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Last Updated: 05/04/2010Managing Wetland Ecosystems to Guarantee Water Security in Cameroon
Wetlands are an often misunderstood and underappreciated part of the ecological life support system upon which our economies and societies depend. In this article, Tazoacha Francis discusses the importance of managing Camaroon's wetland resources wisely through raising public awareness and addressing issues of conflict and poverty.
Nothing of God’s creation can be considered useless. It can be good in one way or the other; so too are wetlands. Traditionally wetlands have been considered as useless as wastelands. They have been looked upon as breeding grounds for pests and dangerous diseases. In some African traditions, they have always been regarded as a murky where some hidden danger lurks - A hideout for witches and wizards. Places where evils spirits are cast. In Cameroon, most indigenous communities have done as much as they can to do away with wetlands. As years have gone by, wetlands have been reclaimed into “useful” lands. All along we thought we have been doing something good. Little has been left to reminiscent wetlands in Cameroon of recent.
Today wetlands are recognized to be far more important than what we have believed. We now realise that they are a very important ecosystem. They are among the most valuable and productive ecosystems we have -- rich in biodiversity, a breeding ground for fauna, and flora.
Most Cameroonians do not yet know the economic and environmental importance of the wetlands. As a result, they have been indiscriminately and wantonly destroyed for habitation and or dealt away with the habitats that have always been surrounded with mystery.
The functions, or ecological services, provided by wetlands have become increasingly recognised as important environmental and economic components of the landscape. Wetland conservation, restoration and watershed protection are becoming more prominent features of sustainable agriculture land-use planning (National Sinks Table, 1998). The (National Sinks Table 1998) also points out that “extreme caution is necessary about what is advocated for inclusion in the agreement as additional sink categories, given the absence of a complete understanding of the net GHG impact of wetlands”. Therefore there is a need for Cameroonians to be thinking about these as a means to guarantee water security at the wake of climate change.
Under the Ramsar international wetlands conservation treaty, wetlands are defined as: "... areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres" (Ramsar Convention Article 1.1).
According to article 2.1 of the Ramsar Convention,"Wetlands may incorporate riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six metres at low tide lying within the wetlands."
Wetlands are considered the most diverse of all ecosystems. Plant life found in wetlands includes mangrove, water lilies, cattails, sedges, tamarack, black spruce, cypress, gum, and many others. Animal life includes many different amphibians, reptiles, birds, and furbearers. Most of all wetland is a haven for water for all uses.
Importance of wetlands
Wetlands are an important store of water for local people, as well as regulating flows downstream. A natural, well functioning wetland needs little management, and can withstand natural fluctuations in the quantity and timing of the water it receives. But problems arise when degradation affects the natural functioning of the system, for example through drainage, excessive water extraction, or diversion of water upstream. Water management is necessary to avoid or mitigate these problems (Wetlands International 2009, P.3). If this initiative is maintained in Cameroon, the issue of water security will be guaranteed.
According to Wetlands International (2009, P.5), many conservationists have a special sympathy for wetlands. They see it as:
Unique watery habitats filled with birds, wild animals and plants, with an indefinable mystique. That magic calls for special protection – not only of wetland wildlife but because wetlands have their own intrinsic values. Yet this romantic picture is far removed from the reality faced by wetland communities: farmers and fishers who live with seasonal floods and drought, the constant threat of waterborne diseases, and an unremitting depletion of the wetland foods and products which are mainstay of their livelihoods and cultural traditions.
Wetlands are also helpful in controlling floods, replenishing groundwater, protecting biodiversity and providing livelihood to local population (Deccan, Herald.2003). Thus the observance of wetlands Day is meant to improve public awareness about the importance of wetlands.
Wetlands play an important role in fresh water cycle. They are the link between water and land. They act as filters, thereby protecting sources of drinking water (Deccan, Herald.2003) thus guaranteeing water security. Wetlands hold rainwater and sediments and purify water. The shrinking wetlands prove to be disastrous to the fresh water supply (Deccan, Herald.2003) and in this case they need to be protected at all so as to maintain the continuous supply of water for consumption.
Wetlands also serve as a vital environmental sanctuary and a source of livelihood for the – often poor – people who live in and around them. They are also important as important as water reservoirs and purifiers for everyone (Wetlands International, 2009).
Wetlands are also very important in that they can sequester carbon, provide habitat and purify water (World Bank, 2010) which is indispensable to the poor.
Wetlands are an important store of water for local people, as well as regulating flows downstream (Wetlands International, 2009). A natural, well functioning wetland needs little management, and can withstand natural fluctuations in the quantity and timing of the water it receives. But problems arise when degradation affects the natural functioning of the system, for example through drainage, excessive water extraction or diversion of water upstream. (Wetlands International, 2009, P.3)
Wetlands in Cameroon
Cameroon ratified the Ramsar Convention that was adopted in 1971, amended in 1982 and in 1987 in 2006. Joining this treaty late meant that Cameroon knew the importance of these natural resources just late. That is about three years ago. In March 2006, Cameroon deposited with the Director-General its instrument of accession to the convention on wetlands of international importance. In accordance to Article 2 of the convention, Cameroon designated The Waza, Logone Floodplains for inclusion in the list of wetlands of international importance especially by the virtue of the convention.
In accordance with Article 10(2), of the convention and its amendment in 1982 and 1987 will enter into force with respect to Cameroon four months after the deposit of this instrument of ratification that is to say on 20/07/2006 (UNESCO, 2006).
Other important wetlands in Cameroon include the Mboh and Santchou plain, Ndop Flood plain, the Lake Chad basin, the Ndian Creeks, the Coast of Limbe, Tiko, Kribi, Douala, Edea, Lagdo, Songloulou, Maga. Other smaller ones are dotted in Menuoa Division of the West Region and in the Centre Region of Cameroon. Others have long disappeared due to population explosion and land pressure from farmers. Also increased competition for water security is drying up some of the wetlands. This is because the population needs water for household use, irrigation and for livestock.
Degradation of wetlands in Cameroon
Many administrative authorities in Cameroon see wetlands as underexploited resources or hindrance to development: That is water that can be extracted, land that can be converted to farming, timber to be felled, a source of mosquitoes and diseases and a barrier to transport. As a result the wetland areas have been wantonly and indiscriminately destroyed. Conflicts have often arisen between groups of people over the use of shrinking wetlands and their fertile lands, fish stocks, or fresh water resources, (Wetlands International 2009).
Poverty has been one of the causes of wetland degradation in Cameroon. This is done most often by those who do not have access to land either for farming or for settlement. Considering that wetlands are looked upon as wastelands and do not belong to anybody, the poor often go there to fish, harvest wood for fuel, clear it and use it for farmlands. Because of the abundance of water in the area and the fertility of the area, poor women have transformed them into a haven for food especially in the dry season when water is a scarce commodity. Water collected from there is used for watering of the crops, especially vegetables, drinking and for the livestock. Because of this pressure in the area these lands are destroyed. By destroying these habitats, the animals that inhabit the wetlands are displaced. Most wetlands in the Centre and West Regions of Cameroon have disappeared because of these activities, thus exposing the population to water insecurity.
Most African societies have always dreaded wetlands. They have always considered them to be the home for witches and wizards – a seat of evil. That is the reason why when one dies mysteriously in some societies, they are thrown into the evil forest – wetlands. Nobody ever dared went closer to them. Any epidemics that attacked a community were believed to have emanated from these areas. Consequently the areas were a threat to the community and man has done everything to deal away with them. They have all been destroyed and transformed into farmlands. Today wetlands in Lebialem Division, Menoua Division and part of the Mifi Division are all history. This has created an environmental impact in the areas.
The Ndop, Mboh, Santchou and the Noun wetlands were some of the biggest natural wetland reservoirs in Cameroon. Due to the fact that the people did not know the potentials of wetlands and their environmental values, they were transformed into rice plantation. (Ngwa N.E 1979) carried out studies on swamp rice production in the Northwest Region. The origin of rice in the right up to its large scale production under the patronage of the Upper Noun Valley Development Authority (UNVDA) was seen as an important economic cash crop in the region. The UNVDA has also been seen as an important actor in the destruction of wetlands in Cameroon. The trees that shaded the wetlands to maintain its natural wellbeing have been felled and some were used for timber and the land used for rice fields. Chemicals used in the plantations have had devastating effects in the ecosystem in these areas – fish, amphibians, reptiles; birds that used to inhabit the areas are no more. Today the famous Mboh and Santchou rice fields do not more exist. Parts of the land have been reclaimed for playgrounds and other parts for grazing fields. The land that used to harbour elephants, crocodiles, leopards and hippopotamus now lie boundless and bare – a veritable wasteland. The Ndop flood plains are still used for rice fields and the fish species in the area are near extinct because of overfishing and the freshwaters are heavily polluted and water security is not only a threat in the area but also in the neighbouring communities. While in the northern arid area, the Lagdo, Maga and the Mape wetlands have been transformed into cotton and millet fields, despite the acute water insecurity in the regions.
Due to the population explosion in the cities of Douala, Edea, Kribi, Limbe and Tiko, most of the coastal wetlands have been destroyed, reclaimed and transformed into recreational centres. This therefore has helped to transform these coastal wetlands from natural tourist destinations into artificial tourist centres. The waste waters from factories and homes are seriously polluting the waters in the coastal area. In the city of Yaoundé and Bafoussam and their neighbourhoods which harbour most of the inland wetlands have been reclaimed and transformed into settlement areas. Smaller ponds that cannot be reclaimed have been transformed into garbage cans. In these cities water insecurity seems to be a major challenge to the authorities. These wetlands have acted as watershed and catchments to most of the freshwaters in the regions. Now they lie in ruins.
The Effects of Climate Change
Climate change has also posed a devastating effect on the coastal wetlands in Cameroon. This is due to the fact that human activities in the area have left the area vulnerable, with the rise of the sea level have unleashed floods to sweep away the wetlands habitats. The effects have also affected the human live and activities on the coast of these areas. Portable freshwater in these areas have been heavily affected. Much has to be done to restore these wetlands as a means to curb the effects of this climate change to a greater extent.
The restoration of wetlands
Wetlands are very indispensable resources in Cameroon in guaranteeing water security if sustainably managed. They act as watersheds, water catchments and reservoirs to many water resources in many communities especially rural communities in Cameroon. They do not only serve as sources of freshwater for home use, they also serve as a source of water for irrigation and water for livestock.
Sustainable restoration of wetlands at the coastal regions requires planning for a more extreme future climate by returning critical water resources in the coastal landscape to levels that existed before human began modifying the region (Day et al.,2007, Twilley, 2007). In this light stakeholders have to rehabilitate human settlements away from these natural resources so that they can be restored for the rejuvenation of the ecosystem and water in particular for its sustainable and equitable use. If this is not done, cities like Limbe, Douala, Edea and Kribi will keep on suffering from freshwater for home consumption.
Wetland soils and vegetation naturally store water, filter sediments and pollutants from fresh water supplies, and help stabilise shorelines by reducing erosion and storm surges associated with rising sea levels (Daily et al., Mitsch and Gosselink, 2000; Twilley, 2007). From this perspective the wetlands of Mboh and Santchou plains need to be restored so that the water from Menoua specifically from Dschang needs to be filtered there so as to deliver freshwater to the Loum, Nkongsamba population whose water supply is not the best. This is because these wetlands serve as water catchments and water sheds to these areas. In the Centre Region, specifically in Yaoundé where water crisis is perpetually on the rise, has to do a lot to restore the wetlands that have been destroyed in the region. The Minister of Environment and Nature’s Protection needs to declare these vital areas as reserve areas with strict laws so that they can be rejuvenated so as to guarantee sane water supply to the always increasing population of Yaoundé and is environs.
Tribal conflicts in the north and the northwest regions of Cameroon between farmers and nomads have always resulted over water. Water has always been scarce in these regions despite the fact that pastoral activities and farming is the bread basket of the regions. Water points that the cattle used to drink came from wetlands in the regions; but because they have been destroyed, the water is scarcer for the cattle. So the farmers and the nomads scramble over the limited supply of water. Due the scarcity of this resource in the north, the cattle at some places and at certain moments share the water ponds with the population and this might have been the result of periodical epidemics of water-borne diseases in the region. Despite the fact that the government and stakeholders have tried to increase bore holes but that has not solved the problem. If the main wetlands which act like watershed and water catchments in this region are not restored and declared as protected areas the issue of water security will never be guaranteed in the northern region of Cameroon and thus peace will never be assured.
With the increasing ramification of climate change in the world, Cameroon as any African country is most vulnerable. Water being the cradle of human life in all aspect is in peril and thus all has to be done to make sure that its constant supply has to be guaranteed and regular so as to meet up with the demand. The only means of doing this is to protect the vulnerable water catchments and water sheds of which most of them are wetlands. The restoration of the wetlands will not only guarantee water security and peace, it will also act as sinks for the carbon emitted into the atmosphere and as a result will reduce the impact of global warming for the betterment of mankind.
For wetlands to be restored and sustainably managed as a means to guarantee water security is for enough awareness to be raised to the community especially in the areas where these wetlands are found. If this is done, it is going to demystify the concept and believe that people have about wetlands. Instead the public should be made aware that wetlands are vital resources that need to be catered for because of their potentials and water being the most important.
The government also has to lay down a firm law on wetlands as it has done to protect other natural resources. If this is done and stakeholders join efforts to restore wetlands Cameroon will gradually move out of the water insecurity it is presently facing as a result of loss of wetlands. They will serve as a sanctuary for the ecosystem and a tourist haven. In that same light, managing the wetlands will pose particular challenges because they will reconcile the different interest of conservation and development dealing with conflicts over water and other resources and major seasonal fluctuations in wetlands.
Wetlands destruction, like many environmental problems, is one of sustainability. We have to learn to balance today’s needs with future environmental needs. Despite the biological richness and abundance of water in wetlands in Cameroon people who live in and around it keep on edging it away until a point it is at their own detriment. The destruction of these wetlands might have been because of poverty or lack of awareness, which the government has never made any efforts to instil in people. Until Cameroonians know that these resources are a cornerstone that they rejected, little will be done to come out of the water crisis which is at the threshold of most Cameroonian. In this effort the Cameroonian government and stakeholders have to put hands on deck to restore these lost resources and acknowledge their importance. This has to be done in a participatory approach where the government, nongovernmental organisations and local communities are involved. From this dimension there will be hope that these neglected resources will be restored guarantee water and peace which have been a major challenge in Cameroon.
Chi Napoleon Forpah, (2004), Sustainable Wetlands Management Aid to Alleviate Poverty in Cameroon, World Wetland’s Day 2004, Cameroon
Denise Clearwater et al., (2000), An Overview of Wetlands and Water Resources of Maryland, MWCPWG, Maryland.
Mitsch, W.J., and Gosselink, J.G., (1986), Wetlands: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York.
Mphoweh Jude N et al., (2004), The Degradation of Raffia Palms and its Socio-economic and Ecological Consequences: The Case Study of Bamunka, Ndop, North West Province, Cameroon.
Ngwa N.E. (1979), Swamp Rice Production in the north West Province of Cameroon: A Case Study of Agricultural Innovation Diffusion Among Traditional Agrarian Communities: Master Thesis, University of Yaoundé
Ramsar Convetion (1971) The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Ramsar
Robert R. Twilley, (2007), Coastal Wetlands and Global Climate Change, Louisiana State University
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Wetlands International, (2009), Plant Trees to eat Fish, Boom & Van Ketal Graffimedia, The Netherlands
World Bank, (2010), World Development Report2010: Development and Climate Change, The World Bank, Washington, DC
Tazoacha Francis is an MA student in Natural Resources and Peace at the United Nations Mandated University for Peace. He holds a BA in English from the University of Buea, Cameroon. In 2003 he participated in International Courses in Environment & Sustainable Development and International Cooperation & Development in the United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan. Tazoacha Francis has worked with NGOs and written and presented research papers in national and international conferences.