Gratitude. Relationship. Reciprocity. These are words that often emerge in conversations with Indigenous colleagues. They point to a far more just and caring way of living with each other and the natural world than prevailing settler concepts like “resource” and “land use.” This World Wetlands Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on our relationships with wetlands, how they contribute to our health and well-being, and how we might reciprocate, with gratitude.
Every year on February 2nd, communities around the world celebrate World Wetlands Day, marking the date of the adoption of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance in 1971. This year, the theme is “Wetlands and Water,” highlighting wetlands as a vital source of fresh water.
Indeed, Ontario is blessed with an abundance of wetlands that play a critical role in storing and purifying our water. They also provide habitat for wildlife (including about 20 percent of Ontario’s species at risk), offer wild foods and medicines for local communities, and afford opportunities for cultural and recreational pursuits. In addition, they store carbon and control flooding and are thus of utmost importance in mitigating and enhancing community resilience to climate change.
On this last point, Ontario’s Special Advisor on flooding noted in 2019 both the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events and the importance of wetlands in reducing associated flood damages and financial losses. Among its sources, the report referenced two studies: one commissioned by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) in 2017 which found that “maintaining wetlands can reduce flood damages and costs by 29% in rural areas and by 38% in urban areas;” and another by the Insurance Bureau of Canada documenting the “cost-effective” ability of wetlands to reduce flood damages and associated costs.
In case dollar values are required to spark feelings of gratitude, consider this: a study commissioned by MNRF in 2009, conservatively estimated the contribution of wetlands to human well-being at over $51 billion per year in southern Ontario alone.
The fact that European settlement has resulted in the destruction of more than 70 percent of southern Ontario’s wetlands speaks to the abysmal quality of our relationships. Though the Government of Ontario has put in place many laws and policies to conserve wetlands, the loss continues.
There are several reasons to explain the ineffectiveness of current policy in preventing wetland loss:
Most policy protections apply only to Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs);
There is no requirement to evaluate wetlands to determine whether they are PSWs prior to approving development proposals, leaving most wetlands unevaluated and therefore vulnerable;
There are exceptions to existing wetland protections for infrastructure (e.g. sewage and waste management systems, roads, oil and gas pipelines); and
The political will to enforce wetland protections is uncertain at best. A current example is the provincial government’s use of Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs) to expedite development on farmland and greenspaces, including wetlands. Even PSWs are no longer safe.
Addressing these shortcomings could be a first step towards reframing our relationships.
In 2017, after extensive public consultation, the Government of Ontario released A Wetland Conservation Strategy for Ontario, 2017–2030. The strategy outlines many opportunities to better protect wetlands through awareness-raising, knowledge-building, partnership and conservation.
One of its goals is to improve policy tools – an opportunity (among many) to reciprocate, with respect and appreciation, the inestimable benefits that wetlands provide all life.
Policy options abound, beginning with:
Requiring that wetland evaluation occur prior to the granting of development approvals;
Prohibiting development in all wetlands in municipalities where wetland losses have exceeded 85 percent (e.g. Niagara, Toronto);
Strictly prohibiting using MZOs to enable the destruction of PSWs;
Working with interested Indigenous communities to establish Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas that safeguard wetlands; and
Expanding Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves – and creating new ones – to better protect PSWs.
It is time to take Ontario’s wetland conservation strategy off the shelf, implement its many commitments, and fundamentally transform our relationships with wetlands, in the spirit of reciprocity and gratitude.
What You Can Do
Learn more about wetlands that have been identified as priority candidate protected areas, and speak out against using MZOs to destroy PSWs.
Anne Bell has been directing Ontario Nature’s conservation and education programs since 2007. She loves to go birding, camping, swimming, and skiing and to play hockey with her husband and two daughters, Kestrel and Castilleja.