Story | 02 Feb, 2021

Wetlands – natural infrastructure managing water for free in the Indo-Burma region

On 2 February 2021, communities and organisations throughout the world will celebrate World Wetlands Day, with the theme Water, Wetlands and Life. The events acknowledge the importance of wetlands and their multiple ecosystem services, including the provision of safe water for consumption and livelihood support.

Wetlands provide services worth trillions of US dollars every year globally – entirely free of charge – making a vital contribution to human health and well-being. In the Indo-Burma region, wetlands in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam host important biodiversity and support local livelihoods, even in urban areas, by providing food, including fish and other aquatic products for direct consumption or trade. They act as sponges, mitigating the impact of floods by retaining water during the wet season, and slowly releasing it to the surface and underground water systems during the dry season, sustaining river flows. The vegetation and bacteria living in wetlands contribute to cleaning the water, acting as effective natural water treatment plants.

Despite these valuable services, wetlands are under immense pressure, and the region is experiencing an intensifying water crisis. Climate change impacts are leading to the increased frequency and duration of both droughts and floods. Human activities, such as the damming of rivers, wetlands encroachment and urbanisation, further compound these impacts. Wetland ecosystem services are often overlooked in policies and planning, and many sectors do not fully acknowledge their values. These threats lead to increased water-related disasters, loss of livelihoods and food shortages, and affect communities and nations at scale.

To address the above issues and improve water management at scale, it is essential to further integrate wetlands within the development agenda. The Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative (IBRRI) is a regional platform that aims to support the governments of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam to strengthen the conservation and management of wetlands. Joint dialogues with IBRRI governments and partners have identified the following priorities for regional wetlands conservation:

Strengthen policy and planning: There is a need to ensure that policies across sectors recognise the value of wetlands and ensure the enhancement of their services. A recent IBRRI review demonstrated that water policies must include wetlands, acknowledging their role in water storage, provision and filtration. Discussions also highlighted the need for governments to include wetlands in both climate change adaptation and mitigation planning. In Thailand, the government is working with River Basin Committees throughout the country to promote in cross-sectoral decision-making on water management. The project aims for an integrated, basin-level approach to planning, considering the needs of all sectors, stakeholders and the environment. In Myanmar, the government has developed a National Wetland Committee, to promote cross-sector collaboration and strengthen the ecosystem services provided by the country’s wetlands.

Enhance wetlands research: The limited acknowledgement of wetland benefits stems from gaps in data and understanding of wetland functions in the region. Environmental organisations have voiced the need to promote further research on wetlands to gain an understanding of their functions and multiple benefits. In Myanmar, the government has supported the development of a National Wetland Inventory, which provides an overview of the wetlands throughout the country, including their features and services.

Strengthen on-site management and conservation: Data from wetlands research must inform site management decisions. IBBRI organised ten-day national trainings for wetlands managers, combining theory and field-based studies. In Lao PDR, lecturers from the National University of Laos (NUoL) led a training of 31 site managers, who evaluated the ecosystem health of Beung Kiat Ngong Ramsar site during their field practice.

In Viet Nam, the government is working with farmers in the Mekong Delta to encourage the adoption of financially attractive, low risk, flood-based livelihoods as alternatives to unsustainable triple rice cropping. This approach increases flood storage and water retention, diversifies farmer’s incomes, supports biodiversity and reduces negative impacts on wetlands.

Awareness-raising and education: While management and research are important for wetlands conservation, there is an essential need to share these ideas with the general public. Over the past year, IBRRI has supported citizen journalism training in the region, connecting local trainees to national news agencies to report their stories. This has highlighted the importance and diversity of Indo-Burma’s wetlands, and provided communities with a platform to amplify their voices.

World Wetlands Day is celebrated annually on the 2nd of February, providing an opportunity to remind ourselves of what wetlands do for us and of the need to protect and manage them.  Find an event in your area here: