A blue recovery

Tom Fewins, Head of Policy & Advocacy, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

In my neighbourhood there is a puddle. This is not any old puddle; it’s a huge, sprawling muddy expanse, fed by heavy winter rainfall. This new, mini-wetland draws in excited children from across the neighbourhood every day, garbed in waterproofs and wellies, clutching sticks, toy boats, even improvised fishing rods. As January arrived and temperatures plummeted ‘the puddle’ yielded a good harvest of ice, some of which was transported home with soggy gloves and lovingly crammed into freezers.

Why am I talking about a puddle? Well, in a world where the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically shrunk our horizons, closing schools, libraries, museums and swimming pools, we are living hyper-local lives. Adventures further afield are not an option, and what is on your doorstep – and happening on your doorstep – matters more than ever. In my neighbourhood ‘the puddle’ is big news.

For someone working in conservation the pandemic – with its close links to the destruction of our natural environment - can prompt despair at the years of ignored warnings. However, there is also hope. This last year has highlighted quite how much people value their local green spaces – and the blue spaces as well, from the mightiest river to the tiniest raingarden. Moreover, these extraordinary times also present a precious chance to reset our course, to build back better and to address properly the climate, nature and wellbeing crises we were already facing before Covid-19 arrived.  

WWT have joined many other organisations in calling for a ‘green recovery’ - and we calling for a ‘blue recovery’ too, which makes better use of these blue spaces. We propose restoring and creating 100,000 hectares of wetlands, blue infrastructure that would help people back onto their feet, renew local communities and strengthen our defences against future challenges.

In a blue recovery, every hectare of new wetland would fulfil many purposes. This could be sequestering and storing carbon, reducing flood risk, improving wellbeing, restoring biodiversity – or a mix of these benefits and more besides. Wetland creation is exactly the kind of ‘nature-based solution’ approach - working with natural processes and enhancing nature to address broader societal problems - that sits at the heart of the UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

The Government has identified the use of nature-based solutions as one of the UK’s priorities in chairing the Glasgow COP26 climate summit, but when it comes to wetlands what is in it for local communities? Across the UK, communities have benefitted from wetland restoration and creation; however, our wetlands today comprise only a small fraction of their historic extent (around 90% of our wetlands have been lost). To unlock their full potential, we need to move from the current ad hoc approach to a strategic one. This potential is huge, since the contribution wetlands make far outweighs those made by other terrestrial ecosystems. On the coast, saltmarsh creation such as WWT’s reserve on the Steart Peninsula in Somerset, stores more carbon, more quickly than other terrestrial ecosystems. Inland, ‘natural flood management’ which uses wetland features to slow the flow and hold water back - such as WWT’s Government-backed pilot project in west Somerset - is a proven, effective and low-cost way to help reduce flood risk. In urban areas, spending time in blue spaces - such as our project to restore the Salt Hill Stream in Slough - can be even more beneficial for your wellbeing than green spaces. And from cities to countryside, many wetlands we have designed and installed are filtering out a wide range of pollutants and helping to bring life back to rivers and other water bodies.

Local communities rely upon wetlands as critical sources of ‘natural capital’ - the stocks of natural assets ranging from drinking water to a broad variety of wildlife that underpin our economy and wellbeing. As a shaper of place, local authorities can use wetland creation to protect and replenish these essential local assets and to build resilient, prosperous communities for the future. It is also good news for stretched budgets: wetland creation provides an excellent return on investment, with the Natural Capital Committee noting that this can generate returns of up to nine times the costs.

With growing pressure to tackle the climate and nature crises, as well as to face the emerging nationwide wellbeing crisis, how can local authorities incorporate wetland creation into their response?

  • We need an established process. Successful wetland creation must combine practical conservation work with capacity building and community engagement. By providing training, advice, and other forms of support we can help people create wetlands themselves. And through consultation and co-design, education and awareness programmes, and volunteering and employment opportunities we can help the people who live and work near wetlands to value them into the future.
  • We need partnerships. 100,000 hectares is a big figure that no single organisation can deliver. The UK Government recognises the goals and aims of the 25 Year Environment Plan can only be delivered in partnership and across all sectors, including voluntary organisations like ourselves, local government and  communities  - to restore and create wetlands for people and nature.
  • We need a supportive policy and funding framework. This means identifying and addressing barriers to a Blue Recovery, whether this is providing critical information, making better use of existing strategies or developing funding streams. Working together, we can build a world where healthy wetlands thrive and enrich lives.

Now, back to the puddle. The snow is falling and there should be a good crop of ice.

Find out more:

Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust: A blue recovery

This article is from our Local Path to Net Zero series.