Philippines: Save the mudflats

Amado S. Tolentino Jr. Manila Times 1 Feb 16;

“Rain and snowmelt flow down towards the sea from the mountain height,watering forests and marshes and filling lakes and ponds along the way.Living things grow along the water’s stream which supports our daily lives as well.”

It’s World Wetlands Day today (February 2).

WETLANDS (lupaing tubig) are “where water meets life.” The Ramsar Convention for the Conservation of Wetlands (1971), about which the Philippines is a Party, identifies 42 wetlands type. Among these are mangrove areas, seagrass beds, rivers, freshwater lakes, marshlands, rice paddies, coral reefs, peatlands and mudflats. The least known are peatlands and mudflats.

For purposes of climate change adaptation governance, peatlands as known in soil science are rich in plant species sustained only by nutrient-poor rainfall but enriched by trophic salts from rivers. Aside from providing important habitats for species, they also capture carbon and store it away from the atmosphere.

Mudflats, on the other hand, are low-lying coastal lands overflowed during flood tide when water is affected by the ebb and flow of the tide. When exposed and submerged repeatedly, rich and nutritious sediments from the sea are deposited there to build up a rich community of micro organisms and benthos. The water purification function of these organisms is a great attraction to people’s attention these days.

Mudflats’ soft bottom also make up “blue carbon” habitats that absorb and store up to 70% carbon and greenhouse gasses. Blue carbon plays a big role in mitigating the effects of climate change. And yet, conservation of mudflats is ignored.

Mudflats are indispensable habitat for shorebirds and hundreds of migratory birds depend on them for their existence. In fact, their mass movement is one of the world’s greatest phenomena, connecting locations as diverse as the Arctic tundra to the mudflats and deltas of the tropics. This coastal ecosystem also protects large human communities and provide ecosystem services to millions of people around the world, e.g. nurturing fisheries and providing livelihoods to communities through shellfisheries, supporting migratory waterbirds for scientific and aesthetic purposes, water infiltration and regulation, ameliorating flood and drought events, etc.

The problem for mudflats as a type of wetlands is the shifting character of coastal zones. The last 50 years or so have seen the global human population migrating rapidly to coastal areas. As a consequence, coastlines extending to mudflats have become a focus of expansion of the urban, agricultural and industrial sectors including, of late, as location for coastal wind farms to meet people’s energy needs. In fact, they have become the targets of many development projects and thousands of hectares of mudflats have disappeared.

What remains are continuously under the threat of development. The diminution of mudflats is having a major impact on coastal ecosystems which results also in the widespread loss and degradation of related ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrasses and coral reefs. And worst, it has major consequences for humans and nature in particular the loss of insect, fish and plant species.

Mudflats abound in many countries of Asia like South Korea, North Korea and China. In those countries, mudflats measure up to 20 kilometers wide in some places. While studies show that Japan lost some 6,000 hectares of mudflats in the last 50 years, the existing ones are valuable examples of flats that have been preserved. Among these are the Ramsar sites of Yatsu-higata, Manko, Yonaha-wan and Nagura Amparu.

In the Philippines, a group of citizens led by Senator Cynthia Villar filed a petition for a writ of kalikasan as a remedy to stop a reclamation project beside the Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area in Manila Bay declared so under Executive Order No. 01412 (2007) banning activities that would impede its ecologically vital role as a bird sanctuary. The area is around 30 hectares planted with 8 species of mangrove and 113 hectares of mudflats. These mangroves and mudflats serve as roosting and feeding grounds for 27 species of threatened and rare waterbirds.

The first designated Ramsar site in the country called Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Mactan, Cebu is the habitat of various species of fish, shells, crabs, sea urchin, etc. and is visited by 10,000 species of migratory birds every year coming from other parts of Asia like Siberia, China and Japan during the cold months of August to November. Mention should also be made of the Liguasan Marsh comprising 288,000 hectares of marshes, swamps and mudflats in the provinces of Maguindanao, Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat in Central Mindanao which is home to endemic waterbirds found only in the place.

Actually, there is no definitive way to know how much of mudflats ecosystem has been destroyed or how much and where it remains. Lack of accurate maps is due to the rapidly changing conditions they encounter – changing tides either expose or cover them, seriously limiting the application of available remote sensing methods and technologies.

In Asia, the most popular and cheapest method of land acquisition for coastal development affecting mudflats is reclamation or landfill. The process involves construction of seawalls and infilling for land use. These areas are then developed into new parcels of land for aquaculture, housing projects, industries, shopping malls as well as tourist resorts like casinos, sports and entertainment centers.

The over-reliance on the ecosystem services approach putting monetary value to mudflats’ services, i.e., housing projects and tourist industries, gives rise to the implication that alternative development services can be created through the modification of the water ecosystem to provide a greater economic return.

To be more specific, reclamation of mudflats becomes justified on much higher economic returns from, as mentioned, housing or tourism development. The fact that the economic returns largely accrue to a group of wealthy businessmen rather than impoverished shellfish collectors is seldom mentioned. And the developers and their agents even say that the shellfish collectors would be better off if they switched to jobs in the newly created tourism sector.

The urgent need, therefore, is for an effective conservation strategy that will guide the complex economic and social trade-offs that drive coastal development. This could ease pressure on a functioning network of coastal protected areas including mudflats and ensure continued delivery of other equally important ecosystem services, i.e. biodiversity conservation.

In the words of Secretary-General Braulio Dias of the UN Biodiversity Conservation Secretariat, to save biodiversity, “all you have to do is save a few mudflats.”

About the author. Ambassador Amado Tolentino is with the Ramsar Center Japan international advisors group which promotes effective implementation of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands through, among others, a periodic Asian Wetlands Symposium.

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