Coastal wetlands: who holds the power to decide

By Marko Prem, PhD, Deputy Director, UN Environment/Mediterranean Action Plan, Priority Actions Programme Regional Activity Centre (PAP/RAC)

Wetlands are one of the most fragile and threatened ecosystems and are among the fastest declining ones worldwide” (Skinner J. and Zalewski S. 1995 in PAP/RAC 2019). Two figures from the Mediterranean Wetlands Outlook 2 published in 2018 show critical trends and should make us worry about the future of wetlands: A startling 51% of Mediterranean wetland habitats have been lost between 1970 and 2013, compared to  in Africa (42%), Asia (32%) and Europe (35%).. The second figure relates to urbanisation, one of the main human activities contributing to the loss of wetlands, particularly in the coastal areas in southern and eastern Mediterranean countries. The urbanisation rate in wetlands is of 300% between 1975 and 2005 – a frightening percentage (PAP/RAC 2019).

Even if we somehow manage to reverse these trends, Mediterranean wetlands will still be facing challenges in the future. Among the main ones we can mention:

  • Preventing the loss and degradation of wetlands,
  • Ensuring the maintenance of ecological functions of wetlands,
  • Harnessing wetlands’ capacity to adapt to climate change effects,
  • Integrating wetlands’ services into development plans,
  • Allowing wetlands to provide for the human right to water,
  • Mainstreaming the sustainable use of wetlands in sectoral management, and
  • Limiting and eradicating invasive species in wetlands.

Some effective governance structure needs to be in place to successfully address these challenges. The ultimate objective is to ensure an enabling environment to secure the sustainability of coastal ecosystems through good, effective and equitable governance mechanisms in order to preserve the coastal and island wetlands of high ecological values in the Mediterranean.

To deliver change, real action is needed to adapt legal framework to local conditions. At regional and even wider scale, important legal instruments are in place to advocate for the sustainable development of coastal wetlands and their conservation, such as the Barcelona Convention and in particular the ICZM Protocol and the Protocol concerning specially protected areas and biological diversity in the Mediterranean, the Ramsar Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and several EU Directives. However, all these obligations need to be ‘translated’ into very local conditions and integrated into institutional structures at national, municipality and other local levels.

This is where the transversal projects under the MAVA  initiative for Coastal Wetlands  comes into play. “Enhancing the conservation of coastal wetlands in the Mediterranean Basin” is set-up to study governance issues relating to coastal wetlands and to propose a practical guide in the form of a Handbook that can be used by relevant stakeholders. Governance is too often set aside when implementing projects on the ground. Technical staff implementing projects understand ‘governance’ as a burden to a smooth implementation, as something that will postpone and complicate the process. Some form of participatory activities may be included in the projects; however, understanding the complex governance, which is an ‘invisible’ system that frames and interlinks relationships between the actors, is crucial for the success, not only of the project but also for the protection of coastal wetlands on the long-term. And this is not solely a management issue. Distinguishing the governance of wetlands from their management is relatively new. Management and governance are closely related but distinct  processes.

We define governance as a range of systems (administrative, political, societal) that hold the power, authority and responsibility to take decisions and determine how they are taken, and how effective, efficient and accountable they are. Governance is a long-term process, which includes building relationships, supporting community and delivering action programmes, and in which public participation is critical.

Governance is not the same as planification and management. Some form of governance exists in all sites, at different stages, and different levels of maturity and effectiveness. Management, on the other hand, is focussed on the technical rather than the political aspect, though in practice the boundaries between the two are often overlap. The key point to grasp is that it is the governance that drives the ongoing management of the site. In turn, management informs the governance in a continuous process as the management delivers outcomes and outputs back into decision-making.

In order to draft the Handbook on Coastal Wetlands Governance we studied several pilots to understand from examples on the ground all variation of governance models. Pilots include the Oristano Gulf in Italy, the Ghar el Melh Lagoon in Tunisia, the Delta of the Buna-Bojana in Albania and Montenegro (the Ulcinj Salina in Montenegro and the Buna River Velipoje Protected Landscape in Albania) and the Prespa Lakes in Greece, North Macedonia and Albania. Several meetings with local stakeholders and actors living in the wetland areas were instructive and very informative to this end. We could list the following governance models in place:

  • A model established by state directive as in the case of the Buna River Velipoje Protected Landscape where a ministerial decision required the establishment of a management committee as the governance body. A wide range of stakeholders are included such as the Municipality of Shkodra, the Regional Agency of Protected Areas, the main sectors, NGOs and scientific institutions.
  • A model developed locally in Ghar el Melh Lagoon after the decentralisation of powers in Tunisia by which municipalities gained new responsibilities and duties.
  • A ‘contract approach’ as in the case of the Oristano lagoons. The Maristanis project uses a ‘contract’ model at the scale of a whole Oristano bay, enabling constant consultations with local and regional actors, with the long-term objective ofestablishing a regional park highlighting several wetlands.

When drafting the governance Handbook, reference was made to the IUCN Principles of Good Governance (Table 8, p. 59) summarised as: gaining legitimacy and giving voice; providing direction; optimizing performance; being accountable; sharing the benefits; and minimising the costs. The chapter on adaptivity was of particular interest as it addresses how to  respond to evolving conditions in the ecosystems of the site and its wider social, economic and cultural context. Adaptivity is key for delivering robust governance setting the pilot sites well on the road to long-term sustainability.

In the Handbook the three main components of governance are presented:

  • The four pillars:
    • Framework (preconditions such as governance structures in place, user groups involved),
    • Strategy (leads to changes in behaviour of user groups, key institutions, building capacity),
    • Change Agenda (practical results and benefits to motivate behaviour of stakeholders), and
    • Common Vision (balance between environment and human society to achieve the agreed common vision, long-term).
  • Wise governance (integration of institutions, tools and processes), and
  • Vitality and Adaptivity (governance that is able to learn, evolve and meet its role and responsibilities, timely, intelligent, appropriate and satisfactory for everyone concerned).

A scorecard was developed to measure vitality and adaptivity, which we find innovative. The grid identifies clearly the key areas in which there is a need for improvement amongst formal governance structure, site management staff, key stakeholders, partner institutions and the management plan.

The Handbook provides a theoretical insight to the understanding of coastal governance as well as tools such as the Self-Assessment Tool (can be done manually or available online as drop-down menu, using three category traffic light system) which helps assess the status of the current governance at the site by listing the activities and statements related to governance ingredients. The online Planning Tool allows the user to carry out a more detailed analysis with a view of preparing the action plan based on the governance ingredients from the Self-Assessment exercise. Indicators of progress and barriers to progress are the main elements of the planning tool. They enable to define actions and priorities that will lead to a vital and effective governance.

It maybe sounds a bit technical and demanding. It is not. The Handbook is designed as a practical guide, like a cookbook it provides concise guidance. It is available in nine languages so wetland managers and practitioners can take best advantage of it. In addition to the Priority Actions Programme Regional Activity Centre (PAP/RAC) as the lead partner, valuable contributions to the content of the Handbook were provided by the Mediterranean Wetlands Initiative (MedWet), the IUCN Regional Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia (IUCN ECARO), the Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean (GWP-Med) and the Network of Marine Protected Areas Managers in the Mediterranean (MedPan).

Reference: PAP/RAC. 2019. The Governance of Coastal Wetlands in the Mediterranean – a Handbook. B. Shipman and Ž. Rajković. Split, Croatia.

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