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by Noeline Gannaway, adapted from an article by Dr Sansanee Choowaew of Mahidol University in Thailand.

Thailand has various types of vast wetland areas including over fifty major rivers and their tributaries, riparian zones, flood plains and flooded forests. There are over 8000 freshwater swamps and marshes, lakes, ponds, estuaries, mudflats and deltas. Along Thailand's 2,614 km of coastline are found coastal zones, mangroves, peatlands, beaches, coral reefs and seagrass beds. Thailand also has over 2000 man-made water storage ponds and reservoirs, rice paddies, fish ponds, shrimp ponds, saltpans and coastal aquaculture areas. The welfare of the Thai people, and of the country itself, is greatly dependent upon these productive wetland ecosystems.

In the past, the value of natural wetlands has not been fully recognised. Wetlands are vital parts of a watershed. Loss and degradation not only affects the existence and health of an individual wetland and causes local suffering, but also affects the ecosystem as a whole and can contribute to regional and even global environmental problems.

The value of wetlands can be seen as threefold:

  1. Wetlands can perform a myriad of functions: they recharge and discharge groundwater, control flooding, help stabilise shorelines and prevent erosion, retain sediment, toxins and nutrients, export biomass, provide storm protection, water transport, recreation and tourism.
  2. Wetlands can generate products such as forest, wildlife, fishery, forage and agricultural resources, as well as water supplies.
  3. They also possess ecosystem attributes such as biological diversity, natural heritage and cultural uniqueness.

Unfortunately, the exploitation of natural wetlands in Thailand has been so extensive that many areas have been permanently lost. Large areas of natural wetlands have been altered to man-made wetlands or completely changed to other forms of land use.

In the drive for economic growth, agricultural practices and development continue to threaten Thailand's wetlands and their biota. Among the major threats are drainage, clearing, filling and reclamation for cash crop production, road building, construction of dams or barrages for water storage, flood protection, irrigation and hydroelectric schemes, construction of waterways and irrigation channels, pollution, especially by pesticide and fertiliser residue, overgrazing by livestock, overfishing, and conversion to aquaculture ponds. Moreover, development planning has proceeded without local involvement, and without considering what the local population really needs, the losses and gains, and who loses and who gains.

Natural threats to wetlands, such as climate change, drought and floods may be unavoidable, but man-made threats can be prevented. The Ramsar Convention Bureau (1991) declared the wise use of wetlands to be “their sustainable utilisation for the benefit of humankind in a way compatible with the maintenance of the natural properties of the ecosystem.” Thus, the wise use of wetlands serves human interests while conserving natural values.

In wetland development, four aspects may usefully be considered:

  • Productivity - the yield or income per unit of resource.
  • Stability - the degree to which productivity is constant in the face of small disturbances caused, for example, by normal fluctuations of climate.
  • Sustainability - the system's ability to maintain productivity in the face of a major disturbance such as soil erosion, an unexpected drought or a new pest.
  • Equitability - the distributive aspects of the system, how far agricultural products are shared among the community.

Wise use of any wetland, therefore, may be low in productivity, but high in stability, equitability, and sustainability.

The natural resources of wetlands can be managed and protected by three groups - the local community, national decision-makers, and conservationists. For sustainable wetlands development, strong guidelines are needed. It is important that both largescale investors and local individuals use wetlands wisely. Subsistence communities need to be equipped to utilise and enhance wetland resources in a more sustainable way.

Present agricultural policy should be reviewed. Drainage of wetlands for intensive agriculture may provide good cash crop yields in the short term, but is likely in the long term to limit the ability of a wetland to produce its own sustained harvest. In agricultural planning, wetlands need to be seen as part of watersheds and managed accordingly. Agricultural land zoning must be strengthened. Not all activities should be permitted in wetlands. Proper buffer zones should be designed where appropriate for wetland protection. Correct use of agricultural inputs is essential, and safe alternatives to toxic chemicals should be preferred.

National policies on wetland conservation management which can conform with agricultural development policies are vital. Attention must be paid to the fragility of the ecological and hydrological processes of each wetland and how different types of agriculture will impact its ecosystem. An environmental impact assessment, prior to the decision to develop, should be mandatory, and strictly implemented. Local involvement and participation should be present in all stages of wetland management. The roles for women, children and youth should be strengthened. Alternative sustainable development options need to be considered to improve the livelihood of adjacent communities. Some alternative uses of wetlands include recreation and eco-tourism, research and educational sites and agroforestry. Such management principles should help meet the needs of an increasing population, while ensuring that wetland ecosystems will have a future.

Source: Tiempo, Issue 18, December 1995.

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