“The Bible says that God created the world by dividing the land from the water. If so, He forgot about wetlands.”
The word “wetlands” might bring to mind godforsaken swamps only fit for a few birds, who move on when the season allows. In reality, a wetland – meaning ground permanently or periodically inundated by water – can be any of a great variety of rich ecosystems, including sandy beaches, coral reefs, freshwater springs or alpine meadows.
Many astonishing early human civilisations – in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, Angkor – grew by and out of fertile wetlands. As well as abundant food, wetlands provide a buffer to extreme weather like floods and tidal surges. Scientists are now revealing that they are also much deeper carbon sinks than their watery surfaces suggest: coastal ecosystems typically sequester carbon dioxide several times faster than the net rate by mature tropical forests.
Water Lands is a superb written and visual introduction to the history and possible future of 27 of the world’s most remarkable wetlands – soggy, liminal places where water and land are never fully one thing or the other.
The book documents an array of management mistakes, with many wetlands having been pumped or dammed out of existence. We learn, for example, that although Donald Trump liked to call the federal government a “swamp” that needed draining, it was in fact the driving force behind the US losing more than half of its wetlands between 1780 and 1980. This included the virtual wiping out of the Mississippi floodplain, which has contributed to the river periodically breaching all levee systems designed for it.
But the book also contains plenty of examples of people living in productive harmony with wetlands and covers the recent, hopeful surge in understanding of their importance – and concerted efforts to preserve and restore them. One of the most exciting case studies is the Zoige grassland on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, where a restoration programme has prompted a resurgence in birdlife, including the vulnerable black-necked crane.