In an age of continuing dam construction in Asian countries, Hannarong Yaowalers is establishing a new public understanding of wetlands, formerly perceived as wastelands, by working with local communities to establish economic incentives for conservation. Hannarong is developing participatory wetland protection in Thailand as an alternative in water management.
The New Idea
Hannarong’s approach of participatory wetland protection offers a win-win situation for communities and government officials who have been in long-standing conflict about the appropriate solution to water management. Hannarong has established the first citizen-based efforts to restore, conserve, and ensure sustainable use of wetlands in Thailand, as an alternative to large-scale dams and reservoirs. He is re-educating the Thai public about wetlands, generally disregarded as useless muddy areas. By working with fishermen and farmers to introduce the wetland as an economic unit, Hannarong highlights the economic viability of conservation and sustainable use. Hannarong co-founded Thailand’s first Academic Working Group on Wetlands, and serves as the only citizen sector representative alongside national government officials. Hannarong’s efforts have led to new partnerships between government agencies, academics, and citizen groups, including Thailand’s first wetlands inventories, which record not only the environmental value but also the economic contribution of wetlands to local communities. Hannarong has been instrumental in setting up the first national protocols on construction in wetland areas. In the midst of plans for dam construction in Thailand and neighboring countries, Hannarong is building the knowledge framework and new incentives for participatory water management.
Despite alarming evidence to the contrary, dam construction has long been accepted in Thailand as the most effective form of water management. Thailand continues to invest billions of dollars in building dams, even as dams are being dismantled in other countries. Across the world, dams have not met their projections for water supply and power generation. According to the World Commission on Dams, dam construction has caused the displacement of approximately 40 to 80 million people, often without proportionate compensation and rarely taking into account the community’s preference. Dams have also disrupted riverine ecology, preventing the travel of marine life to upstream breeding grounds and the flow of nutrients and contributing to the endangerment and extinction of one-fifth of the world’s freshwater fish.
There is growing public resistance against dam construction in Thailand. Dams irrigate less than one-fifth of all farmland and generate far less than the projected amount of electricity. Communities surrounding most dams are still without electricity or running water. The use of dams for water storage and power generation requires dams to be as full as possible, diminishing their effectiveness in flood prevention, while providing a false sense of security to downstream communities. The Thai government has temporarily deferred dam construction plans, but only to renew the same plans again periodically. Thailand is also beginning to invest in the large dam construction projects in neighboring countries.
Wetlands, as natural storage reservoirs are proven to reduce the risk of flooding. Wetlands are also one of the most genetically diverse ecosystems, serving as breeding and feeding grounds for a wide range of plant and animal life. In Thailand, however, the word wetland does not exist in forestry textbooks. The word appeared in the Thai dictionary in 1975, when Thailand endorsed the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention). Since then, wetland has remained an academic term understood by only a few national government officials. Wetland protection efforts have only been in the form of national decrees, without the participation of local government and communities.
Wetlands, particularly freshwater wetlands, are perpetually perceived as wastelands or inferior real estate in Thailand. Registered as public property, wetlands belong to local governments but cannot be sold. As a result, governments often donate wetlands to large-scale national projects such as dams and reservoirs, or develop other construction projects to raise the value of adjacent properties. In all cases, the development of wetlands involves filling in or shutting off waterways, effectively destroying the wetlands’ natural functions, and their natural uses to surrounding fishermen communities. Moreover, small-scale water management projects such as dredging or bypasses disrupt the flow of natural waterways, causing many wetlands to dry up and disappear. There are at least 19,400 wetlands across Thailand, but there is no account of how many wetlands have been destroyed. The fast disappearance of wetlands coincides with Thailand’s encounter with more frequent and damaging floods, which dams are unable to prevent.
Hannarong observes that dam construction and other water management projects are often located in wetlands, effectively destroying existing means of water management. He is building on existing networks of people affected by dam construction, and links them with users of other wetlands, to establish wetland protection as an environmentally and economically viable alternative to dam construction.
Hannarong begins by working with local communities to identify the alternative potential of wetlands. He works with users of wetlands—fishermen, clam diggers, shrimp farmers, owners of adjacent farms and orchards, tour guides, etc.—to estimate the past and current contribution of local wetlands to household income and the local economy. Often, communities discover a decreasing trend in the amount of catch from local wetlands. Hannarong encourages user groups to reinstate a conservation zone within their local wetland, usually breeding grounds known to an older generation of local fishermen. In 2003 Hannarong created a partnership between local fishermen, local guides, birdwatchers and biologists at the wetlands of Khao Sam Roi Yot, not far from his home province in southern Thailand. Fishermen designated about 100 acres as fish breeding grounds, and found their catch increase year-round, while the biological diversity of birds also increased. Likewise, Hannarong encouraged local shrimp farmers around the wetland to eliminate the use of chemicals. Today, the area is home to organic shrimp farms which export 500 tons per year of priced organic shrimp to the European Union, at 20 to 40 percent higher than the market price.
The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation has supported these collaborations, and when the provincial government approved a multimillion dollar road construction project to cut through the Khao Sam Roi Yot wetland, the local government and park officials joined community members in opposing construction. Previously regarded as a poor real estate fit for public construction projects, the wetland is now perceived as valuable to the environment and the economic well-being of local communities. In 2008, Khao Sam Roi Yot wetland was designated Thailand’s 11th Ramsar site, an internationally significant wetland according to the Ramsar Convention. More importantly, however, it became the first Ramsar site to have the active support of the surrounding communities and local government agencies. Hannarong has applied similar processes to work with many other communities where different wetland ecosystems are threatened.
Recognizing that many of Thailand’s wetlands are already endangered, Hannarong is establishing a model of participatory wetland restoration in Don Hoi Lod, an 875 square kilometer mudflat on the central coast of Thailand. Despite being named the 3rd Ramsar Site in 2001, the mudflat has continued to deteriorate from overuse and industrialization of upstream areas. Since 2009, Hannarong has worked with the association of clam diggers, to conduct simple experiments in search of the least amount of area for conservation that will restore the maximum biological diversity, to sustain both the clams and its diggers. The association of clam diggers and buyers agreed to designate approximately 80 acres for strict conservation, and will not sell or buy any clam smaller than four centimeters long. As a result, clam populations have grown bigger and more numerous, while household earnings have increased. Communities who rely on the mudflats for income are now supporting restoration activities. Hannarong also works with local temples, as a way of leveraging the temple’s patrons. Temple abbots recruit hundreds of households to join the annual World Wetland Day activities, which Hannarong initiated in Don Hoi Lod and across Thailand. Hannarong uses World Wetland Day to engage the younger generation in wetland conservation. High school students compete in designing the best logo and slogans each year, and Hannarong is able to instill increased awareness of wetlands among high school teachers as well.
To avert the need for destroying wetlands to raise real estate value, Hannarong is beginning to build a knowledge framework on the economic value of the wetlands In 2008 Hannarong developed informal collaborations between fishermen and scientists into an official survey of peat swamp forests and freshwater marshes—some of the most threatened wetlands in Thailand. Supported by the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP), the surveys will inventory all peat swamp forests in the country, and all freshwater marshes in northeastern Thailand—the site of many large-scale water management projects. The surveys will be conducted as a three-way collaboration between villagers, biologists, and economists. The surveys will not only account for environmental qualities of wetlands, but also the economic contribution of wetlands to household income and local communities, such as the value of fish caught per household per year, and the use of wetlands for livestock raising. Hannarong has ensured that survey findings are already available online, providing equal access to information for local communities and government officials, to encourage widespread participation in wetland protection.
Hannarong has set up participatory models of small-scale water management in dozens of wetlands across fifteen watersheds in Thailand. He is a founding member of Thailand’s first Academic Working Group on Wetlands in 1997, a position which he holds to this day. On this Working Group, Hannarong serves as the only citizen sector representative alongside government officials. Hannarong has used this opportunity to create awareness for the potential of locally-managed wetlands among national government agencies. Hannarong has also been instrumental in changing the practices of national government agencies. He played a key role in successfully obtaining a Cabinet Resolution in 2000, requiring environmental impact assessments of construction projects in wetlands. The Cabinet Resolution survived several ministerial changes and, reflecting Hannarong’s influence, was revised in 2009 to prohibit any public construction project on wetlands, except for the purpose of recreation and water conservation. The 2009 revision also required that environmental impact assessments include studies of existing community uses of wetlands and the potential impact after construction. Hannarong has also worked closely with the Department of Water Resources, engaging water management officials in wetland protection initiatives. In 2011, the Department of Water Resources organized the first training on low-impact construction options in wetland areas. The Department of Land Development has also provided assistance to Hannarong’s network, while the Department of Fisheries supports the wetland protection projects and is interested in studying the generic diversity increase in fish. Hannarong is in the process of collecting 10,000 citizen signatures to submit a draft law on wetland protection, based on the 2009 Cabinet Resolution. The law will establish a legal definition for wetlands and guidelines for conservation and sustainable use.
In 2010 Hannarong trained university interns from environmental studies departments in eleven strategic locations across Thailand, with support from Thailand’s major business conglomerate, SCG Group. He developed this network into well-publicized projects of small-scale water management and, with active local community support, proposed wetland restoration as a national policy alternative to dam construction. He is also working with communities along Thailand’s longest river, Chi River, to engage new groups of wetland users and develop more participatory wetland protection and restoration projects. Hannarong’s work is supported by the Global Water Partnership, ONEP, and the Ramsar Convention Fund. He is also broadening his impact by working with the Mekong River Commission in assessing the dam construction situation in neighboring countries, Lao and Myanmar.
Hannarong was raised in a farming household and is the first in his family to obtain higher education. He attended university during the peak of Thailand’s dam building frenzy during the 1980s and as part of a student club, Hannarong witnessed communities displaced by large dam projects. After graduating with a law degree, Hannarong continued to assist communities who were already displaced or to be displaced by dam projects in the role of policy monitoring. Time and again, he met farmers who learned of the negative impacts of dams only after construction had begun. This experience revealed to him the unequal access to information in Thai society.
Hannarong first became aware of wetlands in 1995, when two villages were in conflict over a public construction project in Surat Thani, near his hometown. In collaboration with the conflicting villagers, Hannarong studied the dredging proposal and local ecology, to learn that the area was a peat swamp forest. He set up a study group and took villagers to visit other swamp forests that had been destroyed and restored. One year later, the two villages came to an agreement to conserve the peat swamp forest for local use. Residents pitched in to build trails and now run their own learning site, hosting many of Hannarong’s partners today.
In 2011 Hannarong was elected president of the coordinating committee of NGOs on the Protection of Natural Resources and the Environment. He works with the membership of over 100 organizations to collect citizen signatures for the draft legislation on wetland protection. In late 2011, in the aftermath of Thailand’s worst flood in half a century, Hannarong was invited by the Thailand’s Royal family to present the potential of wetland protection as a sustainable form of water management for Thailand.