Most of the academic publications today do not agree on any one definition of wetlands but rather on some identifiers, that is, common attributes that wetlands share. For learning purposes, the widely accepted definition is from Article 1 of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, popularly referred to as the Ramsar Convention. The Convention describes wetlands as ‘areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres.
Wetlands occupy approximately 6 per cent of the Earth’s surface area according to the Ramsar secretariat. In Kenya they are estimated to occupy about 4% of the land mass according to the Kenya Wetlands Forum (2012). This percentage increases during the rainy season up to about 6% when different parts of the country experience floods.
They are generally seen as unique ecosystems that integrate the characteristics of both terrestrial and aquatic environments (Lathrop 2011) with spatial and temporal variability. This variability together with other factors such as the cause or source of a wetland determines the wetland type.
There are different types of wetlands classified in different ways. But the focus of this article is on the coastal wetlands. Coastal wetlands include saltwater and freshwater wetlands located within coastal watershedsWetland types found in coastal watersheds include salt marshes, bottomland hardwood swamps, fresh marshes, mangrove swamps, and shrubby depressions. Coastal watersheds can extend many miles inland from the coast. The extent and condition of wetlands within a coastal watershed is both dependent on and influences the health of the surrounding watershed.
Kenya’s coastal wetlands form the basis for many ecosystem services and support many economic activities starting with the agricultural, tourism, fishing and, shipping industries. They also offer ecosystem services that are important for the well being of human beings. The following are some of the most important functions of coastal wetlands:
- Flood Protection: Coastal wetlands protect upland areas, including valuable residential and commercial property, from flooding due to sea level rise and storms.
- Erosion Control: Coastal wetlands can prevent coastline erosion due to their ability to absorb the energy created by ocean currents which would otherwise degrade a shoreline and associated development.
- Habitat and food: coastal wetlands provide habitat for many threatened and endangered species.
- Commercial Fisheries: coastal wetlands support almost all the rural households and a large number of urban folks who are involved in artisanal fisheries and to a much laser extent, large scale fishing.
- Water Quality: Wetlands filter chemicals and sediment out of water before it is discharged into the ocean.
- Recreation: Recreational opportunities in coastal wetlands include canoeing and kayaking, wildlife viewing and photography, and recreational fishing and hunting.
- Carbon Sequestration: Certain coastal wetland ecosystems (such as salt marshes and mangroves) can sequester and store large amounts of carbon due to their rapid growth rates and slow decomposition rates.
This has, however, not meant that they are not threatened by all sorts of factors. Wetlands in coastal watersheds are experiencing disproportionate losses compared to inland wetlands in most countries including Kenya. There are many development activities that are interfering with wetlands, the many protective laws notwithstanding. Some of the laws guiding wetland protection include Sections 42 & 55 of EMCA as well as the wetlands Act.
The rapidly increasing population and urbanization has meant that focus should shift from the more familiar emphasis on agricultural threats to emerging issues including housing and climate change. There has also not been enough research on the full extent of ecological and socioeconomic benefits of wetlands within coastal Kenya. This should inform policies and actions for every stakeholder in this wetlands business.
 Costanza, R., O. Pérez-Maqueo, ML Martinez, P Sutton, SJ Anderson, K Mulder. 2008. The value of coastal wetlands for hurricane protection. Ambio 37(4): 241-248
 Carter, V. 1997. Technical Aspects of Wetlands: Wetland Hydrology, Water Quality, and Associated Functions. United States Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 2425.