What counts as a wetland? It’s complicated: Emily O’Gorman on “Wetlands in a Dry Land”

The reeds were tall, almost reaching the top of our heads. We were on a cattle property that adjoined part of the Macquarie Marshes, a Ramsar-listed wetland in north-central New South Wales, Australia. A small group of cattle wandered along the edge of the reedbed and occasionally disappeared into it and then reappeared farther along. Some had ventured away from the herd, toward a small farm dam. Two brolgas—wetland birds renowned for their spectacular dances on the surface of shallow water—glided past. Here, our group, which was made up of mostly Australian and South African environmental scientists, prepared to go into the reedbeds, into the wetland. But as we stood on this threshold, it was difficult to say exactly where this wetland began and ended. Although we might be tempted see the wetland as natural and the farm as cultural, the farm cattle and wetland brolgas moved easily along and across this threshold. These reedbeds have in fact been deeply shaped by Wailwan Aboriginal people over tens of thousands of years through burning and harvesting the reeds for weaving. The farm dam may have been intended to water cattle, but for the brolgas it presented some additional watery habitat. Within these far-reaching and deeply historical sets of socio-ecological relationships, the category of wetlands sits somewhat uneasily. Indeed, while we might at first think of this category itself as natural, it, too, has a history.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat. While I am more used to writing about archives grounded in particular watery places, researching this agreement for a chapter in my book Wetlands in a Dry Land: More-Than-Human Histories of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin (out in July) made me more fully appreciate that some of the critical sites in a history of wetlands are boardrooms and government buildings. In many ways my research helped me pay greater attention to the category of wetlands itself and in turn revealed that the decisions and disagreements of bureaucrats and scientists in Australia and elsewhere, about what has counted as a wetland and why, have had long-lasting and mixed consequences. I will focus on just some of these.

The Ramsar Convention—initially signed by representatives of eighteen countries in 1971—aimed to coordinate international efforts in wetlands conservation. It reflected and reinforced the goal of many governments and scientists in this period around the world to reframe these as precious places that needed to be set aside for conservation and to shed the negative associations of terms like swamp (long associated with disease). Indeed, it was in this period that wetlands became an international category and an object of conservation shaped by two key factors: multiscalar politics and bird-centrism. Each of these have had particular stakes, creating lasting tensions within wetlands conservation and management.

The new international category of wetlands touched down in and was reshaped by local places. National and global environment movements, Pacific diplomacy, and scientists’ mounting concerns over species and habitat loss converged to shape the Australian government’s involvement in the Ramsar Convention and simultaneously a Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement in the early 1970s. For some Australian government scientists, however, these two international agreements highlighted a paucity of knowledge about what now might be classified as wetlands on a national scale. Individual studies showed that there had been a loss of important waterbird habitat in specific places, such as a 1970 study that indicated 60 percent of wetlands along coastal NSW had been destroyed or degraded largely due to drainage for flood mitigation. Yet any effort to quantify losses more widely was difficult, perhaps amplified by the fact that the wetlands category was relatively new in scientific studies. So in 1972 members of the Australian Committee on Waterbirds—made up of state and federal government researchers and managers—proposed a national wetlands survey focused on waterbird habitat in order to support Australia’s obligations to both the Ramsar Convention and the Japan agreement.

The proposal, “A Survey of Wetland Habitats of Australian Waterbirds,” was approved by the Australian government, but then the Council of Nature Conservation Ministers significantly widened the brief to “go beyond an examination of waterbird habitat” and “encompass all wetland areas so as to be beneficial to a wider section of government agencies.” Ultimately three research divisions—wildlife, land use, and fisheries and oceanography—of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) conducted separate investigations as to whether such a survey was feasible. Notably, the Australian government researchers did not use the Ramsar definition of wetlands—which encompassed a very wide range of watery places including coral reefs—as they sought to reflect Australian ecologies and concerns within the international frameworks. The three divisions ultimately, but uneasily, decided on a definition that also suited their expertise and the goals of the survey: “wetlands include swamps, marshes, wet meadows, billabongs, lakes, estuaries and coastal lagoons, mangrove flats. These may be temporary or permanent. The mainstreams or main channels of rivers are excluded except for the survey of fishes.”

Each feasibility study soon ran into problems. The Division of Wildlife Research aimed to test methodologies for classifying wetlands according to the needs and populations of waterbirds. Focusing on just six sites in New South Wales, this study  threw into question the practicality of undertaking a continent-wide survey. The diversity of bird species and their different and changing habitat needs made implementing a single methodology too difficult, and constraints of budget and people power meant that comprehensive data simply could not be gathered. The division’s report concluded that a continent-wide survey “might not be the most important step to take next in waterbirds conservation.” What was needed was rather “detailed ecological research.”

The chief of the division admitted that while ephemeral wetlands in Australia were important for their opportunistic use by waterbirds, “no one has yet been able to properly assess them. . . . At present we have no idea how we will overcome that problem when the survey begins.” Dynamic wetlands in a dry continent proved a challenge for any simple process of quantification. The other divisions ran into similar problems. Further, the wetlands survey was being pulled in different directions by the CSIRO divisions and toward three different models: wetlands for birds, wetlands as hydrological entities, and wetlands as fisheries and estuaries.

The three divisions, each seeing major issues with conducting a national wetlands survey, requested more funds and time for pilot studies, which would inform a wetlands survey proper with an estimated cost of AUD$3.3 million over eight years. No additional funding was granted, and the wetlands survey was labeled not essential by the now conservative Liberal government.

In 1979 the acting minister of environment and science stated: “The . . . [wetlands survey was] not implemented because of cost, lack of agreement on a national approach and differences of opinion on the extent to which a national survey should concentrate on the aquatic fauna or the total wetlands ecosystem.” The survey had ultimately become unworkable.

That the survey did not, or could not, go ahead has had a range of implications. Perhaps most significantly, wetlands ecologists have limited ability to give robust estimates of losses, hindering the development of policies for their protection. Instead, a case-by-case and typology approach to wetlands conservation has unfolded, focusing on important or iconic sites that have reasonable historical research behind them. Treated as indictors of the general condition of wetlands, birds have remained central to wetlands conservation, management, and sciences. Yet this view of wetlands is one of birds and not those of other biota. The role of birds in wetlands conservation in Australia presents somewhat of a paradox as they will likely continue to be important, partly for historical reasons, as there has simply been so much research on them in the past that comparisons across time are better founded than for most other animals and plants.

 Wetlands entered history in this period as an international category of conservation, and its history has had significant, and mixed, consequences for the way wetlands are understood and managed within conservation science and governments today. This is a category that we need to keep revisiting and refining, asking what counts as a wetland for whom and with what consequences?

Emily O’Gorman is senior lecturer at Macquarie University. Wetlands in a Dry Land: More-Than-Human Histories of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin is forthcoming in July 2021.