Long-term prospects for the management of Ramsar wetlands in the
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar
Convention) is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national
action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of
wetlands and their resources.
At the time of joining the Ramsar Convention, each party designates at least
one suitable wetland for inclusion on the List of International Important
Wetlands (Ramsar List). The addition of a site to the Ramsar List confers upon
it the prestige of international recognition and expresses a government's
commitment to take all steps necessary to ensure the maintenance of the
ecological character of the site. Parties are expected to designate additional suitable
wetlands for the Ramsar List or extend the boundaries of those already
included. Wetlands are selected for the Ramsar list on the basis of their
international significance in terms of ecology, botany, zoology, limnology or
There are 16 Ramsar wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB or Basin),
as shown in Figure 1.
This chapter considers the long term prospects of the management of
Ramsar wetlands. In particular, the challenges facing governments in managing
Ramsar wetlands and the steps that the Australian Government is taking to
address those difficulties. This chapter contains a brief discussion on the
provision of adequate environmental water to Ramsar wetlands. This issue is
considered in greater detail in Chapter 5, which discusses the acquisition and
provision of environmental water across the MDB.
Figure 1: Ramsar
Convention wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Current status of Ramsar wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin
The committee's report for the first part of this inquiry detailed the
parlous ecological condition of the Coorong and Lower Lakes Ramsar wetlands.
Low flows into Lakes Alexandrina and Albert have resulted in the drying of
wetland habitat, steadily increasing levels of salinity have exposed sulphur
bearing sediments which have oxidised to form acid sulfate soils, releasing
sulphuric acid into the lakes. In the Coorong, the silting up of the mouth has
resulted in reduced tidal exchange, particularly in the South Lagoon. When
coupled with a reduction of fresh groundwater seepage and a reduction in runoff
from the upper southeast drainage scheme area, steady evaporation has resulted
in worsening hypersaline conditions which are exceeding the levels that even
the specialised ecosystems in the area are able to cope with.
In this part of the inquiry, the committee received several submissions
outlining the deteriorating state of several of the other Ramsar wetlands
within the Basin. For example, the National Parks Association of NSW (NPA)
highlighted the condition of the NSW Central Murray State Forests site:
There is strong evidence to indicate that river regulation,
over-allocation of water for irrigation, and industrial logging and associated
activities, are causing a substantial and severely detrimental alteration in
the ecological character of the NSW Central Murray State Forests Ramsar site.
The ecological condition of the region in which the site
occurs has been classified as Very Poor by a recent systematic audit, with fish
and macroinvertebrate communities both considered to be in very poor condition.
The hydrological changes to the site have been substantial, with major changes
in the frequency, size and duration of flood events, and much reduced breeding
of colonially nesting bird species.
The health of River Red Gum forests has declined markedly,
with all recent studies indicating that 70-80% of River Red Gum trees are
either stressed or dying. Terrestrial species dependent on the site are also in
decline, with iconic threatened species such as the Superb Parrot and Barking
Owl still decreasing, and reporting rates reduced for many important woodland
Dr Bill Phillips of Mainstream Environmental Consulting and Riversmart
Australia, and a former Deputy Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention, gave
evidence to the committee of the poor ecological condition of several of the
Ramsar wetlands in the MDB:
I would consider that the condition of the Macquarie Marshes
system is probably as bad as the Coorong currently and has been as bad for
several years. Narran Lakes has the occasional reprieve, as it did earlier this
year, but overall it is not good. In the Lower Gwydir system there are huge
problems, which we do not have time to go into here. One particular part of
that site has been completely neglected for several years in terms of providing
water to it. One part of the Fivebough-Tuckerbil Swamps system near Leeton, the
Tuckerbil part, suffers because of New South Wales government difficulties in
that it is crown land and grazing lease and that very little attention is given
to maintaining its Ramsar values.
Governments across the Basin states also recognise the poor condition of
Ramsar wetlands with the following statement included in the preamble to the
Intergovernmental Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform (IGA):
The parties recognise that the extreme drought has
exacerbated the Basin's environmental stress. Continued low flows and lack of
natural flooding to Ramsar and other important environmental sites, including
the Lower Lakes, Coorong, the Murray Mouth and the Murray Red Gum Forests, are resulting in serious environmental degradation.
Prospects for the long-term management of Ramsar wetlands
Challenges to the management of the
There are a number of challenges to be addressed in the management of
Ramsar wetlands, including: the provision of adequate water to the Ramsar
sites; the complexity of management arrangements due to state, territory and
Commonwealth government involvement; and securing sufficient human and
financial resources for the management of these sites.
Supply of adequate environmental
The primary challenge to the management of Ramsar wetlands in the MDB is
the provision of adequate water to the sites, as outlined in the Department of
the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Art's (DEWHA) submission to the
Management challenges facing the Ramsar wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin include provision of adequate environmental flows (volumes, timing,
frequency and duration), environmental degradation as a result of invasive
non-native species, and adaptation to the impacts of climate change.
In a 2008 report to the Ramsar Secretariat on the progress of the
implementation of the Ramsar Convention, DEWHA expanded on the difficulties in
obtaining adequate water for Ramsar sites:
The greatest difficulty in implementing the [Ramsar]
Convention in this triennium has been providing adequate volumes of water to
Ramsar sites. This has meant that many Ramsar sites are under stress and the
challenge of managing sites for wise use when there is insufficient water to
meet human, agricultural and environmental needs has been significant.
Balancing these demands and supplying sites with sufficient
water to meet their ecological needs in the context of historical water-use
practices requires management and reform within catchments. This continues to
be a complex and contentious process. The ongoing record drought conditions are
exacerbating the pressure being placed on these already stressed systems.
Wise use of our water resources in the face of long-term
climate change is also a key challenge for Australia.
In its submission to the committee the CSIRO stated that the water
regimes for many Ramsar sites in the Murray-Darling Basin have been greatly
altered as a result of water resource development. The CSIRO went on to say that
the provision of adequate environmental flows for Ramsar sites needs to consider
both the degradation already caused by water resource development and the
likely additional stress from climate change:
Providing adequate environmental flows will, in many cases
across the Basin, require significant reductions in the volumes of consumptive
water use, changes in the way in which dams are operated to capture flood
waters, and consideration of investment in infrastructure to facilitate
environmental watering of floodplains.
The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) noted that Ramsar wetlands are
not the only environmental assets in the Basin and it may not be possible to
save every environmental asset. The NFF stated that it expects that tradeoffs
may need to occur against the social and economic values of regional
The committee sought to determine the extent to which modelling could be
done of the benefits to Ramsar wetlands in the scenario of water being released
further up the Murray-Darling system. Dr Tom Hatton of the CSIRO told the
We could at least model the flows through those sites, which
is one step short of saying, 'And you will save this many red gum trees along
the way.' But we could certainly say what the flows through those wetlands
The submission of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission stated:
It is expected that the arrangements enabled by the Water
Act 2007, specifically the creation of a Murray-Darling Basin Authority
which can set sustainable diversion limits, will substantially address [the
supply of adequate environmental flows to Ramsar wetlands].
The provision of adequate environmental water is discussed in greater
detail in Chapter 5 in relation to the provision of environmental water to
sites across the MDB.
Other issues in relation to the
management of Ramsar sites
Representatives for DEWHA acknowledged that some of the complexity in
management of Ramsar wetlands is due to the different levels of government
involved. The following example relates to the Coroong and Lower Lakes:
...different levels of government have different responsibilities
in different ways...We can recite Australia’s responsibilities under the Ramsar
convention and other relevant international instruments. As it is state
government property, the state has an underlying responsibility for the management
of the area. The Commonwealth fully respects that but there are some decisions
that the Commonwealth needs to take and there are other decisions that South Australia needs to take. When it comes to the management of river flows in the Murray system, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission and its processes have to take some
In its report to the Ramsar Secretariat in 2008, DEWHA identified a
further challenge to the management of Ramsar wetlands in Australia:
Another difficulty continues to be securing sufficient human
and financial resources to implement the Convention consistently and
effectively across all sites and across all jurisdictions.
Addressing the challenges for
management of Ramsar wetlands
DEWHA's submission outlines how the Australian and state governments are
addressing the challenges they face in the management of Ramsar wetlands:
The Australian Government, with the states, is progressively
improving the management and reporting framework for Australia's Ramsar
wetlands to better address these threats and maintain the ecological character
of the sites. The approach for each site incorporates: improving the
understanding of the needs and condition; better planning; providing additional
environmental flows; and investment in complementary on-ground works,
scientific research, monitoring and reporting.
DEWHA's submission highlighted the following specific actions the
Australian Government is taking in relation to the management of the Ramsar
development of an Ecological Character Description (ECD) for each
Ramsar wetland, using the National Framework and Guidance for Describing the
Ecological Character of Australian Ramsar Wetlands. The ECDs inform the
future management and monitoring of these sites and provide an enhanced
information base against which to assess potential impacts of actions on
internationally important wetlands;
development and implementation of Ramsar wetland site management
plans, in accordance with the Australian Ramsar Management Principles;
developing a Ramsar Rolling Review approach to report on the
condition of Australia's Ramsar wetland sites and inform future management and
provision of environmental water held by the Commonwealth
Environmental Water Holder to Ramsar wetlands;
incorporation of an Environmental Watering Plan in the Basin
The Living Murray Initiative which aims to recover up to an
average of 500 gigalitres of water per annum by June 2009 to provide increased
environmental flows to six Icon sites (which include components of Ramsar
wetlands) and undertake complementary on-ground works and measures at the
investment in the Macquarie Marshes and Gwydir Wetlands Ramsar
sites through the NSW Wetlands Recovery Program and the River Environmental
Shortcomings in the management of
The committee heard from a number of witnesses highlighting how, despite
these measures, not enough is being done to ensure the protection and long-term
sustainable management of Ramsar wetlands.
Obligations in response to the
change in ecological character of a Ramsar wetland
Submissions and evidence to the inquiry were particularly critical of
Australia's efforts to maintain the ecological character of its Ramsar
wetlands, particularly those in the MDB. For example, the Inland Rivers Network
(IRN) noted that Australia was the first country to designate a Ramsar wetland,
and has subsequently designated 65 wetlands as Ramsar wetlands. However, IRN's
submission went on:
Australia's record of maintaining the ecological character of
Ramsar-listed wetlands and promoting the sustainable management of all
wetlands, both of which are required under the Ramsar Convention, is less
impressive. The health of many of the Ramsar-listed wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin is in rapid decline.
Ms Sarah Moles described Australia's approach to Ramsar-listing of sites
as 'somewhat passive'.
The joint submission of Mainstream Consulting and RiverSmart Australia noted that, historically, Australia has not afforded its Ramsar wetlands the same
status and resources for management as it does for World Heritage sites.
Under the Ramsar Convention, parties are obliged to inform the Ramsar
Secretariat if the ecological character of any Ramsar-listed wetland has
changed, is changing, or is likely to change as the result of technological
developments, pollution or other human interference. Australia has notified the
Ramsar Secretariat of the change in ecological character to the Coorong and Lower Lakes site. According to DEWHA, while this site was changing prior to being Ramsar
listed, it has further declined since being listed in 1985.
DEWHA also informed the committee that in October 2008 a further update
was provided to the Ramsar Secretariat on the condition of the Coorong and
Lower Lakes Ramsar site. That update was informed by current activities and discussed
long term options for this site.
The NPA described the processes in place for the Australian Government
to assess and notify of changes in ecological character of Ramsar sites as
Major improvements are needed to establish baseline information
sets and put in place adequate monitoring regimes. Damaging uses, such as
industrial logging, should not be allowed in Government owned Ramsar wetlands
and steps should be taken to upgrade such wetlands to full protected area
status as National Parks.
The committee received evidence on other actions that a party to the
Ramsar Convention may take in the event of the deterioration of the ecological
character of a Ramsar site:
Under the Ramsar convention there is something called the
Montreux Record. It has a very long title that basically means threatened
sites. If a country detects that one of its Ramsar areas is in trouble, it is
expected to advise the Ramsar secretariat of that, which Australia has done in the case of the Coorong and the lakes. There is also then a voluntary
action which countries can take to place such sites publicly on what is called
the Montreux Record of threatened sites. To date, the Australian government has
not done that for any of its sites.
In 2006, an Ecological Character Description for the Coorong and Lower
Lakes Ramsar site, prepared for the South Australian Department for Environment
and Heritage recommended 'that consideration be given to including the site on
Ramsar’s Montreux Record of sites where change in ecological character is
occurring, or has taken place'.
IRN provided the committee with its proposal for a 'National Wetland
Initiative'. In its proposal, the IRN identified a number of shortcomings in
the current approach to managing wetlands, including:
a lack of provisions in the Water Act 2007 specifically
designed to strengthen Australia's Ramsar program; and
the slow rate of recovery of environmental water for wetlands
through the Living Murray Initiative and the Commonwealth's water entitlement
The NPA also noted that the decline of Ramsar sites continues despite
programs such as the Living Murray Initiative.
Submissions also noted that legislative efforts, through the Environmental
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, have been
ineffective in the management of Ramsar wetlands. For example, Ms Moles highlighted these inadequacies in the legislation:
In spite of a Ramsar trigger, the [Environmental
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999] is powerless to deal
with the cumulative impacts of over-allocation - the key cause of decline.
Issues such as floodplain harvesting and floodplain development also need to be
dealt with if Ramsar obligations are to be fulfilled.
4.31 The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, in a
report to the Ramsar Secretariat on the implementation of the Ramsar
Convention, notes the development of the 'Australian National Guidelines for
Ramsar Wetlands – Implementing the Ramsar Convention in Australia', to
supplement the EPBC Act:
The aim of the guidelines is to facilitate improved
management of Ramsar sites and maintenance of ecological character, in line
with Australia’s commitments under the Ramsar Convention and responsibilities
under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC
Act). The EPBC Act includes specific Ramsar provisions. The guidelines will
provide a more coherent framework for Ramsar implementation in Australia and
provide jurisdictions and other interested parties with clear guidance on
related policies and procedures.
The guidelines are being developed as a series of modules, or
chapters, on topics including: introduction to the Ramsar Convention; process
for nominating Ramsar wetlands; developing Ecological Character Descriptions
(ECDs); requirements for mapping Ramsar wetlands; and management planning
Ramsar Snapshot Study
During the course of the inquiry the Federal Government released a
preliminary review of the current status and management of all of Australia's
Ramsar wetlands (the Ramsar Snapshot Study).
The Ramsar Snapshot Study notes that as a Party to the Ramsar Convention,
Australia is required to meet its obligations under the Convention in terms of
reporting, management planning and provision of supporting information on
These obligations are implemented at the national level
through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC
Act) and associated regulations, policies and funding programs.
The Ramsar Snapshot Study notes that currently 'Australia does not have
a systematic reporting process to allow government stakeholders and other
resource managers to gain an overarching view of the state of Australia's
Ramsar estate at any given time'.
Key information gaps found by the Ramsar Snapshot Study and
recommendations for priority work, included:
The need to continue to develop and implement wetland survey and
mapping programs for Ramsar wetland sites;
The need to develop and implement a standardised national scale
of tenure categories to better understand and compare the tenure
classifications across Ramsar sites;
The need to develop a systematic method for describing, comparing
and reporting threats and impacts (and their magnitude) among and within
Australia's Ramsar wetlands; and
The need to develop a formal mechanism facilitating the transfer
of administrative documents (such as management plans, Ramsar Information
Sheets, and Ecological Character Descriptions) between the Commonwealth and
State/ Territory agencies.
The evidence that the committee has received demonstrates that
mismanagement and a lack of co-operation and coordination at all levels of
government, in addition to a lack of water, has resulted in a number of Ramsar
wetlands in the MDB being under considerable ecological stress.
The committee notes, and agrees with, the criticism that historically
Ramsar wetlands have not been accorded the same status and level of resources
as other environmental assets, such as World Heritage Areas.
The committee is concerned at the declining ecological condition of a
number of Ramsar wetlands across the MDB. The committee is particularly
concerned that Australia has not taken seriously its obligations under the
Ramsar Convention to inform the Ramsar Secretariat if the ecological character
of a Ramsar wetland has changed.
The provision of adequate water is one of the priorities for improving
the condition of Ramsar wetlands in the MDB. The committee understands that the
Australian Government is addressing this issue through the purchase of water
entitlements for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and, in the longer
term, through the Environmental Watering Plan in the Basin Plan. The committee
encourages the government to continue to investigate opportunities to supply
adequate water to Ramsar wetlands.
The committee notes the evidence that it has heard that the management
of Ramsar wetlands, due to the tenure of the land involved, is often a
cooperative effort between the Commonwealth and State and Territory
governments. DEWHA has indicated that the Australian Government is assisting
States to meet their obligations in relation to the management of Ramsar
wetlands. The committee encourages the Australian Government to continue to work
cooperatively with the States to assist in their management of Ramsar wetlands.
The committee believes that the Ramsar Snapshot Study has identified
some important information gaps and areas for the improved management of Ramsar
wetlands. The committee recommends that the work identified in the Ramsar
Snapshot Study as key information gaps and priority work be undertaken by
The committee recommends that the work identified in the Ramsar Snapshot
Study as key information gaps and priority work be undertaken by the Department
of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.
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