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Wetlands restoration initiative along key bird migration route will identify sites that benefit people and planet

BirdLife International chief executive Patricia Zurita said biodiversity and climate are interconnected.
BirdLife International chief executive Patricia Zurita said biodiversity and climate are interconnected.ST PHOTO: AUDREY TAN

GLASGOW - The backers of a new financing initiative that aims to preserve wetlands along the world's longest migratory bird highway will seek to identify sites that benefit not just nature but people too.

"We have identified which are the sites along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway that the birds depend on," Ms Patricia Zurita, chief executive of conservation group BirdLife International, told The Straits Times on Tuesday (Nov 2).

Speaking during a side event on the link between nature and climate at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, she added: "But on top of that, what are the sites that are providing services to people - whether through climate adaptation and mitigation, or water filtration and food production? We want to use nature as a guide to identify key benefits for people."

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway is the world's largest migratory route, spanning more than 20 countries from the Arctic Circle to Singapore and farther down to New Zealand.

More than 50 million migratory waterbirds from more than 210 species depend on thousands of the flyway's wetlands for food and shelter, as do the nearly 200 million people who live there.

Wetlands, with their bounty of burrowing worms, crabs and other invertebrates, are a rich source of food for migratory shore birds and fishing communities.

But other than that, these habitats can also help to protect mankind from some climate impacts, such as rising sea levels. The tangled root systems of mangrove trees, for instance, allow them to trap sediment from the tides, thus keeping pace with sea level rise if the rate of increase is not too high.

Mangroves are also huge carbon sinks - their water-logged soil allows these habitats to lock away far more carbon from the atmosphere than their land-based counterparts. As such, many wetland habitats are considered a nature-based solution to tackling climate change.

Yet, the wetlands along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway are under threat from human activity and coastal development.

In October, the Regional Flyway Initiative was launched by the Asian Development Bank, BirdLife International, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) Partnership Secretariat and other partners to raise US$3 billion (S$4 billion) over the decade to help protect priority wetland clusters along the flyway.

Dr Yong Ding Li, a flyways coordinator at Birdlife who is based in Singapore, said that within South-east Asia, the wetlands in the Gulf of Thailand could benefit from this initiative.

"The gulf, with its mosaic of wetlands, is among the most important coasts for migratory species in South-east Asia. But many of the wetlands are degraded and need restoration," he said. "As there are also lots of people involved in livelihoods linked to ecosystem services in that area, in areas such as aquaculture, inshore fisheries and salt farming, there is a lot of potential for restoration there."

Ms Zurita said that other than prioritising sites that benefit both birds and humans, the selection process will be done in consultation with local conservation groups and partners.

"We're going to have groups of people throughout the flyway talking about how to protect and restore the wetlands. They are the ones who are going to prioritise them. Our role is to channel the funding, developing a grant mechanism for local civil society and local communities," she said.

The initiative's emphasis on getting local communities involved in conservation comes as the leaders of more than 100 nations pledged on Tuesday (Nov 2) at COP26 to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.

The Glasgow leaders' declaration on forests and land use, signed by the European Union and countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, the United States and Congo, had outlined six strategies to achieve this aim, including empowering communities and respecting the rights of local people.

Ms Zurita said that biodiversity and climate are interconnected. "We cannot resolve the climate crisis without resolving nature loss," she added.

Deforestation is a major contributor to planetary heating as felled ecosystems can release huge amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Birds are the canary in the coalmine, serving as indicators of the health of wetlands that sustain birds and humans, Ms Zurita said.

"These birds that I have on my mask - the spoon-billed sandpiper - they're incredibly important because they go from Russia all the way down to South-east Asia, and they have become a symbol of connectivity that we are all in this together," she said.

"They show that we have to work together beyond national borders, beyond provincial borders. If we don't work to save these places together, we are at risk."

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