The broad aim of the Convention on Wetlands, or, as it is better known, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, is to halt the worldwide loss of wetlands and to conserve those that remain through wise use and management.
The implementation of the convention on wetlands is guided by its mission statement, which is:
The conservation and wise use of wetlands, by national action and international cooperation as a means to achieving sustainable development throughout the world.
That means ensuring that activities which might affect wetlands will not lead to the loss of biodiversity or diminish the many ecological, hydrological, cultural or social values of wetlands.
Currently, Australia has 64 wetlands on the list. Unfortunately, as today’s State of the Environment report stated, 22 of those have had changes to their ecological character. Our mission, as a signatory to the international convention, is that contracting parties make a commitment to, amongst other things, protect the ecological character of their listed sites.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 establishes a framework for managing our Ramsar wetlands, which is in accordance with the Ramsar convention, through the Australian Ramsar management principles. These principles have been set out in regulations and cover matters relevant to the preparation of management plans, environment assessment of actions that may affect the site and community consultation.
A management plan for a Ramsar wetland cannot be accredited unless it is in accordance with these principles. Among other things, these principles include:
9. Does the plan describe actions that will be taken to deal with the impacts that endanger the wetland’s ecological character?
This should include mechanisms that respond to risks associated with:
physical loss, modification or encroachment on the wetland
loss of biodiversity
pollution and nutrient input
changes to water regimes
utilisation of resources
introduction of invasive species
10. If the wetland requires restoration or rehabilitation, what actions have been identified to undertake this work?
Quite clearly, as a signatory to the Ramsar convention, and under EPBC, the federal government has a responsibility to ensure the ecological character of these wetlands. This is apparent not only with the contracting party but also through a court case commonly known as the Greentree case, where the federal government took action over clearing an area of land within a Ramsar site.
The presiding judge in this case found that a contracting party has obligations to promote the conservation of wetlands in its territory in line with items included in the list, thereby reaffirming that the federal government has responsibility as the contracting party for ensuring that Ramsar wetlands maintain their ecological character.
Five of the 64 Ramsar sites are icon sites under the Living Murray initiative. Unfortunately, many of these wetlands are actually losing their ecological character. As I have pointed out, one of the key responsibilities of all governments, particularly the federal government, is to maintain that ecological character.
The Gwydir wetlands were the first nominated wetlands that contained private land. It was very significant that these wetlands were nominated with the support of the landowners in the area. In fact, an MOU was signed between the government and the landowners on this nomination, and I will go into that in a minute. It is my sad duty to remind the Senate—I know this was in the media—that in October this year two farming families who are landowners in the Gwydir wetlands wrote to both the New South Wales government and the federal government asking that their properties be delisted from the Ramsar list because the land was dying; it was losing its ecological character.
They pointed out that the government was failing to deliver the ‘adequate, ecologically appropriate environmental flows to the wetlands’ as specified in the memorandum of understanding they signed with the minister’s predecessors in 1999.
They believed that decision makers had contributed to the loss of ecological character witnessed at their Ramsar wetland, directly contrary to the expectations of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the convention on wetlands.
These families requested a formal delisting of their portions of the Gwydir Ramsar wetlands site. When volunteering to have their land included in the Ramsar listing in 1999, they understood that their responsibility was to continue careful, sustainable grazing practices on these floodplains—grazing practices that had seen these areas maintained as wetlands, maintaining the values that allowed them to be internationally recognised. They understood that there would be delivery of water to retain the ecological character of these Ramsar wetlands. They also believe that the Gwydir Valley has been allowed to ignore Australia’s responsibility with respect to this Ramsar site, and that all those that have presided over this slow and lingering death of the wetland should be ashamed. They were deeply concerned that high-security water had not been supplied as it is in some cases to irrigation interests.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature is an environmental NGO. With all due respect, they are at the more conservative end of environmental NGOs. They also wrote to the minister about the issues around the Gwydir wetlands. They pointed out that, at the time the MOU was signed, the Gwydir was ‘a leading example of practical conservation at a local level that has created a precedent for communities around Australia and the world’.
They went on to say:
Sadly, water sharing regimes, supported at an administrative and legislative level by state government, but also with the tacit support of the commonwealth through natural resource management funding commitments, have failed to provide the water necessary to maintain these important assets.
They also went on to highlight the amount of water that is required for the ecological character of the Gwydir wetlands to be maintained and pointed out that what is required for the ecological character of the private Gwydir wetlands Ramsar site in NSW is:
… at least 170,000 ML/year of general security allocation to manage the breeding of colonially nesting waterbirds and threatened waterbirds … and wetland ecosystem health.
They went on to point out that only 13,600 megalitres of the environmental contingency allowance has been provided to the Gwydir wetlands. This is only a fraction of the water that is needed to maintain the health of the Gwydir wetlands. They said that they cannot tell if that 13,600 megalitres arrived at the wetland. I have heard that as soon as water is released up there you can hear the hum of pumps to take that portion of water. As a consequence, that wetland is dying. There are similar stories for other wetlands.
A recently released report by the Department of the Environment and Heritage on the ecological character of the Coorong has unfortunately found that it is also suffering a significant decline in its ecological character. Quite clearly, the federal government and the state governments have responsibility for these wetlands. I am deeply concerned not only that they are not taking this responsibility seriously but that they are considering draining these wetlands or not allowing them any water allocations this season.
This is a travesty for the management of the wetlands in this country.
The State of the environment report found not only that 22 of our Ramsar wetlands had their ecological character changed but also that 231 of our nationally significant wetlands were under stress. This is an unacceptable situation. The government must use leadership to ensure that our wetlands are protected and it must put away forever this concept that it is acceptable to drain them. (Time expired)
Ramsar wetlands – in a state (129KB)