Securing the Future

of Indo-Burma's Wetlands and Communities

Wetlands, such as marshes, rivers, mangroves and coral reefs, have many important functions. They support fisheries, provide clean water, store carbon and reduce disaster risk by acting as natural buffers against erosion and the impact of floods, tsunamis and landslides. 

In the Indo-Burma region, millions of people rely on wetlands for their survival. The Lower Mekong delta supports the world's most productive inland fisheries and provides local communities with up to 80% of their protein intake. 

Unfortunately in recent decades, deforestation, infrastructure development, and increasing urbanization have led to a dramatic decline in the region's wetlands, resulting in the depletion of fish spawning grounds and a reduction of water quality. 

The Indo-Burma region once supported large areas of seasonal wetland habitats, however, vast conversion and reclamation over the last few decades has left us with an increasing number of degraded wetlands.

 Degraded wetlands in Cambodia © Giacomo Abrusci

Research, management, policy, capacity building, and awareness are essential for the achievement of sustainable development in this region. 

In celebration of World Wetlands Day, IUCN Asia would like to raise awareness about the value of wetlands and highlight why they need to be protected, preserved and restored.

WETLands support  Biodiversity

Mangroves have been estimated to support 30% of the fish catch and almost 100% of the shrimp catch in Southeast Asia.

 Trat Province, Thailand © Siriporn Sriram/IUCN Thailand

In Trat province Thailand, wetlands like mangroves provide breeding grounds and habitats for a variety of fishes and other marine species, including molluscs, mud crabs and prawns, as well as for supporting livelihoods of local fishing communities.

"In Lao PDR, the Xe Champhone wetlands provide important habitat for many species including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile. Surrounding communities are also highly dependent on the wetland system for food resources and their livelihoods." Amy Scott, Water and Wetlands Programme Advisor, IUCN Lao PDR

The sarus crane is a large non-migratory bird found in parts of the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Australia. The tallest of the flying birds, standing at a height of up to 1.8 m, are iconic species of open wetlands. In Viet Nam, the main threats to the sarus crane are habitat loss and fragmentation due to draining the wetlands and conversion of grasslands for agricultural and aquacultural purposes. The country's landscape is rapidly changing due to urbanization and infrastructure development.

"Phu My Wetland Nature Reserve is the last patch of undisturbed grasslands in Ha Tien Plain. The wetland  not only provides habitat for key species, but is also an important source of income for local communities."    Tu Nguyen Duc, Water and Wetlands Coordinator, IUCN Viet Nam

The endangered fishing cats are native to parts of South and Southeast Asia, where they are typically found in swamps and marshy areas. They are good swimmers, and unlike most other small cats, may prey primarily on fish rather than small mammals. Destruction of habitat is the biggest threat to the species, particularly in Southeast Asia where over 45% of protected wetlands and 94% of globally significant wetlands are considered threatened.

WETLANDS are the foundation of local Economies

The link between wetlands and human wellbeing is immense, especially in food production, water provision, climate change mitigation, and flood prevention.

Fisherman and his grandson fishing in Boeung Chhmar Ramsar Site, Tonle Sap, Cambodia ©Pheakdey Sorn/IUCN

The Tonle Sap in Cambodia is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and  one of the world's most productive inland fishing waters. The surrounding forests and floodplains also play an important role in sustaining this ecological system which supports the livelihoods of over 1.2 million people, many of which are reliant on fishing.

"The Boeung Chhmar Ramsar Site is our Life! As fisherfolks, we rely a lot on this wetland, as that's where we get our fish and earn an income." Sok Thoeun, Head of Balot Community Protected Area in BCRS, Cambodia.

Unfortunately, over the last few decades, illegal fishing practices, medium and large-scale commercial fishing, water pollution, and deforestation are seriously impacting the Tonle Sap, destroying fish habitat, and threatening the livelihoods of local communities.  

The Indo-Burma region was one of the first places where humans developed agriculture, and still today, millions of people depend on rice cultivation for their livelihoods.

Millions of people in the region also harvest seafood from wetlands. In Salak Kok Bay, Trat, Thailand, for example, oyster harvesting is a popular livelihood activity.

Women play a central role in collecting, distributing and managing water, and in wetland-based livelihoods.  Only when the roles and needs of both women and men in management plans are included and recognized will effective inclusion and, therefore, effective conservation, sustainable use and management of protected areas occur. 

Myannmar's Gulf of Mottama is one of the world's largest areas of permanently muddy water. Nutrient-rich sediment from four major rivers and dramatic tides produce constantly changing patterns of deposition and erosion.  

"The habitats of the Gulf of Mottama host endangered species, as well as important natural resources on which local villages depend. From flocks of migratory shorebirds on its vast mud flats, to the fishers, farmers, and their families who make a living from its waters and plains, the Gulf represents the interface between the natural and human worlds. Designation of the Gulf of Mottama Ramsar site, conservation of the critically endangered spoonbilled sandpiper, and development of a management plan represent important steps to managing the Gulf for biodiversity and for human communities." Tara Sayuri Whitty, Gulf of Mottama International advisor

The gulf's ability to sustain vast biodiversity and livelihoods has gained it international recognition for importance. Fish catch, however, has declined by 50%–90% as a result of over-fishing and illegal practices. Communities are dependent on the productivity of these waters and subsistence fishers are forced to look for work in other areas or migrate. Without swift action, fish catch and the coastal economy will decline further.

Wetlands within and downstream of urban areas are particularly valuable as they help prevent flooding, counteracting surface-water runoff from pavement and buildings. As wetlands are transitional between terrestrial and aquatic eco-systems, plant life is the key for absorbing sudden rise in water level, either due to heavy rains, tides, or a storm surge. This vegetation naturally reduces the velocity of waves while also retaining a percentage of waters during a surge with a slow release afterwards. 

"After Thailand's disastrous flood in 2011 which affected more than 13 million people and costed USD46.5 billion in damages, many recognized the value of wetlands for urban flood prevention. Areas around Bangkok like Bueng Nong Bon play crucial role in disaster risk reduction and serve multiple benefits for the urban population as recreational and educational sites." Petch Manopawitr, Programme Coordinator, IUCN Thailand   

Securing the future with  The Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative 

Boeung Chhmar Ramsar Site ©Pheakdey Sorn/IUCN

The Indo-Burma Rasmar Regional Initiative (IBRRI) is a platform that aims to promote the effective implementation of the Ramsar Convention among Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, Viet Nam and Myamnar, by supporting regional dialogue, research, management plans, and sharing best practices.

"Establishing initiatives such as IBRRI will certainly contribute to the survival of very important resources and ecosystem services provided by wetlands. Trans-boundary dialogues and mechanisms to enable transfer of knowledge and sharing of experiences on wetlands governance are key to ensuring wise use and conservation of these ecosystems for future generations.” Raphael Glemet, Senior Programme Officer, Water and wetlands, IUCN Asia.

By supporting cooperation and capacity building on wetland-related issues and with IUCN Asia acting as the secretariat, IBRRI aims to support the effective implementation of the Ramsar Convention in the region. 

The four objectives of IBRRI are:

1. Science and knowledge: Promote scientific and technical cooperation by supporting joint research on management and wise use of wetlands.

2. Site designation and management: Develop or support the development of management plans and regulatory/management tools for the wetlands.

3. Policy and advocacy: Promote regional dialogue on the development of wetlands conservation policy by sharing existing policies and working jointly on improvement.

4. Capacity building and awareness: Support capacity building through the development of training and educational programmes and courses.

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                           Photo story by IUCN Asia