World Wetlands Day 2001: Thailand -- Ramsar in the Asia Pacific region

14/06/2001

[On World Wetlands Day 2001 (2 February), the Office of Environmental Policy and Planning of Thailand hosted a seminar in Bangkok for over 200 participants from government agencies and non-governmental organizations. Dr Taej Mundkur, interim executive director of Wetlands International - Asia Pacific, was invited by OEPP to participate as a guest speaker, and the Ramsar Bureau seized the opportunity to support his contribution to the meeting. His address, co-authored with Ms Ayu Rahayu, Communications Director at WI-AP, summarizes the Convention's contributions for the benefit of the Thai audience and then offers an assessment of Ramsar's present and future role in the Asia Pacific region. His remarks will soon be published by OEPP in the Proceedings of the seminar and are reprinted here with the kind permission of OEPP. -- Ramsar Web editor.]

Commemorating 30 Years of the Convention on Wetlands:
A big step in the right direction!

Taej Mundkur and Ayu Rahayu

Wetlands International - Asia Pacific
3A39, Block A, Kelana Centre Point
Jalan SS7/19, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia
Tel: +60 3 704 6770 Fax: +60 3 704 6772
E-mail: wiap@wiap.nasionet.net  Web site: http://www.wetlands.org

What are wetlands?

Wetlands are areas of water, fresh or brackish, that may be flowing like a river or static like a lake, or vegetated like a marsh, mangrove or a peat swamp forest.

What do wetlands mean to the people of a nation?

To the fisherfolk - it is often the sole source of livelihood through the income generated from selling fish; to the farmer - it is a source of water for farms; to the trader - it is a convenient means to transport goods by boat from one town to another; to others - it is a source of electricity; to children - it is a source of enjoyment to swim in and to some - it is a mosquito ridden swamp while to the biologist it is a treasure trove of nature. But to many - it is a convenient place to dispose domestic and industrial wastes and to fill in or reclaim to build houses, factories, ports and towns. Are these needs and uses - and can we find a balance?

What is the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands?

The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971) is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. As of 30 January 2001, there are 123 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1050 wetland sites, totalling 78.7 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. Many have been nominated in the weeks leading up to World Wetlands Day 2001.

Mission Statement: "The Convention's mission is the conservation and wise use of wetlands by national action and international cooperation as a means to achieving sustainable development throughout the world" (Brisbane, 1996).

The Convention takes a broad approach in determining the term wetlands as: "areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres". In addition the Convention accepts that wetlands "may incorporate riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six metres at low tide lying within the wetlands".

History of the Ramsar Convention

The Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty adopted on 2 February 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar, on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Thus, though nowadays the name of the Convention is usually referred to as the "Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971)", it has come to be known popularly as the "Ramsar Convention". The Convention entered into force in 1975.

The Ramsar Convention is the first of the modern global intergovernmental treaties on conservation and wise use of natural resources, but, compared with more recent ones, its provisions are relatively straightforward and general. The Convention owes its origin to the excellent and ongoing cooperation between governments and non-government organisations working together for a common cause - the conservation of wetlands and their biodiversity.

Over the years, the Conference of the Contracting Parties (the main decision-making body of the Convention, composed of delegates from all the Member States), has further developed and interpreted the basic tenets of the treaty text and succeeded in keeping the work of the Convention abreast of changing world perceptions, priorities, and trends in environmental thinking.

The official name of the treaty – The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat – reflects its original emphasis on the conservation and wise use of wetlands primarily to provide habitat for waterbirds, whose populations were declining considerably due to various factors. Over the years, however, the Convention has broadened its scope to cover all aspects of wetland conservation and wise use, recognizing wetlands as ecosystems that are extremely important for biodiversity conservation in general and for the well-being of human communities. For this reason, the increasingly common use of the short form of the treaty’s title, the "Convention on Wetlands", is entirely appropriate.

UNESCO serves as Depositary for the Convention, and its administration has been entrusted to a secretariat known as the "Ramsar Bureau", which is housed in the headquarters of IUCN–The World Conservation Union in Gland, Switzerland, under the authority of the Conference of the Parties and the Standing Committee of the Convention.

Why do countries join the Ramsar Convention?

Membership in the Ramsar Convention:

  • entails an endorsement of the principles that the Convention represents, facilitating the development at national level of policies and actions, including legislation that helps nations to make the best possible use of their wetland resources in their quest for sustainable development;
  • presents an opportunity for a country to make its voice heard in the principal intergovernmental forum on the conservation and wise use of wetlands;
  • brings increased publicity and prestige for the wetlands designated for the List of Wetlands of International Importance, and hence increased possibility of support for conservation and wise use measures;
  • brings access to the latest information and advice on application of the Convention’s internationally-accepted standards, such as criteria for identifying wetlands of international importance, guidelines on application of the wise use concept, and guidelines on management planning in wetlands;
  • brings access to expert advice on national and site-related problems of wetland conservation and management through contacts with Ramsar Bureau personnel and consultants and through application of the Ramsar Advisory Mission mechanism when appropriate; and
  • encourages international cooperation on wetland issues and brings the possibility of support for wetland projects, either through the Convention’s own Small Grants Fund or through the Convention’s contacts with multilateral and bilateral external support agencies.

What are the commitments of Parties joining the Ramsar Convention?

When countries join the Convention, they are enlisting in an international effort to ensure the conservation and wise use of wetlands. The treaty includes four main commitments that the Contracting Parties have agreed to by joining.

1. Listed sites. The first obligation under the Convention is to designate at least one wetland for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance (the "Ramsar List") and to promote its conservation, including, where appropriate, its wise use. Selection for the Ramsar List should be based on the wetland’s significance in terms of ecology, botany, zoology, limnology, or hydrology. The Contracting Parties have adopted specific criteria and guidelines for identifying sites that qualify for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance.

2. Wise use. Under the Convention there is a general obligation for the Contracting Parties to include wetland conservation considerations in their national land-use planning. They have undertaken to formulate and implement this planning so as to promote, as far as possible, "the wise use of wetlands in their territory" (Article 3.1 of the treaty).

    The Conference of the Contracting Parties has approved guidelines and additional guidance on how to achieve "wise use", which has been interpreted as being synonymous with "sustainable use".

3. Reserves and training. Contracting Parties have also undertaken to establish nature reserves in wetlands, whether or not they are included in the Ramsar List, and they are also expected to promote training in the fields of wetland research, management and wardening.

4. International cooperation. Contracting Parties have also agreed to consult with other Contracting Parties about implementation of the Convention, especially with regard to transfrontier wetlands, shared water systems, and shared species.

Over the years, the Conference of the Contracting Parties has interpreted and elaborated upon these four major obligations included within the text of the treaty, and it has developed guidelines to assist the Parties in their implementation. These guidelines are published in a nine volume series as the Ramsar Handbooks in 2000.

Ramsar and Other Conventions

Ramsar works closely with nine environment-related global and regional conventions:

  • Convention on Biological Diversity
  • Convention of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention)
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
  • UN Convention to Combat Desertification in those Countries experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, particularly in Africa.
  • Convention to Combat Desertification
  • Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage (UNESCO, World Heritage Convention)
  • Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (Cartagena Convention)
  • Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean (Barcelona Convention)
  • International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River Agreement

Ramsar and its International Organisation Partners

The Conference of the Parties may confer the status of International Organisation Partner to international organisations, both intergovernmental and non-governmental, that "contribute on a regular basis and to the best of their abilities to the further development of the policies and technical and scientific tools of the Convention and to their application". So far, four international non-government organisations that have been associated with the Convention since its inception have been recognised as IOPs. They are BirdLife International, IUCN-The World Conservation Union, Wetlands International and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

There is a growing emphasis by the Ramsar Convention to build partnerships and many other organisations regularly cooperate with the Convention and its activities.

Reporting

Since 1999, Contracting Parties have been provided with a National Planning Tool for the implementation of the Convention. Contracting Parties are urged to use this new mechanism which provides a dynamic and ongoing framework for the strategic planning and record of implementation and reporting by national governments, which also meets the obligation to provide a National Report for each meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties. The National Reports become part of the public record.

Raising the profile of the Convention

The Secretariat has been working hard to increase the profile of the Convention and the importance of conserving wetlands, through the production of a range of information materials and a comprehensive web-site http://ramsar.org.

Thirty years of Accomplishments

With this background on the Convention and its functioning, can we assess the results after 30 years? Has the Convention made a difference to the way we perceive and protect wetlands? Is there a bright future ahead for wetlands and the Convention?

These are complex questions to be answered quickly as it is difficult to generalise problems and actions that have been taken around the world. Let us instead try and answer these questions using examples from the work undertaken by governments and organisations in the Asia-Pacific. It does not aim to be a comprehensive analysis of all actions taken.

Firstly, let us remind ourselves that in the Asia-Pacific, nations vary from being amongst the world's poorest and underdeveloped to the very wealthy and developed. The region is home to more than half of the world's population, its people communicate in over 30 languages, literacy rates vary considerably between countries and the level of international contact and history of cooperation also varies.

1. Do we have a better understanding about wetlands?

  • A large volume of study - amateur and professional research has been undertaken on a whole range of subjects on wetlands, their functions, uses and conservation needs.
  • The level of reporting on issues related to wetlands has greatly increased in all forms of print and electronic media in most countries. Issues normally covered are floods, droughts and incidents of pollution or other calamities. This provides the opportunity for people to be better informed about wetlands.
  • A wide variety of field guides and related information on wetland flora and fauna have been developed.

Given that our knowledge and basic understanding of the value and importance of wetlands 30 years ago was very poor, we have all managed to make some good progress. However, there is still a great challenge ahead in order for people in all countries to appreciate the importance of conserving wetlands across their country, not only in little pockets far away from their lives.

2. What are we doing to conserve wetlands and their biodiversity?

Conservation of wetlands requires a multi-pronged approach. Listed below are some indicators of tangible benefits that have taken place in the last 30 years:

  • Wetland Policy - development of national wetland policies that are cross-sectoral and involve active involvement of all stakeholders, e.g. Australia, India, Malaysia, Thailand.
  • Planning - national and state level planning - Action Plans, e.g. Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines.
  • Capacity building - governments are setting up wetland units/departments within agencies responsible for conservation at the national and state level and building capacity through participation in local and international training programmes on wetland inventory, assessment, monitoring and management.
  • Formal education - environmental programmes and courses on wetland ecology are being taught at University level in several countries e.g. Barkatullah University in India and Prince of Songkla University in Thailand.
  • Wetland centres - a number of wetland centres have been established that provide basic information and interpretation on wetland issues e.g. Kushiro International Wetland Centre, Japan, Mai Po Wildlife Education Centre and Nature Reserve, Hong Kong SAR, China, Shortland Wetlands Centre, Australia and Putrajaya Wetland Park and Nature Interpretation Centre, Malaysia.
  • Site conservation - an increasing number of wetland sites in the Asia-Pacific is being designated and conferred with some level of protection.
  • Number of contracting parties – As at 1 February 2001, 19 of the 39 countries in Asia are signatories to the Ramsar Convention. Central Asia and the Middle East remain a large gap and it is hoped that these countries will join the Convention. In South East Asia, Brunei Darussalam, Laos, Myanmar and Singapore are still to join.
  • Ramsar site designation - most countries that have joined the convention have nominated more than one site, or are in the process of doing so. However, nomination of a single site is not representative of the wealth of a nation’s wetland habitats and additional sites need to be nominated and conserved in every country. The "Strategic Framework for Ramsar Sites" approved by the 7th Conference of Parties provides guidance for this.
  • Site management plans - Plans have been developed for several sites, although implementation requires more funding e.g. the Integrated Management Plan of Tasek Bera in Malaysia and the Management Plan of Dongzhaigang National Nature Reserve, China.
  • River Basin and Catchment Management - e.g. integrated wetland and catchment management project in the Loktak Lake Basin, India.
  • Pollution control - efforts are being undertaken in most countries to reduce pollution of waterways and wetlands.

Collectively they contribute to national, local and international efforts to conserve wetlands.

3. Is there an increase in cooperation for wetland conservation within countries and in the region?

National and local efforts to conserve wetlands are increasingly involving national and state government agencies working together, often with local community and NGO participation, and there are several excellent examples.

International cooperation to conserve wetlands and their biodiversity is taking place through increased participation in international programmes such as:

  • Regional and international conferences/meetings/workshops on wetlands organised/promoted by the Ramsar Convention;
  • International training courses and programmes;
  • World Wetlands Day (by the Ramsar Convention);
  • Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Strategy and Asian Waterfowl Census (coordinated by Wetlands International);
  • Asian Red Data Book for Birds and Important Bird Area project (BirdLife International), and
  • Regional Seas programme of UNEP.

4. Is there increased funding being diverted for wetland conservation?

The development and prosperity of people is closely linked to the conservation of wetlands. Where it is possible to make this link, increased funding from a range of national, state and local programmes, bilateral and international development agencies and the corporate sector is also contributing to the conservation of wetlands. At the same time, the drive for development has resulted in the destruction of many wetlands.

It is important to recognise that local people and governments in using the Convention as a major tool to promote wetland conservation even though it is rather difficult to assess the precise role of the Convention in these developments.

As impressive as these programmes and indicators of success may appear, the challenges to conserve our wetlands in the Asia Pacific continue to increase and continued positive action will need the will and commitment of all people.

Looking ahead

In 1999, the WWF published an informative publication entitled "The Ramsar Convention: A reflection on 27 years". In the publication are listed seven challenges and recommendations for the future that are useful to note.

  1. Increase the Number and Total Area of Ramsar Sites
  2. Ensure that Ramsar Sites are Representative of all Major Ecosystems
  3. Improve the Management of Wetlands Sites
  4. Make People Part of the Solution
  5. Adopt Catchment and Watershed Approaches to Wetland Management
  6. Address the Emerging Crisis in Freshwater Resources and Biodiversity
  7. Strengthen International Coordination to Improve the Conservation and Wise Use of Wetlands

In conclusion, the Convention on Wetlands has been very useful to promote an increased awareness of the need to conserve and sustainably manage our wetlands and their biodiversity. The Convention has grown in strength and importance over the last 30 years. In working with other conventions and international organisations, it has built a strong foundation from which to move forward. But we must remember that it is ultimately the people in each country working together for a common cause - the wise use and conservation of wetlands and their biodiversity, that will make the difference - not a convention on its own.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Delmar Blasco, Secretary General, Ramsar Convention Bureau for facilitating the Bureau's support and financial assistance which has enabled the senior author to attend the World Wetlands Day meeting in Bangkok in February 2001 to present this paper. Nick Davidson, Dwight Peck and Najam Khurshid of the Ramsar Convention Bureau provided input to the presentation. The paper has greatly benefited from comments received from Rebecca D’Cruz, former Regional Coordinator for Asia of the Ramsar Convention Bureau and Matt Wheeler of Wetlands International. Background information on the Convention on Wetlands was obtained from its Web site.

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Number of » Contracting Parties: 168 Sites designated for the
» List of Wetlands of
International Importance
2,187 Total surface area of designated sites (hectares): 208,608,257

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