The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance holds the unique distinction of being the first modern treaty between nations aimed at conserving natural resources. The signing of the Convention on Wetlands took place in 1971 at the small Iranian town of Ramsar. Since then, the Convention on Wetlands has been known as the Ramsar Convention.
The Ramsar Convention's broad aims are to halt the worldwide loss of wetlands and to conserve, through wise use and management, those that remain. This requires international cooperation, policy making, capacity building and technology transfer.
What are Ramsar wetlands?
Under the Ramsar Convention, a wide variety of natural and human-made habitat types ranging from rivers to coral reefs can be classified as wetlands. Wetlands include swamps, marshes, billabongs, lakes, salt marshes, mudflats, mangroves, coral reefs, fens, peat bogs, or bodies of water - whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary. Water within these areas can be static or flowing; fresh, brackish or saline; and can include inland rivers and coastal or marine water to a depth of six metres at low tide. There are even underground wetlands.
The Ramsar Convention encourages the designation of sites containing representative, rare or unique wetlands, or wetlands that are important for conserving biological diversity. Once designated, these sites are added to the Convention's List of Wetlands of International Importance and become known as Ramsar sites. In designating a wetland as a Ramsar site, countries agree to establish and oversee a management framework aimed at conserving the wetland and ensuring its wise use. Wise use under the Convention is broadly defined as maintaining the ecological character of a wetland. Wetlands can be included on the List of Wetlands of International Importance because of their ecological, botanical, zoological, limnological or hydrological importance.
For a wetland to be designated to this list it must satisfy one or more of the criteria for identifying wetlands of international importance.
Australia's Ramsar Wetlands
Australia designated the world's first Wetland of International Importance in 1974: Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory. Australia currently has 67 Wetlands of International Importance listed under the Ramsar Convention, covering more than 8.3 million hectares, an area greater than Scotland or Tasmania.
Contracting Parties to the Convention
Australia was one of the first nations to become a Contracting Party to the Ramsar Convention. There are now more than 170 Contracting Parties to the Convention, who have designated more than 2400 wetland sites throughout the world to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.
Contracting Parties make a commitment to:
- designate at least one site that meets the Ramsar criteria for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance
- promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands
- include wetland conservation within their national land-use planning
- establish nature reserves on wetlands and promote wetland training, and
- consult with other Contracting Parties about the implementation of the Ramsar Convention.
Conferences of Contracting Parties
The Contracting Parties meet every three years at a Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP) to discuss policy issues and to report on the activities of the previous three years through National Reports.
The next Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP15) will be held in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe in July 2025.
Implementing the Ramsar Convention in Australia
In June 2015, Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands agreed to:
- The Ramsar Strategic Plan 2016-2024 (Resolution XII.2) and
- The Ramsar Convention’s Programme on Communication, Capacity-building, Education, Participation and Awareness (CEPA) 2016-2024 (Resolution XII.9).
Australia’s contribution to implementing these plans is set out in:
Reports on Australia’s progress in implementing these two plans are available at:
- Australia’s Ramsar Implementation Plan 2016-2018 Report against indicators
- Australia's Ramsar CEPA National Action Plan 2016-2018 - Report against indicators
National Guidelines for Ramsar Wetlands have been developed. The aim of the guidelines is to facilitate improved management of Ramsar sites and maintenance of ecological character, in line with Australia's commitments under the Ramsar Convention and responsibilities under the EPBC Act. The guidelines provide a framework for Ramsar Convention implementation in Australia and provide jurisdictions and other interested parties with guidance on the management of Ramsar sites.