Cotton is taking over global wetlands

World wetlands day is February 2. Wetlands are important and diverse ecosystems that do much more for our world than meets the eye. Wetlands are home to a huge number of creatures like fish, waterfowl, and amphibians. They also are essential to our climate. Human activity is causing our wetlands to disappear, we’ve been aware of this since the late nineties, but this cause has recently gained new traction with the Aral Sea crisis. Essential to combating climate change and natural disasters, we need to do more for our wetlands globally, the change starts with cotton farming.

Wetlands are everywhere, from the Tundra to the desert they can exist in many capacities in every climate around the globe. They help moderate our climates by offering protection from natural disasters like flood and drought and lessens the human footprint on the environment like climate change and pollution. Wetland areas are any land where water completely covers or is present at the surface of the soil. This creates a natural filtration system that protects the soil from pollution and reduces carbon emissions in the air. They are a wealth of nutrients for trees, which helps to eliminate emissions from the air while the natural flow of water can help filter out pollution. When the air around the wetland is dry, the soil will hold the water to prevent a drought, protecting itself and allowing for food to still be grown. In times of flooding, wetlands can redirect the water downstream to drain properly, effectively preventing flooding disasters. This makes wetlands not only one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth but one of the strongest and most important as well. So, why are we letting them wither away?

Wetlands provide essential irrigation for cotton farming. Cotton is a global crop that makes up 75% of exports for some African nations. Despite growing concerns from scientific agencies such as NASA and the EPA about the destruction of wetlands, the same irrigation practices continue to be used. There are two types of irrigation which have opposite effects on the wetlands, drip siphoning and dam flooding. Drip siphoning is a trenching method that steals water from the wetlands to feed the cotton plants. The second is a method of constructing dams within the wetlands to draw water from in times of reduced rainfall, which raises water levels and drowns much of the plant life.

Agriculture accounts for 65% of habitat loss worldwide with our current practices. The best example of this is the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The Aral Sea is a saltwater wetland that was created in the 1960s when the Soviet Union rerouted two rivers to prepare the desert land for agriculture. These two rivers formed a basin, which effectively grew to be the fourth largest lake in the world. This wetland is used as an irrigation for cotton farming. Since 1960 the lake has been receding, but it has been most noticeable in the last 17 years thanks to NASA’s satellite technology. Every year in August the satellite captures a photo of the lake to compare size. It has shrunken considerably over the years. The water levels shrank to the point the lake became two lakes, an east, and the west Aral Sea, and some years one of the lakes completely dries up from overuse in agriculture. This ecosystem was a major source of food for surrounding villages with 24 species of fish calling it home. Since 2000 every species has died.

Wetlands face other major polluting issues. First, there is pesticide poisoning which often leads to the introduction of mercury into the ecosystem, which, like our oceans, is becoming a problem for marine life. Second, and more deadly to the ecosystem is the introduction of fertilizer. Fertilizer introduces nitrogen and phosphorus into the swamps which disrupt the balance of water and begins to kill all life in the wetland. This has also happened to the Aral Sea, and countless other wetlands, especially in the United States where pesticide and fertilizer sales are less regulated and mass produced.

The loss of wetlands will be devastating for poor communities as they lose their primary food source and access to clean drinking water. With the introduction of chemical pesticides and mercury to the water, there will be an increase in illness and birth defects among children and pregnant women. Food crops will become inedible from all the chemical contamination. It will become a dead zone.



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