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As a second nationally significant wetland burns, Forest & Bird says the Government must adopt a national climate change adaptation plan that protects wetlands under the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater.  

Forest & Bird’s freshwater advocate, Tom Kay, says it’s devastating to see the Southland wetland burning so soon after Northland’s Kaimaumau fire.

“New Zealand’s climate change plans will be a failure unless the Government commits to retaining strong rules protecting wetlands.

“Nature can help us cope with climate change but only if we protect nature.  We need wetlands to clean water and help protect us from flooding, but they can’t do that if they are drained and burnt.

“Only about 10% of Aotearoa’s historic wetlands remain – most have been drained for agriculture or the development of towns and cities. So those wetlands that remain are incredibly rare and incredibly important.”

The Awarua-Waituna wetlands are home to many threatened plants and insects, including sub-alpine species uniquely found at sea-level, and over 80 bird species have been recorded there. In most years Awarua Bay is home to more species than any other place in Southland.

“We can’t afford to lose any more wetlands, so we need the Government to commit to protecting and restoring those we have left - and not allow them to be drained for coal mines, quarries, landfills, or urban development, as is currently proposed.”

His concern is echoed by University of Otago, Emeritus Professor, Sir Alan Mark - a leading environmentalist and Forest & Bird Distinguished Life Member – who says Awarua-Waituna is one of our few remaining large wetlands helping to protect Aotearoa New Zealand against climate change with its major carbon storage.

“Wetland ecosystems offer unparalleled carbon storage, and the depth of peat in Awarua-Waituna is particularly substantial. It is an extremely valuable ecosystem and has unique biodiversity. It is the only place in the country with an intriguing collection of alpine wetland plants near sea-level.”

Sir Alan says that with the western edge of the wetland running along the highway, it is a prime area for fires to break out, especially with recent dry weather conditions.

“A season with little rain has contributed to a much lower water table, making the peat much more flammable, so I’m pleased to see authorities are taking this fire extremely seriously.

“Fire is the worst thing that can happen to any wetland, they are hard to put out and the combustion converts the stored carbon to carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

Sir Alan says the burned wetland will take years to recover.

Peat wetlands hold twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forests combined, despite only covering 3% of the earth’s land surface, and coastal wetlands can store carbon 35-57 times faster than tropical forests.

“They also create a local cooling effect and increase climate resilience by buffering communities from storm surges and floods,” Tom Kay says.

“When peat wetlands start to dry out or become degraded, they become massive emitters of greenhouse gases, and the carbon they store can fuel raging fires. As the climate changes our wetlands will face growing pressures that could degrade them – including longer dry periods – so we have to look after them to make sure they keep storing carbon.

“This government has the opportunity to properly protect the wetlands that protect all our futures by taking up the recommendations in our recent report ‘Every Wetland Counts’.”

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