provide natural fire breaks, which is incredibly important when considering the wildfires we’ve recently experienced across Canada.

Like landscape-sized water treatment plants, they store and filter the water that we depend on. Their intricate plant life filters out sediment and excess nutrients from the water we use to make our coffee, brush our teeth and quench our thirst.

Around the world and here at home, we are feeling the brunt of the dramatic loss of wetlands. The Insurance Bureau of Canada reported in January that Canada suffered $3.1 billion in insurance damage from severe weather events during 2023. According to the report, insurance losses in this country “now routinely exceed $2 billion annually, and most of it is due to water-related damage.”

Wetlands serve as natural defences that protect our homes and infrastructure from storms and floods and make everyday life healthier for us. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We can protect what wetlands remain and restore the ones we have lost. This is a tangible solution to mitigating the effects of severe weather events and our rapidly changing climate.

We have a global responsibility to conserve and restore these areas. The good news is that many communities and conservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) are working on it.

To date, NCC has ensured the future of 415,137 acres of wetlands on 924 properties across the country. Together, these NCC sites store 87 million tonnes of carbon — equivalent to CO2 emissions from over 97 million passenger vehicles, nearly 136 billion litres of gasoline consumed or 213 million homes’ electricity use in one year.

Here in Alberta, NCC has done 56 wetland projects conserving 183,921 acres that store nearly 31.8 million tonnes of carbon.

The nature-based solutions for people, our communities and the planet are made possible thanks to the landowners and donors working with NCC to help conserve and care for our country’s wetlands.

But we need to do more and faster. Canada needs everyone — all levels of governments, corporations, foundations, communities and individuals — to do more and step up for nature. There is room at the table for everyone to invest, support and volunteer in the efforts to conserve, restore and care for wetlands.

On this World Wetland Day, let’s act together to protect wetlands, to change their future and secure our own. Because conserving them builds hope for a thriving natural world for all to enjoy.

Marie-Michèle Rousseau-Clair is chief conservation officer with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

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