Russia is the world's largest country, covering 17 million km2. For the most part, this huge territory is presented by flat lowlands and has a humid climate. As a result, the country possesses vast areas of wetlands, including peatlands of various types (raised bogs, fens, and transitional mires) covering 1.8 million km2, 120,000 rivers with a total length of 2,300,000 km, 2 million lakes with a total volume of 370,000 km3, and diverse marine wetlands occurring over a 60,000-km stretch of the national coastline.
Among these are such important and extensive wetlands as:
The Volga Delta, the largest deltaic complex in Europe and one of the richest bird habitat in the world, covering 19,000 km2;
Kandalaksha Bay on the eastern side of the White Sea and Lake Khanka in the Russian Far East, renowned for their importance for breeding and migrating waterbirds;
The world’s largest peatland system of Bolshoye Vasyuganskoye covering 50,000 km2 in Western Siberia;
Lake Baikal containing 20% of the world’s liquid fresh water with its unique fauna characterized by the highest number of endemic species of all theinland water bodies;
Large wetland areas along the coasts of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov on the south;
Extensive tundra wetlands underlying by permafrost on the north, and many others.
On the plains of Western Siberia, a continuous bog landscape is found, with a great number of lakes and wide river valleys. This area comprises a great 'duck factory', comparable with the prairie pothole country of North America.
These wetlands support a rich and globally significant diversity of plants and animals. The total population of swans, geese, ducks and coots in the country is estimated at 80 million individuals. The area provides critical breeding habitats for many globally threatened species.
Lack of study
Russia's wetlands have not received adequate study so far, and the above figures are just rough approximations. But even these point to the fact that conservation of Russia's wetlands should be concern of the international community. The loss and alteration of these wetlands and their catchments can result in global changes in hydrological regime and climate.
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Degradation of wetlands
Despite their high value to people and biodiversity, wetlands have been destroyed and degraded throughout most of the developed regions of the country during the present century. The great loss and alteration of wetlands was caused by major drainage schemes (so called amelioration) and by dam construction on all the major rivers. The problems of hydrological change, eutrophication and pollution urgently need to be tackled by large-scaled restoration measures.
Recognition of their importance
Over the last decades the great importance of wetlands for the conservation of the natural environment has become more and more recognised, both nationally and internationally. In 1975, Russia joined the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the first international initiative attracting attention to the outstanding values of wetlands. The Government of the Russian Federation designated 35 wetland sites totaling 10.3 million hectares for the Ramsar List. 166 wetlands are currently on the Ramsar Shadow List.
Conservation in Russia
Wetland conservation in Russia is not confined to the protection of Ramsar sites. Large wetland areas are conserved as parts of protected natural areas: c. 9,000,000 ha of wetlands are protected within the strict nature reserves (zapovedniki), c. 5,300,000 ha, in the federal sanctuaries and wildlife refuges (zakazniki), 650,000 ha, in the national parks, and c. 60,000,000 ha of wetlands are protected at the local level.
Outside protected natural areas, wetland management is regulated by a number of laws (Federal Laws ‘On the Conservation of the Natural Environment’, ‘On Environmental Impact Assessment’, ‘On Wildlife’, and the Water and Forest Codes, etc.). However, there is still no efficient legal system that would allow for the solution of all problems arising in the field of wetland use and conservation.
A Draft National Strategy for Wetland Conservation sets the following objectives for future actions toward conservation and wise use of wetlands in Russia:
- Develop and implement a national wetland inventory programme;
- Protect the most important wetlands by means of designating sites of special (international, federal and regional) importance;
- Establish a network for monitoring the status of wetlands and a system for collecting, storing and analysing data on wetlands in the form of National Wetland Cadastre supported by relevant legislation and institutional network;
- Develop legislation that will provide for wetland wise use and conservation throughout the country;
- Raise the awareness in wetland functions and values among the general public and specific target groups;
- Promote the participation of indigenous and local communities and other stakeholders in the decision-making process concerning wetland management and conservation;
- Promote research in wetlands as a basis for management and conservation action;
- Promote international cooperation in the field of wetland conservation and sustainable use.