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Can wetlands save us? The director of the Center for Wetland Conservation answers

Wiktor Bochenek
06 of March '23

Wetlands in Poland do not have it easy. They lack the kind of good PR that tree planting campaigns have. However, they remain an important part of our landscape, perform a number of ecological functions and are invaluable when it comes to absorbing carbon dioxide.

A few weeks ago we celebrated World Wetlands Day. Why is their protection so important, and why are they themselves often quite overlooked in thinking about ecosystems? We discuss this with Magdalena Galus, director of the Center for Wetland Conservation.

Wiktor Bochenek: It's worth starting with the basics. What are wetlands?

Magdalena Galus: We define wetlands according to the Ramsar Convention. They are all swamps, marshes and bogs, but also standing and flowing, permanent and periodic, natural and artificial, fresh and saline waters, including sea water, whose depth at low tide does not exceed 6 meters.

Wetlands, therefore, include all rivers, lakes and reservoirs, including artificial ones, but also man-made sewage treatment plants or wet forests.

łąki Zakola Wawerskiego

The meadows of Zakol Wawerski

photo by Olga Roszkowska | © from the archives of the ZAKOLE group,

Wiktor: That's a rather broad definition, because many people see wetlands through the prism of marshes.

Magdalena: Yes, it is a very broad definition. It follows that it is often difficult to say where a lake ends and where an overgrown marsh begins, where the exact boundaries of a river are and where you can already talk about riverside meadows flooded by it, where the sea ends and where the mangrove begins. Marshes are water, so their boundaries are also sometimes fluid.

Wiktor: Why are wetlands important to us?

Magdalena: Maybe I can start by saying that wetlands began to be protected under the 1971 Ramsar Convention because of the birds that live in them, which are increasingly endangered. Above all, therefore, wetlands are home to numerous plant and animal species that are perfectly adapted to the harsh conditions of high water levels. Wetlands are also difficult to access by humans, making them a sanctuary for wildlife.

For humans, wetlands are especially important in the context of climate change. Marshes are natural stores of carbon, and thus our greatest natural ally in the fight against global warming. Peatlands cover only 3% of land area and store twice as much carbon as is contained in the biomass of all the world's forests, which cover 30% of land area. Swamp plants, like all other plants, take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, water from the ground and, through the process of photosynthesis, convert it into the carbohydrates they are made of and oxygen. What distinguishes swamps from other ecosystems is high hydration combined with anaerobic water conditions. A swamp is up to 95% water, which is immobilized by plants, and cannot mix, thus no oxygen is supplied to it (unlike water in a lake or river). A lot of water and a lack of oxygen mean that the dead parts of plants do not fully decompose, while the elements in them only partially return to circulation. What has not been decomposed is deposited in peat, whose deposits are below the surface of the peat bog and can reach several meters deep, and the carbon in them can be trapped there for thousands of years. Anyway, lignite and bituminous coal is such very old peat from tens and hundreds of millions of years ago.

When we drain marshes or burn coal briquettes, we make the carbon trapped by the peatlands underground enter the atmosphere again - contributing to climate warming.

Wetlands also allow us to locally mitigate microclimates, prevent drought and minimize the negative effects of flooding. Because they are formed in places where water accumulates, they are natural retention reservoirs that release water to the environment in the form of water vapor when there is no rainfall. As the water evaporates, it draws energy from the environment and cools it, making the air near the wetland wetter and cooler. This moisture can return to the ground in the form of dew or travel further as clouds. From the clouds, rain may fall somewhere in the area, which will again accumulate in the wetland.

Wetlands are also river floodplains that provide a flood buffer. If we allow the river to flood in meadows and create floodplains (which are very important for nature), it will not flood in developed areas. However, for these flood buffers to work, we must not build them up or separate them from the river with dikes.

Another important function of wetlands is their ability to purify water. We use fast-growing rush plants (reed, water club) in natural wastewater treatment plants, which capture the nutrients they need to grow from the water. On the same principle, rushes located on rivers and lakes, purify the water that flows into them, such as from agricultural fields. In this way, we can avoid lake blooms and blue-green algae in the Baltic Sea. As the Center for Wetland Conservation, we advocate the creation of so-called wetland buffer zones over waters located in the agricultural landscape.

podmokły las na Zakolu Wawerskim

Wetland forest in Zakol Wawerski

Photo by Olga Roszkowska | © from the archives of the ZAKOLE group,

Wiktor: You started with the Ramsar Convention. Wetlands are associated with wild and rural areas. To what extent do they also apply to urban areas?

Magdalena: Wetlands in cities have been much more transformed than those in the rural landscape. Their former presence in the city is sometimes evidenced only by the names of streets, such as Warsaw's Bagno, Tamka, Zurawia or Szeroki Dunaj. In addition to the Vistula, other smaller rivers flowed through Warsaw: the Drna, Sadurka, Żurawka, Pólkówka, and Belcząca. They were recently the subject of an exhibition at the Wola Museum. Some of these rivers continue to flow through the city, but are hidden in channels under the streets. We scanned the rivers so they wouldn't flood, but also because people disposed of waste into them. Urban rivers are an element that cools the climate locally, mitigating the urban heat island effect and increasing biodiversity. There is currently a discussion about digging them up and running them through city parks.

In Warsaw, we also have a marsh of real interest - Zakole Wawerskie. It's a place that has been known and appreciated by birdwatchers for years, but which is often not even known about by those who live right next door, let alone the rest of Warsaw's residents. Thanks to the artists of the ZAKOLE group, as well as the scientists, social activists, naturalists and lovers of Zakole who cooperate with them, more and more people have been learning about this Warsaw wetland in recent years. Meanwhile, growing awareness of how urban wetlands are important to city dwellers is helping to put pressure on authorities to better protect them.

The European Union is funding projects to help cities create blue-green infrastructure to help adapt cities to climate change. We are putting a lot of money into creating rain gardens, artificial water reservoirs, vertical gardens or green roofs. All of these are man-made from scratch, and you have to pay to create each such facility. I have nothing against blue-green infrastructure, but it seems to me that we should first include wetlands that by some miracle have managed to survive in the city. Instead of draining, littering and building up the city's wetlands, let's take care of them - after all, they're great and natural blue-green infrastructure for free! We can make them available to residents in the form of wetland parks by investing in the construction of tourist infrastructure, such as footbridges, benches, trash garbage cans and observation platforms.

Wiktor: I also wanted to ask about the economic issues of preserving wetlands. Does it involve higher costs?

Magdalena: It all comes down to the price of land, which is very high in cities. On the one hand, we save money, because we don't have to create a park from scratch; on the other hand, this is land that we can't allocate for development, and in order to allocate this land for a park, you have to buy the land.

The owners of the land on the Wawer Bend are private individuals. The area is protected as part of the "Zakole Wawerski" nature and landscape complex and the Warsaw Protected Landscape Area. Residents are bitter, because for years they have legally been able to do little on the land. Thus, fragments of the Zakole are illegally developed, overburdened with rubble, and people dump garbage there. In order to effectively protect the area from progressive destruction and be able to manage it holistically, the City should buy the land from private owners.

torfowisko przejściowe nad śródleśnym jeziorem

Transitional peat bog at a mid-forest lake

Photo: Magdalena Galus | © Center for Wetland Conservation

Wiktor: A few days ago I spoke with Kasper Jakubowski, who mentioned the threat to many species that will not be able to function in the Polish climate in a few decades. How will climate change function on peatlands and wetlands?

Magdalena: We met with Kasper Jakubowski precisely thanks to Zakol!

Peatlands are found in areas where precipitation outweighs evaporation - in the temperate, boreal and subarctic climate zones, as well as in the rainforest zone and in the mountains. If the climate in Poland changes so much that the amount of water that flows into peatlands is less than that which evaporates from them, peatlands will dry up. For now, however, the amount of water we drain from peatlands through ditches far exceeds that which evaporates from them, so let's first fix what we destroy ourselves.

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