One of the World’s most pressing environmental problems is ensuring water for all to drink. For thousands of years humans have consumed water as if it were an inexhaustable natural resource. Vast oceans and abundant rivers do seem to give us this impression. However, 97 percent of all water on our Planet is salt water, thus unsuitable for drinking or growing crops. The remaining 3 percent is fresh water, but largely inaccessible, ‘effectively locked away in deep aquifers and in the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland’. According to available estimates, only 0.3 percent of the total fresh water is useable for human consumption or growing crops. Unfortunately, water resources are not evenly distributed, often shared between nations, or suffering from severe pollution. The increasing global demand for fresh water has stressed the need to efficiently manage this vital source by means of international negotiation and cooperation. In recent decades an international body of water law has been developed to meet this end.
The Ramsar Convention (1971)
On 2 February 1971, the World’s first modern international convention on this issue was adopted: the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat. The original Contracting Parties of the Ramsar Convention were driven by an anxiety that migratory waterbirds were in increasing danger because of loss of their breeding, feeding and resting habitats. And yet in their wisdom they created a convention focused on wetland ecosystems rather than just wetland birds. The Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its Members to maintain the ecological character of their wetlands of international importance and to plan for the ‘wise use’, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories. Unlike the other global environmental conventions, Ramsar is not affiliated with the United Nations system of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, but it works very closely with the other MEAs and is a full partner among the ‘biodiversity-related cluster’ of treaties and agreements.
The initial call for an international convention on wetlands came in 1962. Over the next eight years, a convention text was developed through a series of international and technical meetings. Initially the envisaged convention was directed specifically at the conservation of waterfowl through the creation of a network of refuges, but as the text developed, especially with the expert advice of legal consultant Mr Cyrille de Klemm, conservation of wetland habitat (rather than species) took prominence. Finally, at an international meeting in Ramsar, Iran, the text of the Convention was agreed on 2 February 1971 and signed by the delegates of 18 nations the next day. The Convention entered into force in December 1975. Since its adoption, the Convention has been modified twice, first by the Paris Protocol of 1982, a new treaty which amends the original treaty, and subsequently by a series of amendments to the original treaty, known as the ‘Regina Amendments’ of 1987 relating to the Convention’s operation: powers of the Conference of the Parties, establishment of a Standing Committee, a budget, and a permanent Bureau or secretariat. The Convention celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011 with 160 Contracting Parties from all regions of the world.
Outlook on Wetlands Protection
Forty-one years later, the Convention is looking to deal with a wider range of issues than originally intended. Nowadays, wetlands conservation plays a key role in protecting, producing and purifying water. In its mission to promote the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, the Convention contributes to achieving sustainable development throughout the World. Old concerns for the increasing loss and degradation of wetland habitat for migratory waterbirds have thus contributed to water resources protection for the benefit of humankind itself!
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Bridgewater, P., “New Context for the Ramsar Convention : Wetlands in a Changing World”, in: 17 Review of European Community and International Environmental Law (2008) 1, pp. 100-106
The article by P. Bridgewater is freely available at:
- Fisher, D.E., “Managing Wetlands Sustainably as Ecosystems : the Contribution of the Law (Part 2)”, in: 21 The Journal of Water Law (2010) 2, pp. 53-65
- Fisher, D.E., “Managing Wetlands Sustainably as Ecosystems : the Contribution of the Law (Part I)”, in: 21 The Journal of Water Law (2010) 1, pp. 19-32
- Verschuuren, J., “ The Case of Transboundary Wetlands Under the Ramsar Convention : Keep the Lawyers Out!”, in: 19 Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy (2008) 1, pp. 49-127