By Jörn-Jakob Luhn
For centuries, humankind has built dams and large water reservoirs, relocated or changed the course of rivers, and reclaimed land from the seas. In doing this, though, have we ever questioned ourselves about what we are doing to water, probably the most precious resource of our human existence? Did we ever ask water for permission? Or did we simply conclude, regardless, that we would not understand its language , so that we could simply use water for our own human objectives?
Various indigenous groups throughout the world have long recognised the value and spirit of water. However, the recent discovery of climate change and its effects have also raised further awareness about water issues among the international community as a whole.
Give water freedom again; It can free us from our shackles. What are these “shackles”?, you might ask. Generally, I would answer that they are the ones humankind has put on itself, by its overuse of natural resources and its pollution of our Mother Earth and its blue blood – water. But this story should not feel dark and depressing. On the contrary, these lines should tell us that there is hope. Hope for recovery, redress, and a human future on a healthy planet. Water should be a key part of our hopes…and actions.
Indeed, water can significantly help us to reach our common goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, as stipulated in the 2015 Paris Agreement. But since it was us humans who have mistreated water, water now needs our help first before it can support us. This “help for help” can come in various facets and even small projects can contribute to making a difference, which sometimes do not even require extensive technology or R&D.
A current project in the northwestern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) is a very good example. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern covers a vast area of land (for German standards) but has a rather small population. The state is characterised by agricultural activity and does not have considerable industry. About 13% of the state’s area is covered with mires (Hirschelmann 2020: 3). Mires (a sub-category of peatlands) are wetlands where, through only partial or no decomposition of organic substances, peat is formed (GMC 2020a). Peat formation is the first step on the way to carbonisation. Peatlands were historically drained to reclaim land mainly used for agriculture. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the same was done primarily in the 1960s and 70s, when the region was part of the German Democratic Republic (NDR 2020).
While further agricultural use of the drained peatlands has negative consequences for CO2 emissions, the action of draining itself is particularly harmful for the climate. Peatland in its natural wet state captures a significant amount of CO2 – a “nature-based solution” (GMC 2019: 4) as part of nature’s cycle of self-regeneration. Most notably, wet peatlands worldwide bind twice as much CO2 as all forests put together (UNEP n.d.). But as soon as the water has been drained, nature’s blessing turns into a substantial burden: Not only are drained peatlands unable to absorb further CO2, but they actually emit considerable volumes of CO2. In the case of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, drained peatlands account for one third of the state’s overall CO2 emissions (GMC & IKEM 2021: 4). In view of the emission reductions necessary to reach the Paris 2015 goal, the state government has decided to accelerate a project that had already been going on in the area since the 1990s (NDR 2020) but had come to a halt in the early 2000s: the rewetting of drained mires (Backhaus in Ostseewelle 2022). In practice, rewetting basically means allowing water to return to the areas that it had naturally covered. Therefore, man-made drainage systems are blocked so that water can accumulate in the mire again. So far, 10% of the mires have been rewetted since 1990 (see NDR 2020) and have thus been reconverted from man-made polluters to climate savers. It is hoped that all drained mires will be rewetted by 2050 (NDR 2020), so there is still some way ahead.
Climate protection often requires creative measures. In the case of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, interesting solutions are tested to secure funding for the project as well as alternative economic opportunities for farmers that will lose farmland due to the rewetting. As to funding, the state government started to sell climate certificates called “MoorFutures” to finance part of the rewetting (NDR 2020). While this way of emission re-compensation is not uncontroversial (as, for example, companies can “green-wash” their harmful activities by buying those certificates), it is undoubtedly a way to take some financial burden from public budgets. Finally, science also has an important role to play. In addition to monitoring the rewetting progress (GMC 2020b), the Greifswald Mire Centre (GMC) at Greifswald University has developed the concept of “paludiculture.” The latter aims at bridging the gap between climate protection and the economic use of peatland (see Joosten et al. 2016), so that water and humans can exist side by side.
The case of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern represents only one of many initiatives worldwide, as the rewetting of drained peatland has been widely recognised as a cost-effective measure to combat climate change. Several recent projects exist in Indonesia or Russia, and in various EU countries under the EU-funded “LIFE” programme, or even at the UN level. Thus, to fight climate change, what we have to focus on are not only technological advancements alone, but also the original ways nature has ensured its continuous regeneration. Water plays a key role in these processes. Water is a powerful resource, but only if humans allow water the freedom to flow, it can unfold its inherent potential to help us secure our future. Because, water is ultimately the source of all life, including ours.
This article was written in collaboration with IHEID’s Water Initiative and Charlotte Qin of QinTheory Studio. The entire series “Between Clouds and Oceans” will be submitted to World Water Week and the team is fundraising to cover the participation fees. To support them, you can donate through this link.
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Greifswald Mire Centre (GMC) (2019). Ein Drittel aller CO2-Emissionen einzusparen ist möglich – schnelle Einstellung von Moor-Entwässerung für wirkungsvollen Klimaschutz nötig! Faktenpapier zu Mooren in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (December 2019). https://greifswaldmoor.de/files/dokumente/Infopapiere_Briefings/2019_Faktenpapier_MoorklimaschutzMV_Dez2019_fin_korr2.pdf (accessed: 7 May 2022).
Greifswald Mire Centre (GMC) (2020a). Peatlands – fascinating ecosystems characterized by water, plants and peat. https://mowi.botanik.uni-greifswald.de/en/moore/moore.php (accessed: 7 May 2022).
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Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) (2020). Klimaschutz: MV will mehr Moore renaturieren (29 July 2020). https://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/mecklenburg-vorpommern/Klimaschutz-MV-will-mehr-Moore-renaturieren,moore184.html (accessed: 7 May 2022).
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Artwork by Charlotte Qin.
Featured Photo by Ralf Ottmann on Wikimedia Commons.