The Asean Centre for Biodiversity joins the global celebration of the World Wetlands Day 2024 with the theme, “Wetlands and Human Wellbeing”, giving emphasis on this ecosystem’s biological riches and its critical role in the survival, resilience, and well-being of people.
There are almost two million sq. km of wetlands in the Southeast Asian region. At present, there are 59 Wetlands of International Importance or Ramsar sites occupying a total land area of 26,592 sq. km. in eight Asean Member States (AMS). The Asean region is also home to 60 per cent of tropical peatlands and 42 per cent of mangrove forests in the world.
Wetlands are not wastelands
People often view wetlands as wastelands or areas that need to be drained or converted for development and other land uses. However, they are nature’s secret wonders because of their ability to provide vital services to sustain life and maintain balance of ecosystems. Wetlands are important stopover sites for migratory waterbirds, habitats for many fauna and flora species, and are rich food sources and breeding grounds for fishes.
Moreover, wetlands are considered ‘kidneys of the Earth’ because of their capacity to purify the soil and provide drinking water to communities. Wetlands are our best ally in the fight against climate change because they are considered as the planet’s greatest natural carbon stores. They serve as buffers against storm surges, flooding, and sea level rise. Wetlands are essential for food security, they support ecotourism, and provide alternative livelihood sources. As engines of local economies, wetlands are the lifeline of Asean people who are largely living in rural communities.
Efforts to save Asean wetlands
Despite the many wonders wetlands bring, they are now the most threatened ecosystem on the planet. Human activities contribute largely to the rapid loss of the world’s wetlands, with an estimated decline of 35 per cent since the 1970s.
The Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), through its flagship programmes, helps protect the valuable wetlands in the region through ecosystem restoration initiatives such as reforestation and mangrove rehabilitation, biodiversity mainstreaming, and the development and adoption of support policy frameworks and networks. The ACB also serves as one of the international advisers of the World Coastal Forum 2023 that was held in China to help address challenges in coastal wetland conservation and protection through science and evidence-based approaches.
Another notable wetland conservation initiative is the Asean Heritage Parks (AHP) Programme that was designed to protect areas of high conservation importance throughout the region. This almost four-decade programme encourages sustainable wetland management through capacity development activities in support of the park’s enhanced protected area management, law enforcement, sustainable financing, livelihood activities, and species conservation.
Currently, there are nine AHPs representing the wetland ecosystem including the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary (Philippines), Inlay Lake Wildlife Sanctuary (Myanmar), Ba Be National Park (Viet Nam), and the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Singapore. The ACB serves as the secretariat of the AHP Programme.
Another significant initiative of the region on wetlands protection is the establishment of the Asean Flyway Network (AFN). Led by Singapore and the ACB, the AFN is a network of flyway network sites, managers, and other key stakeholders in the region that facilitates cooperation needed to ensure the conservation of migratory waterbirds and the wetlands that support them.
The Asean region lies at the heart of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), one of the world’s major flyways, which supports the annual migration of 50 million waterbirds as they journey between the northern arctic breeding grounds in Russia and non-breeding grounds of Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. While these waterbirds depend on wetlands in the Asean for food and water during their stop-overs, they also contribute to the integrity of these ecosystems by regulating the population of pests and disease carriers.
In March this year, the ACB is looking forward to organising the Third AFN Meeting with Cambodia as the host country under the project, Improving Biodiversity Conservation of Wetlands and Migratory Waterbirds in the Asean Region-Phase II. This will be in close collaboration with the National Parks Board (NParks) of Singapore and with the support of the Japan-Asean Integration Fund (JAIF).
Addressing gaps and moving forward
Apparent gaps in the implementation of initiatives and activities must be addressed to ensure a more effective wetland restoration in the region. First, Asean Member States must be able to resolve data deficiencies to support better management of their wetlands. Furthermore, valuation of natural resources throughout Asean must be encouraged to come up with better policy frameworks and evidence-based conservation measures.
In close collaboration with Lao PDR, this year’s Asean Chair, the AMS, and our development partners, the ACB stays committed to preserving the region’s wetland ecosystems and the multitude of services they provide. Just as wetlands connect diverse ecosystems, communities, habitats, and species, Asean aims to strengthen ties among its member states to enhance the region’s connectivity and resilience for the welfare of its people.