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Ramsar wetland classification:
Implications on the conservation and wise use of wetlands in Africa


The Ramsar Wetland Classification System is an important tool by which the Convention identifies wetlands under-represented in the List of Wetlands of International Importance in order to encourage their designation and appropriate long term management. The classification also serves as a broad framework to aid the rapid identification of the main wetland habitats represented at each site, to provide units for mapping, and to encourage uniformity of concepts and terms in national or regional wetland inventories.

Despite an increased global awareness of their importance, wetlands continue to face serious threats of loss and degradation owing to negative human activities that may otherwise be averted through the adoption of Ramsar's Wise Use concept which calls for national wetland policy formulation and the use of an integrated approach to land use planning and management.

A decision to map out different wetland types for possible agricultural development as a contribution to food security or other purposes must be weighed against other opportunity costs such as the values and function of wetlands total ecosystem function, in water security, other human and biodiversity requirements.


The Convention on Wetlands, also known as Ramsar Convention, after the city in Iran where it was adopted in 1971, is an inter-governmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands.

The definition of wetlands included in the Convention is deliberately broad, encompassing "areas of marshes, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is flowing or static, fresh, brackish or salty, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres". It may also include riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six meters at low tide lying within the wetlands. These characteristics form the basis for classifying different wetland types contained in the `Ramsar Classification of Wetland Type', which is discussed later in this paper.

There are two requirements of governments which join the Ramsar Convention which are particularly relevant to the theme of this consultation.

Tom Kabii 
Regional Coordinator, Africa 
Ramsar Convention Bureau 

Firstly, it is a requirement for each country, when depositing its instrument of ratification or accession, to designate at least one wetland in its territory for the List of Wetlands of International Importance, commonly referred to as `The List of Ramsar Sites'1. Secondly, the government is then expected to formulate and implement planning so as to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the List of Wetlands of International Importance and as far as possible, the wise use2 of wetlands in their territory3.

Globally, there are over 890 Ramsar sites covering more than 60 million hectares, of which 72 sites are in Africa. These wetlands can be viewed as demonstration sites for the implementation of Wise Use concept. Ramsar promotes total watershed management as the best way to ensure the retention of methods and the services they provide.

Designation of Ramsar sites, which is on account of their significance in terms of ecology, botany, zoology, limnology or hydrology, signifies the commitment of the country to maintain the `ecological' character of the listed wetland through adoption of conservation and wise use approaches. A similar commitment is required of members in dealing with all other wetlands in their territory. In particular, Recommendation 6.2 of the 1996 Conference of the Parties calls on Contracting Parties to integrate environmental considerations in relation to wetlands into planning decisions. It is also expected that any planned activities which might have a negative impact on wetlands be carefully screened before their implementation.

Ramsar classification of wetland type

Wetlands can generally be classified into five basic systems, namely: Lacustrine, Riverine, Palustrine, Marine and Estuarine (Frazier, 1996). These comprise complex wetland and deepwater habitats that share the influence of similar hydrologic, geomorphologic, chemical, or biological factors. The Ramsar Classification of Wetland Type currently in use, was adopted by the Conference of the Parties in 1990 and is annexed to recommendation 4.7. It divides wetlands into three main categories, namely: marine and coastal wetlands, inland wetlands, and man-made wetlands. The categories have further subdivisions which gives a total of 40 wetland types (see appendix).

The Ramsar classification was initially developed as a simple tool for describing Ramsar sites. It also serves as a broad framework to aid rapid identification of the main wetland habitats represented at each site, and to provide units for mapping and comparability of concepts and terms in national or regional wetland inventory. It should be stressed that the Ramsar classification is for use at a broad, global scale and it has always been recognized that more detailed, but compatible systems may be needed at regional or national levels for complex integrated planning activities.

Through the use of this broad classification system, and in conjunction with other data, the Convention can identify globally threatened wetland types and those which are under-represented in the List of Wetlands of International Importance. This allows the opportunity to focus attention on those wetland types and threats they face.

African wetlands and the Wise Use Concept

African wetlands vary in type from coastal lagoons such as those found in west Africa on the coast of Mauritania and Senegal, coral reefs, river deltas, oasis, to fresh and brackish water lakes in Egypt, Tunisia, and east Africa. All these wetland types have intrinsic values and functions which are little known, though they serve many human uses in the provision of food, water, grazing for livestock, materials for building, transport, sports, tourism and conservation of biodiversity.

It can be argued that the greatest need for conservation and wise use of wetlands in Africa lies outside of designated protected areas. Significant negative change in ecological and hydrological character is occurring in permanent rivers, permanent freshwater marshes, sandy shores, permanent fresh water lakes, and brackish lagoons wetland types, both inside and outside Ramsar sites. This is attributed to poor land use practices in the catchment/watershed area, including unsustainable farming practices which lead to soil erosion and consequent siltation of wetlands; excessive use of fertilizers leading to eutrophication; and increasing use of pesticides which are transported downstream to the wetland sites. Large scale development projects such as the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power generation and irrigation projects, and the introduction of alien water species to fresh water lakes have also impacted on these wetland types.

Certain specific wetland types in Africa such as dambos, riverine wetlands and freshwater marshes are increasingly being used for agriculture and human settlement with little or no consideration for integrated planning or studies of their ecological/ hydrological functions and values to society at large. Similar threats are being experienced in wetland types such as the mangroves forests of west Africa which have been significantly reduced through rice cultivation and exploitation for wood.

In an effort to avert further degradation and loss of wetlands, and in response to Article 3.1 of the Ramsar Convention, the signatories have elaborated the `Wise Use' concept and accompanying guidelines to provide a basis by which the sustainable use of wetlands can be attained.

The Wise Use of wetlands is defined as `their sustainable use for the benefit of mankind in a way compatible with the maintenance of the natural properties of the ecosystem', and `sustainable use' of a wetland, refers to the `human use of a wetland so that it may yield the greatest continuous benefit to the present generation while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations'. This concept is particularly relevant and popular in Africa due to it's recognition of wetland values to local communities for meeting various of their needs. The author's interpretation of an African perspective on the Wise Use concept can be stated as follows: "Wetlands are useful for meeting many of our direct and indirect needs. We use the marshes for dry seasonal grazing, and extract reeds to weave our sleeping mats and baskets. Mangroves provide us with fuelwood and timber for building our houses, and rivers are our source of life for provision of drinking water and as a food source. Rivers and lakes are also recreation areas for our children. Wetlands are therefore vital to our lives and we must continue to use them in such a way as to ensure their continued existence and reliability to meet the needs of our grandchildren and great grandchildren". This view is seriously pursued by the Convention and in the continued elaboration of the Wise Use concept.

The principal measure underscored in the Wise Use concept is for Contracting Parties `to work towards the formulation and implementation of comprehensive national wetland policies in the long term, and to ensure that such policies are integrated in the national planning processes'. Furthermore, the guidelines to the wise use principle outline in a procedural manner, measures that member states ought to take in the process of formulating National Wetland Policies. These include actions: to address legislation and government policies (such as a review and harmonization of existing legislation), to increase knowledge and awareness of wetlands and their values; to review the status of, and priorities for, wetlands; and to address problems at particular wetland sites (Davis, 1994). A few countries, including Australia, Canada and Uganda, already have such policies in place, while several others are in the process of formulating policies or have incorporated wetland conservation concerns in National Biodiversity Strategies or into National Environmental Action Plans etc., as measures to protect wetlands from degradation and/or loss.

It is important that any land use planning exercise which aims to allocate uses of various wetland types be viewed in the context of a wetland policy, whether it is in place or not, and it should also takes into consideration the multiple functions and benefits of wetlands in the national, regional and global context. Furthermore, it is imperative that land use planning in wetlands involves careful consideration of an integrated approach to wetland use, recognizing that more often than not, wetlands transcend different ecological zones and often undergo impacts whose source is often far removed from them. More fragile wetland types such as mangroves and coral reef, and the unique Dambos in Africa however ought to be given greater attention


The Convention on Wetlands gives a broad definition to wetlands based on physical and limnological characteristics, which is in turn used as a basis for categories in the Ramsar Classification of Wetland Type. This system currently provides a broad framework by which member states can work to identify wetlands for priority action. It also provides the Convention with an important tool for evaluating the state of wetland conservation globally, and for identifying those wetland types which are most under threat.

The multiple functions, intrinsic value and benefits of several wetland types are not well studied and are often under-estimated in assigning alternative uses to wetland resources. Intrinsic values could be decreased or lost through developing uses whose impacts are not well studied and consequently unpredictable.

It is important that use of any wetland classification for human development actions such as agriculture or others should take into account the ecological dependence of various species on these ecosystems and as far as possible employ a level of precautionary approach in assigning uses to wetlands. Likewise, it is imperative that the net gain to society and sustainability of proposed uses of wetlands be clearly outlined.

The Ramsar Convention does not advocate a "no-use, strict protection" approach, but instead calls for a more informed and cautious approach to assigning uses to wetlands and for greater attention to integrated planning in the watershed areas. This may be achieved through involvement of wetland conservation experts in discussions and implementation of proposed projects and by strengthening studies and research in wetlands in order to gain better understanding of their potentials and limitations. Implementation of this approach requires a holistic approach to planning which involves all stakeholders in and around wetland areas, and preferably within the watershed.

Lastly, while food security will continue to be a major goal for many African countries, a decision to map out different wetland types suitable for agriculture or other potential uses must be weighed against the potential costs in terms of the role of wetlands in water security, other human needs and maintenance of national, regional and global biodiversity.


Davis, T.J. (Editor). 1994. The Ramsar Convention Manual: A guide for the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as waterfowl habitat. Ramsar Convention Bureau, Gland, Switzerland. 207 p.

Frazier, S. 1996. An overview of the world's Ramsar sites. Wetlands International Publ.29. 58 p.

Ramsar Classification System for Wetland Type

The codes are based upon the Ramsar Classification System for "Wetland Type" as approved by Recommendation 4.7 and amended by Resolution VI.5 of the Conference of the Contracting Parties. The categories listed herein are intended to provide only a very broad framework to aid rapid identification of the main wetland habitats represented at each site.

Ramsar wetland type


A. Permanent shallow marine waters less than six metres deep at low tide; includes sea bays and straits.
B. Marine subtidal aquatic beds; includes kelp beds, sea-grass beds, tropical marine meadows.
C. Coral reefs.
D. Rocky marine shores; includes rocky offshore islands, sea cliffs.
E. Sand, shingle or pebble shores; includes sand bars, spits and sandy islets; includes dune systems.
F. Estuarine waters; permanent water of estuaries and estuarine systems of deltas.
G. Intertidal mud, sand or salt flats.
H. Intertidal marshes; includes salt marshes, salt meadows, saltings, raised salt marshes; includes tidal brackish and freshwater marshes.
I. Intertidal forested wetlands; includes mangrove swamps, nipah swamps and tidal freshwater swamp forests.
J. Coastal brackish/saline lagoons; brackish to saline lagoons with at least one relatively narrow connection to the sea.
K. Coastal freshwater lagoons; includes freshwater delta lagoons.

Inland Wetlands

L. Permanent inland deltas.
M. Permanent rivers/streams/creeks; includes waterfalls.
N. Seasonal/intermittent/irregular rivers/streams/creeks.
O. Permanent freshwater lakes (over 8 ha); includes large oxbow lakes.
P. Seasonal/intermittent freshwater lakes (over 8 ha); includes floodplain lakes.
Q. Permanent saline/brackish/alkaline lakes.
R. Seasonal/intermittent saline/brackish/alkaline lakes and flats.*
Sp. Permanent saline/brackish/alkaline marshes/pools.
Ss. Seasonal/intermittent saline/brackish/alkaline marshes/ pools.*
Tp. Permanent freshwater marshes/pools; ponds (below 8 ha), marshes and swamps on inorganic soils; with emergent vegetation water-logged for at least most of the growing season.
Ts. Seasonal/intermittent freshwater marshes/pools on inorganic soil; includes sloughs, potholes, seasonally flooded meadows, sedge marshes.*
U. Non-forested peatlands; includes shrub or open bogs, swamps, fens.
Va. Alpine wetlands; includes alpine meadows, temporary waters from snowmelt.
Vt. Tundra wetlands; includes tundra pools, temporary waters from snowmelt.
W. Shrub-dominated wetlands; Shrub swamps, shrub-dominated freshwater marsh, shrub carr, alder thicket; on inorganic soils.*
Xf. Freshwater, tree-dominated wetlands; includes freshwater swamp forest, seasonally flooded forest, wooded swamps; on inorganic soils.*
Xp. Forested peatlands; peatswamp forest.*
Y. Freshwater springs; oases.
Zg. Geothermal wetlands.
Zk. Subterranean karst and cave hydrological systems.

* As appropriate, includes: floodplain wetlands such as seasonally inundated grassland (including natural wet meadows), shrublands, woodlands or forest.

"Man-made" wetlands

1. Aquaculture (e.g. fish/shrimp) ponds.
2. Ponds; includes farm ponds, stock ponds, small tanks; (generally below 8 ha).
3. Irrigated land; includes irrigation channels and rice fields.
4. Seasonally flooded agricultural land.**
5. Salt exploitation sites; salt pans, salines, etc.
6. Water storage areas; reservoirs/barrages/dams/impoundments; (generally over 8 ha).
7. Excavations; gravel/brick/clay pits; borrow pits, mining pools.
8. Wastewater treatment areas; sewage farms, settling ponds, oxidation basins, etc.
9. Canals and drainage channels, ditches.

** To include intensively managed or grazed wet meadow or pasture.

1 Article 2 of the Convention Text

2Wise Use is synonymous with Sustainable Utilization as identified in the Convention's Strategic Plan 1997-2002

3Article 3.1 of the Convention Text

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