Wetlands
of Southeast Asia

Sustaining life in shallow waters

Koh Kapir Ramsar Site, Cambodia ©IUCN

Koh Kapir Ramsar Site, Cambodia ©IUCN

“I make a living by catching fish and crabs in the Bang Pakong river wetland. If the wetland stays healthy, we can continue to look after ourselves.”

Mr. Prasit Limsin, local fisherman, Baan Khao Din, Bang Pakong river, Thailand

Prasit Limsin 55, father of two, uses cans to trap crabs in the Bang Pakong river wetlands in Thailand. He usually gets 8 to 10 kg of crabs per day and sells them at THB 80 per kg.

He is just one of the many locals who depend on wetlands for food and livelihood. Climate change impacts are making the wetlands, and the benefits derived from them, degrade fast.

Catch of the day. Prasit Limsin shows a crab he managed to catch using his can traps in the mudflats of Bang Pakong River wetlands, Thailand © IUCN

Catch of the day. Prasit Limsin shows a crab he managed to catch using his can traps in the mudflats of Bang Pakong River wetlands, Thailand © IUCN

Crab traps using discarded cans ©IUCN

Crab traps using discarded cans ©IUCN

Mangrove crabs ©Ana Grillo

Mangrove crabs ©Ana Grillo

Wetlands Matter

Wetlands are areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary. They could have static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres.

- Ramsar Convention

Fisherman and son at Boeung Chhmar Ramsar Site, Cambodia ©IUCN

Fisherman and son at Boeung Chhmar Ramsar Site, Cambodia ©IUCN

These shallow water areas provide diverse benefits including groundwater replenishment, storm protection, processing of carbon and other nutrients, habitat for biodiversity, cultural values and so much more. There are currently over 2,300 Ramsar Sites around the world, covering over 2.1 million square kilometres — an area larger than Mexico.

-Ramsar Convention

Wetland biodiversity matters. Wetland plants and animals are essential in balancing ecosystems and as sources of livelihood to local communities © Ramsar Convention

Wetland biodiversity matters. Wetland plants and animals are essential in balancing ecosystems and as sources of livelihood to local communities © Ramsar Convention

More than one billion people depend on wetlands for a living and they are among the most biodiverse ecosystems. Up to 40% of the world's species live and breed in wetlands, although now more than 25% of all wetlands plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

-UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Wetlands of Indo Burma

The Lower Mekong delta located in the Indo-Burma Region supports the world's most productive inland fisheries and provides local communities with up to 80% of their protein intake1.

U Minh Thuong National Park, Viet Nam © IUCN

U Minh Thuong National Park, Viet Nam © IUCN

The Indo Burma Region, located in tropical Asia, covers the countries of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam. This area is one of the world’s most biologically important regions.

There are thirty-five designated Ramsar Sites, or Wetlands of International Importance within the five countries.

Unfortunately, the Indo-Burma Region is also one of the most threatened. Regional wetlands are at risk from water drainage, pollution, unsustainable use, invasive species, and disrupted flows from upstream dams, soil erosion and sediment dumping from deforestation, among others.

Land conversion for agriculture is threatening wetlands © WCS

Land conversion for agriculture is threatening wetlands © WCS

Draining of water for irrigation pose a threat to wetland biodiversity © WCS

Draining of water for irrigation pose a threat to wetland biodiversity © WCS

Degraded wetland in Cambodia © Giacomo Abrusci

Degraded wetland in Cambodia © Giacomo Abrusci

Species found in wetlands have important roles in the ecosystem.

For example, the Water Onion (Crinum thaianum) found in the wetlands of Phang Nga and Ranong provinces in Southern Thailand is an indicator of the river wetlands fertility.

As a keystone species, Water onion is important for the survival of other species. It serves as an important breeding habitat and provides food for native freshwater fish, snails, and frogs. 

Thai water onion ©IUCN Thailand

Thai water onion ©IUCN Thailand

In celebration of the World Wetlands Day, the Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative (IBRRI), together with its member organisations, is putting the spotlight on some of the great wetlands found in the region, their representative species and activities to protect and conserve wetlands biodiversity.

IBRRI is a regional initiative established to strengthen the implementation of Ramsar Convention in lower Mekong countries.

Greater Xe Champhone Wetlands Complex

“Wetlands are extremely productive habitats. They provide important environmental services far beyond their physical boundaries.”

Sam Leslie
Savannakhet Program Director,
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Lao PDR

Xe Champhone Wetland, Lao PDR ©IUCN

Xe Champhone Wetland, Lao PDR ©IUCN

Crocodile estuary in Xe Champhone Ramsar Site, Lao PDR ©WCS

Crocodile estuary in Xe Champhone Ramsar Site, Lao PDR ©WCS

An adult Siamese crocodile © S. Platt, WCS

An adult Siamese crocodile © S. Platt, WCS

Crocodile hatchlings © Sam Leslie, WCS

Crocodile hatchlings © Sam Leslie, WCS

Established in 2010, the Greater Xe Champhone Wetlands Complex is Lao PDR’s first Ramsar site. The Ramsar site covers 12,400 ha, while the wetland complex is approximately 45,000 ha2.

It is a unique mosaic of wetland types, rivers, oxbow lakes, reservoirs and seasonal marshes, flooded forests, bamboo thickets and rice paddies. More than 40,000 people in over 30 villages rely on the wetland’s fisheries, aquatic resources and water supplies for their livelihood3.

Globally, the Greater Xe Champhone Wetlands Complex is an important conservation site for the Critically Endangered Siamese Crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis). The largest sub-populations of this species are found here.

Siamese Crocodiles are the wetland’s apex predators, responsible for maintaining healthy species diversity and abundance. The crocodiles prey on certain predatory fish species such as snakeheads, which prey heavily on species important for local livelihoods.

The Integrated Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Livelihood project, implemented by Wildlife Conservation Society, is built on a community-based conservation and co-management model of natural resources. It has created a network of improved natural resource and biodiversity governance at village, district and provincial levels.

Beoung Prek Lapouv Protected Landscape

“Wetlands provide food and shelter for plant and animal species, some of which are on the brink of extinction. We need to conserve wetlands to secure a future with rich biodiversity.”

Vorsak Bou
Country Programme Manager
BirdLife International Cambodia

Boeung Prek Lapouv Protected Landscape (BPL) in Takeo Province, Cambodia, is one of the largest remnants of seasonally-inundated grasslands in the Lower Mekong Region, at over 8,300 hectares in size. About 22 villages use the wetland for rice farming and collection of natural resources including fish, edible plants, firewood and grass4.

It is one of 40 globally Important Bird Areas (IBAs) identified as key sites for conservation in Cambodia.

An important feeding site, Boeung Prek Lapouv Protected Landscape is recognised as one of three Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) Conservation Areas in Cambodia. At peak season, the wetland supports, on average, a third of the total regional population.

The Sarus Crane is the world’s tallest flying bird and listed as a Vulnerable species under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species ™. As a predator of small invertebrates and vertebrates, Sarus Cranes have an important role in controlling these populations. Their eggs also serve as food sources for their natural predators.

The Cambodia Lower Delta Partnership has developed and introduced a water experimental trial at Boeung Prek Lapouv Protected Landscape. Led by Birdlife International, this initiative aims to ensure water retention and prolong the visit of Sarus Crane during wintering period.  

Water retention trials have resulted in healthy vegetation and a stable food source, leading the number of Sarus Cranes at Boeung Prek Lapouv Protected Landscape to increase significantly.

Sarus Cranes © Nattawat Paewkratoke

Sarus Cranes © Nattawat Paewkratoke

Waterbirds at Boeung Prek Lapouv Protected Landscape @BirdLife International

Waterbirds at Boeung Prek Lapouv Protected Landscape @BirdLife International

Birds in water plots © Sok Lyan/BirldLife International Cambodia

Birds in water plots © Sok Lyan/BirldLife International Cambodia

Launch of the Pak Thale Nature Reserve, Thailand © BCST

Launch of the Pak Thale Nature Reserve, Thailand © BCST

Wetlands Conservation at Work

On 21 January 2020, the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand and Rainforest Trust officially inaugurated the Pak Thale area in the country as an important coastal site along the Inner Gulf of Thailand Important Bird Area (IBA). This area is now a priority conservation site for Spoon-billed Sandpiper and other threatened and near-threatened shorebird species.

Critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper © Zheng Jianping

Critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper © Zheng Jianping

Changing Climate: A threat to wetland biodiversity

Climate projections in the Indo-Burma region show that by 2050 many of the region’s wetlands will experience increased water scarcity during dry season and floods during wet season5.

Freshwater turtle in Xe Champhone lake © IUCN

Freshwater turtle in Xe Champhone lake © IUCN

This will lead to a dramatic loss of biodiversity due to habitat degradation, loss of food sources, changes in migration routes and hotter temperatures affecting species reproduction.

Bang Pakong River Wetland © IUCN

Bang Pakong River Wetland © IUCN

Rising seas will also lead to saline water intrusion, changing wetland ecosystem profiles. This will lead to decreased fish catch and extensive crop damage affecting the livelihoods of low-lying communities.

“If these wetlands are sustainably protected, their rich biodiversity will bring benefits to the ecosystem and to the communities depending on them.”

Suthin Wutthisin

Local fisherman, Bang Pakong River 

Locals at Viet Nam’s U Minh Thuong National Park, located in Lower Mekong Delta ©IUCN

Locals at Viet Nam’s U Minh Thuong National Park, located in Lower Mekong Delta ©IUCN

To help wetland communities and species adapt to climate change, IUCN is currently implementing the Mekong WET project in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Viet Nam alongside the development of the Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative (IBRRI).

Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative: For the wise use of wetlands

A boat man at Bang Pakong River wetland in Thailand © Helene Marre, IUCN

A boat man at Bang Pakong River wetland in Thailand © Helene Marre, IUCN

To facilitate the wise use of wetlands in Indo-Burma, the Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative (IBRRI) was established to support the effective implementation of the Ramsar Convention and its Strategic Plan in Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam.

Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative

Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative

IBRRI provides lasting structural and operational support to facilitate the coordinated implementation of the Ramsar Convention in the region. IUCN acts as the Secretariat of the Regional Initiative.

Delegates from Myanmar discuss national wetlands policy at the IBRRI Regional Wetlands Policy Dialogue in Bangkok © RRC-EA

Delegates from Myanmar discuss national wetlands policy at the IBRRI Regional Wetlands Policy Dialogue in Bangkok © RRC-EA

Mekong Wet: Building Resilience of Wetlands in the Lower Mekong Region through a Ramsar Regional Initiative

U Minh Thuong National Park, located in Lower Mekong Delta ©IUCN

U Minh Thuong National Park, located in Lower Mekong Delta ©IUCN

Mekong WET: Building Resilience of Wetlands in the Lower Mekong Region is a four-year project funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB).

Wetland management training participants visit the Koh Kapir Ramsar Site catchment forest in Cambodia  © IUCN Cambodia

Wetland management training participants visit the Koh Kapir Ramsar Site catchment forest in Cambodia  © IUCN Cambodia

The project conducted Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments (VA) at each of the ten project sites. The assessments analysed the impacts of climate change on wetland habitats, species, and local livelihoods, highlighting the impending risks. With a focus on Ecosystem-based Adaptations (EbA), stakeholders in the five countries have developed Climate Change Adaptation Plans to address vulnerabilities identified in the assessments.

Participants learn how to take soil samples in the peatland © Mekong Wetlands University Network (MWUN)

Participants learn how to take soil samples in the peatland © Mekong Wetlands University Network (MWUN)

“The training provided an opportunity for nature conservation professionals to network, learn from one another, and explore collaboration opportunities for the future,” - Dr. Triet Tran, Head, Mekong Wetlands University Network.

In collaboration with national media organisations, trainings on citizen journalism were also conducted to empower members of the local communities to report impacts of climate change © IUCN Viet Nam

In collaboration with national media organisations, trainings on citizen journalism were also conducted to empower members of the local communities to report impacts of climate change © IUCN Viet Nam

Mekong WET helps these countries to address their commitments to the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, and to achieve the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. The project is also supporting the Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative (IBRRI) and the implementation of its Strategic Plan 2019-2024.

“IBRRI helps in building the capacity of wetlands managers through regional trainings, transboundary dialogues, and sharing of knowledge and experiences on wetlands governance to ensure the conservation of these ecosystems for future generations.”   

Raphael Glemet

Senior Programme Officer, Water and wetlands
IUCN Asia

Collecting Lepironia grass in Phu My Nature Reserve in Viet Nam © IUCN/Sie

Collecting Lepironia grass in Phu My Nature Reserve in Viet Nam © IUCN/Sie

For more information about the Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative, please visit: https://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/library/indo-burma_rri_about_e.pdf

Also, learn more about the Mekong Wet Project here:

https://www.iucn.org/regions/asia/our-work/regional-projects/mekong-wet

This photo story was produced by the IUCN Asia Regional Office and the Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative.

With support from the following:

Story contributions from:

Sam Leslie, Savannakhet Program Director, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Lao PDR

Vorsak Bou, Country Programme Manager Cambodia BirdLife International

Wanphen Thotsaphon, Mekong Wet Thailand Field Coordinator

Yong Ding Li, BirdLife International (Asia)

References:

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 1971. Ramsar Information Paper 1: What are wetlands?

UNFFCCC, 2018. Wetlands Disappearing Three Times Faster than Forests

1 Indo-Burma Ramsar Regional Initiative (IBRRI) Strategic Plan 2019-2024

2,3 IUCN, 2018. Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment Xe Champhone Ramsar Site, Lao PDR

4,5 IUCN, 2018. Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment Boeung Prek Lapouv Protected Landscape, Cambodia