Water and Wetlands

Freshwater ecosystems and species are a key feature of nature in Asia. Asia hosts some of the world’s greatest rivers; the Salween river is the seventh longest free-flowing river in the world; and the Meghna is one of the last remaining, long, free-flowing rivers globally.

The Mekong basin is the third most biodiverse river basin in the world. Freshwater ecosystems in Asia host a large number of globally important species, including (among many others) the gharial, freshwater turtle species (e.g. Yangtze giant softshell turtle), otter species, South Asian river dolphins, a large diversity of endemic fish (e.g. the Giant Mekong catfish) and hundreds of waterbird species.

Wetlands are also a key feature of ecosystems in Asia. The Meghna basin hosts more than 1,000 large wetlands (haors), whilst the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia helps sustain the vital flood pulse of the Mekong. The region is also renowned for its large coastal wetlands, such as the Sundarbans and the Yellow Sea mudflats.

These ecosystems sustain the livelihoods of millions of rural people and fishers, by ensuring the provision of water for household needs, reducing the risk of water-related disasters and supporting both agriculture and fisheries (e.g. the Mekong basin hosts the most productive inland fisheries in the world, the Meghna basin hosts the largest inland single species fisheries in the world, the Hilsa fisheries).

Despite their value in term of biodiversity and ecosystem services, freshwater biodiversity and ecosystems in Asia are experiencing unprecedented rates of degradation and conversion. As an example, it has been estimated that around 80 per cent of the region’s wetlands are threatened with conversion to agricultural land and development. Freshwater fish make up over a third of all Critically Endangered vertebrate species in South-east Asia and many freshwater species are threatened by overfishing; population declines of more than 80 per cent have been recorded over the last 20 years for some species. The increasing demand for energy in the region is driving the development of hydropower plants, significantly impacting water and sediment flow as well as fish migration.

These pressures, compounded by climate change, lead to increased water stress, negatively affecting economic growth and countries’ natural resource base, the collapse of inland fisheries and contributing to migration and regional instability. This stress is already evidenced in critical regions like the Mekong basin, the Ganges Brahmaputra Meghna basins and the Himalayas, which face frequent flood and drought episodes, putting human lives and livelihoods at risk.

Most of the country-led responses to water management are infrastructure-based (e.g. reservoirs and dikes, irrigation mechanisms) that only increase the pressure on freshwater ecosystems.

Cooperation frameworks on water, when they exist, are limited in scope, do not consider ecosystems, are outdated or lack the necessary legal strength to ensure sustainable use of the resource. As an example, to this day, Viet Nam is the only country in Asia to have ratified the United Nations Watercourses Convention (UNWC), enabling its entry into force. Despite a growing body of evidence demonstrating the weaknesses of the Mekong River Agreement, no efforts are being made by governments to strengthen their agreement.

Water management is highly political in the region and often seen by governments as a matter of national sovereignty or belonging to the diplomatic track. As a result, water dialogues leave little space for communities, civil society and indigenous groups - who are often the most affected by infrastructure projects - to contribute and take part in the discussion and to make their rights to water prevail.

IUCN’s Regional Water and Wetlands Programme in Asia is designed to tackle the three pillars of water management, including: i) promoting the conservation and restoration of key freshwater ecosystems and species; ii) enabling effective hydro-diplomacy in the region, leading to inclusive and effective water governance frameworks; and iii) supporting investment in the potential of freshwater ecosystems to provide Nature-based Solutions to pressing societal challenges in the region (e.g., climate change, food security, water security).

IUCN Asia’s current Water and Wetlands Programme is diverse and multi-level:

  • The programme supports regional initiatives on water governance, such as BRIDGE Mekong, Salween and GBM, aimed at strengthening water cooperation among countries at all levels;
  • Recently, IUCN has engaged in large-scale programmes aimed at strengthening water resources management, through a transboundary approach (GEF IW project) and/or through a climate adaptation angle (GCF Nepal, Sri-Lanka).  A number of water-related projects are being implemented under the umbrella of NbS for adaptation (or EbA), such as Mekong WET on wetlands;
  • At national level, a large number of water-related projects are being implemented, aimed at strengthening fisheries management (EU supported project in the Tonle Sap, Cambodia), supporting the development of management plans of key ecosystems (e.g. Rara Lake in Nepal) and supporting species conservation.

The Water and Wetlands Programme is well-developed in the Mekong and Salween basins, with  strong leadership from the Indo-Burma Group and large-scale, well-funded projects (GEF IW, Adaptation fund). It needs to be further expanded and reinforced in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basins, the Indus basin and the Himalayas, where only a few medium-scale projects are currently implemented. Countries like China and Mongolia with large freshwater ecosystems (e.g. rivers, peatlands) need to be better represented under the IUCN Asia Water and Wetlands Programme and are a priority for programme development.  A programme expansion with a focus on wetlands (e.g. Ramsar sites) could be considered in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia (noting that a number of key wetlands in these countries are coastal and could be covered by the Marine and Coastal Programme).

IUCN’s institutional offer on water is three-fold (and aligned with the proposed programme objectives):

  • In-depth scientific knowledge of freshwater species and ecosystems and on associated threats, relying on our network of members and experts in the region;
  • Our role and experience in supporting countries to ratify, understand and implement the Ramsar Convention is a key asset, particularly developed in the Mekong region (IBRRI);
  • A unique understanding of transboundary water governance gained through several global (e.g. BRIDGE) and regional (e.g. Ecosystem For Life) projects which enabled the team (SSG and in-country) to gain first-hand experience on the mechanisms of transboundary governance, global conventions on shared waters, associated challenges and opportunities for strengthening, for each basin. This enable us to act as a support facility to governments and CSOs on this theme.
  • NbS strategies, supported by the NbS Global Standard and the implementation of several NbS projects on water (e.g. Mekong WET, Nexus), which gives us a competitive advantage.