Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar)

The Convention on Wetlands of Intenational Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat was adopted in 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar, hence it is known as the Ramsar Convention. As its full name indicates, its original emphasis was on the conservation and wise use of wetlands, primarily to provide habitat for waterbirds. Over the years, the Convention has broadened its scope to cover all aspects of wetland conservation and wise use, recognising that wetlands are extremely important for biodiversity conservation as well as the well-being of human communities.

The Convention on Wetlands entered into force in 1975. As of August 2005, it has 146 Contracting Parties.

Objectives and approach

The Convention aims to ensure the conservation and wise use of wetlands. For this purpose, it contains four major commitments that Contracting Parties have agreed to by joining the treaty.

  • The first obligation under the Convention is to designate at least one wetland for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance (the "Ramsar List") and to promote its conservation, including, where appropriate, its wise use. Selection for the Ramsar List should be based on the wetland’s significance in terms of ecology, botany, zoology, limnology, or hydrology. The Contracting Parties have adopted specific criteria and guidelines for identifying sites that qualify for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance. As of August 2005, Contracting Parties have designated 1,462 Ramsar sites, with a total surface area of more than 125 million hectares.

  • Under the Convention there is a general obligation for the Contracting Parties to include wetland conservation considerations in their national land-use planning. They have undertaken to formulate and implement this planning so as to promote, as far as possible, "the wise use of wetlands in their territory". The Conference of the Contracting Parties has approved guidelines and additional guidance on how to achieve "wise use", which has been interpreted as being synonymous with "sustainable use".

  • Contracting Parties have also undertaken to establish nature reserves in wetlands, whether or not they are included in the Ramsar List, and they are also expected to promote training in the fields of wetland research, management and wardening.

  • Contracting Parties have also agreed to consult with other Contracting Parties about implementation of the Convention, especially in regard to transfrontier wetlands, shared water systems, and shared species.

Contracting Parties report on progress in implementing their commitments under the Convention by submission of triennial National Reports to the Conference of the Contracting Parties. The National Reports become part of the public record.

Institutional structure

Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP): Every three years, government representatives of the Contracting Parties meet as the Conference of the Contracting Parties, the policy-making organ of the Convention, which reviews the general trends in the implementation of the Convention as reflected in the National Reports and adopts decisions to improve the way in which the Convention works. The programme of each meeting of the COP also includes a series of technical sessions which analyse issues of importance in the field of wetland conservation and wise use, including further interpretation and development of the key Convention concepts. Ramsar COPs have gained the reputation of being highly effective events, allowing an active involvement and participation of the non-governmental and academic community.

Standing Committee: The Standing Committee meets annually to carry out interim activities between each COP on matters previously approved by the Conference; prepare documentation for consideration at the next COP; supervise implementation of policy by the Ramsar Bureau (see below) and execution of the Bureau’s budget; and decide upon applications for project support from the Ramsar Small Grants Fund (see below). The Standing Committee consists of 13 Contracting Parties elected on a proportional basis from the six Ramsar regions – Africa, Asia, Europe, Neotropics, North America, and Oceania – as well as the host countries of the most recent meeting and the next meeting of the COP. The Contracting Parties which host the Ramsar Bureau and Wetlands International are invited to participate as permanent observers, and the International Organization Partners (see below) are invited to participate in an advisory capacity.

Scientific and Technical Review Panel (STRP): The Scientific and Technical Review Panel provides scientific and technical advice to the Conference of the Contracting Parties. The STRP is composed of 13 individual members with appropriate scientific and technical knowledge, selected from the six Ramsar regions, and representatives of the four International Organization Partners (see below). Other relevant organisations also contribute to the work of the STRP as observers.

Ramsar Bureau: The Ramsar Convention Bureau is the permanent secretariat for the Convention and carries out the day-to-day coordination of the Convention’s activities. The Bureau is headed by a Secretary General, who supervises the work of a small number of technical, communications and administrative staff, as well as interns and outposted members of the MedWet Coordination Unit in Athens, Greece.

International Organization Partners (IOPs): The Conference of the Parties may confer the status of International Organization Partner to international organisations, both intergovernmental and non-governmental, that "contribute on a regular basis and to the best of their abilities to the further development of the policies and technical and scientific tools of the Convention and to their application". So far, four international non-government organisations that have been associated with the Convention since its inception have been recognized as IOPs. They are BirdLife International, IUCN–The World Conservation Union, Wetlands International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Ramsar Small Grants Fund (SGF): The Small Grants Fund for Wetland Conservation and Wise Use was established by the 1990 Conference of the Contracting Parties (at that time under the name "Wetland Conservation Fund"). The SGF provides financial assistance in the form of small grants (maximum Swiss Francs 40,000 per project) for projects in developing countries and countries with economies in transition. At present, funding is provided for activities related to the implementation of the Convention's Strategic Plan 2003-2008 (see below), including requests for emergency assistance. So far, some 166 projects have been funded in about 80 countries, for a total amount of about Swiss Francs 5,475,000. The Fund relies entirely upon voluntary contributions for its operations.

Strategic Plan

The Conference of the Contracting Parties adopted a first Strategic Plan, for the period 1997-2000, at its sixth meeting in 1996. This was seen as a success, and encouraged the eight meeting of the COP, in 2002, to adopt the Strategic Plan 2003-2008. In this second Strategic Plan, containing five general and 21 operational objectives, Contracting Parties seek to deliver their commitments to wetland conservation and wise use through three pillars of action. These are:

  • working towards the wise use of their wetlands through a wide range of actions and processes contributing to human well-being, through sustainable wetlands, water allocation, and river basin management, including establishing national wetland policies and plans; reviewing and harmonising the framework of laws and financial instruments affecting wetlands; undertaking inventory and assessment; integrating wetlands into the sustainable development process; ensuring public participation in wetland management and the maintenance of cultural values by local communities and indigenous people; promoting communication, education and public awareness; increasing private sector involvement; and harmonising implementation of the Convention with other multilateral environmental agreements;
  • devoting particular attention to the further identification, designation and management of a coherent and comprehensive suite of sites for the List of Wetlands of International Importance as a contribution to the establishment of a global ecological network, and to ensure the effective monitoring and management of those sites included in the List;
  • cooperating internationally in their delivery of wetland conservation and wise use, through the management of transboundary water resources and wetlands and shared wetland species, collaboration with other conventions and international organisations, sharing of information and expertise, and increasing the flow of financial resources and relevant technologies to developing countries and countries in transition.