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Wetland ecosystem services

What can we gain from wetlands?

Not only do wetlands provide a home for many different life-forms, but they are alive and function in a unified system, integrating into the overall processes of nature. Wetlands provide vital ecosystem services that are essential to our existence. To name some of them – flood regulation, water purification and carbon sequestration.

Flood regulation

Flooded floodplain of river Dviete

Photo: K. Kalns

How do floodplain forests, meadows and mires provide natural protection against flooding? They store up spring floodwaters or heavy rainfall and release them slowly, acting as large sponges to form natural water reservoirs that protect the inhabited area from flooding downstream. In areas where wetlands have disappeared, the risk of flooding can be significantly higher.

In Latvia, the role of floodplain and other wetland flood risk mitigation has been little studied at present, but the available studies confirm that the contribution of river floodplains for flood mitigation is significant. For example, it has been calculated that the floodplain of river Daugava (around its middle course) significantly decreases flood risk for the town of Jēkabpils. How? By lowering the maximum possible water level in the town by more than a meter, thus also reducing the possible damage and material losses that could occur if the natural regulatory hydrological systems in the middle course of the river Daugava were not present at all.

Wetlands are often referred to as the Earth’s ‘liver’ because they purify water by absorbing contaminants in the soil and plants. Pollution and nutrients are mainly introduced to wetlands during flooding from river or lake waters, but it can also occur through rainfall and contaminated groundwater. As it enters a floodplain grassland or forest, the speed of the water is slowed down by vegetation and other obstacles that allow contaminants and nutrients to settle. These substances are taken up by the roots of plants and further processed into forms available to the plants and used for growth. When pollution enters wetlands, it is broken down and captured by a variety of complex processes that are specific to wetlands. Part of the contamination is deposited in sediments where it is either deposited or gradually degraded by microorganisms, and part of the substances are converted by microorganisms into substances needed by plants. This principle is also applied to artificial wetlands for the treatment of pollution, which are now increasingly used in the modernization of land drainage systems. Floodplains and other wetlands are particularly effective at trapping phosphorus and nitrogen compounds that leak from intensive agricultural land or wastewater. Wetlands also reduce pollution concentrations in groundwater (used for drinking) and decrease overgrowth in freshwater ecosystems and the sea.

Carbon sequestration

Wetlands, and especially bogs, play an important role in mitigating climate change. Wetlands are natural carbon sinks and storage tanks. However, they can also release greenhouse gases, especially as a result of negative human impacts. The draining of the bogs causes rapid decomposition of peat and organic matter which release into the atmosphere large quantities of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Wetlands need to be protected, conserved and renewed on a global scale in order to conserve carbon accumulated over thousands of years and have a positive impact on the climate.

Cultural heritage

Wetlands are a part of Latvia’s traditional landscape and cultural heritage.

There are six protected Ramsar sites of international importance: Lake Kaņieris, Lake Engure, the bogs of Teiči and Pelečāre, the Northern bogs and the wetland complexes of Lubāns and Pape.

Sunrise hour in Grīvu sala, wetland complex of Lubāns

Photo: K. Kalns

Wetlands have always influenced people’s lives. Early civilizations settled along the banks of rivers and lakes, where fertile, low-lying soils were suitable for agriculture. Rivers, lakes, and adjacent wetlands also attract waterfowl and fish, which provide a livelihood for people. Yet, mankind has always had to contend with the inconveniences of living near water. For thousands of years, towns or settlements built on low-lying rivers and lakes have been periodically flooded by rising water levels during ice melt or other natural phenomena.