Northern lake may get vital protection
Ramsar Convention status would bring funding to conserve Bueng Kut Ting
Ecologically rich Bueng Kut Ting, a lake in Nong Khai province that has fed and nurtured generations, will be proposed as a new internationally important wetland, or Ramsar site.
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands was signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971 and provides for international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
If approved, Bueng Kut Ting will be the eleventh Ramsar site in Thailand since the Kingdom ratified the convention eight years ago.
"The designation as a Ramsar site will give the area the opportunity to receive financial support for its conservation and sustainable development," said National Wetlands Committee (NWC) member Nirawan Phiphitsombat.
To local villagers, the site is a source of food and sometimes aquatic plants for handicrafts.
But one recent scientific survey found it has far greater value.
At least 103 fish and 59 aquatic plant species can be found in the lake.
The area is home to an unknown variety of birds and other aquatic species, according to expert Chawalit Vidthayanon, who headed the survey.
Among the species, seven were new. These included five new species of fish and two new plants, he revealed.
"The richness of the biological diversity in the area results from the lake's location on the banks of the Mekong River. Its ecosystem is related to that of the Mekong," he explained.
Chawalit is the leader of a World Wildlife Fund Thailand team surveying species at Bueng Kut Ting as well as other socio-economic factors.
Bueng Kut Ting is an oxbow lake. These are formed when a wide meander from a stream or a river is cut off to form a lake.
Chawalit and his team took a new approach to their study. They used local fishermen and youth as researchers, so these residents could learn about the lake as they went.
Results of the first phase of the three-year study were submitted to Nong Khai Governor Supoj Laowansiri. He decided to promote the lake as a Ramsar site.
"Considering the circumstances and the latest scientific information, there is a high possibility Bueng Kut Ting will be Thailand's next Ramsar site," said the NWC's Dr Sanit Aksornkaew said.
However, a public hearing would be held before the proposal was submitted, Supoj said, to ensure local residents supported the idea.
The H-shaped Bueng Kut Ting covers 16,500-rai five kilometres from Nong Khai's Bung Kan district. The lake is between two to five metres deep.
Surrounding the lake are 19 villages of three tambons. The lake is a source for fish and more than one in 10 of the residents make their living from the lake.
Apart from fishing, residents collect aquatic plants for food. The nearby forest is a feed source for their buffaloes and cows. The seasonal swamp-land is used to grow economic crops like tomatoes and watermelon.
The lake's ecology is threatened by over-fishing, contamination by toxic agricultural chemicals and a rubber plantation on the lakeshore.
Other threats include introduced species like water hyacinth and sherry nail, which are eaten by livestock.
WWF Thailand sent a team to the area in 2005 for a three-year study, aiming to experiment with a new approach to wetlands administration - local community-based management.
In the first year, the team surveyed all species and other socio-economic information of the site before proposing the area as a Ramsar site.
In the second year it will consider zoning activities in and around the lake, and in the third, it would use the information and lessons learned in the first years to draft a national wetlands-management bill.
"To get local people to participate in the process is not easy. Apart from encouraging them to be researchers, we also want the importance of Bueng Kut Ting to be included in the curriculum for local school lessons," Yanyong Sricharoen of the WWF said.
"We must encourage provincial authorities to set up a provincial wetland committee to support the project. Fortunately, we have received great cooperation from both the governor and relevant authorities," he said.
Provincial education officer Wichian Thamraksa said using the lake in the local curriculum was a "fantastic" idea and followed the Education Act, which allows schools to design 30 per cent of their own lessons.
Study of Bueng Kut Ting should be ready for local schools for the school term starting in November, Yanyong added.
Zoning would be a different proposition, he admitted. Zoning the area for specific activities was likely to face resistance from local villagers.
"Due to the lake's lack of visible border, land encroachment is an issue here. Many villagers grow seasonal crops on parts of the lake where water recedes at certain times of the year. Year by year, they feel like the owners of this land," Yanyong explained.
However, he hoped the provincial committee would ease this problem.
"Community-based wetland management is needed in Thailand," NWC's Nirawan said.
"Most wetlands designated as Ramsar sites in Thailand now face one important problem - management by authorities which promote development and not conservation," she said.
For example, Thale Noi in Songkhla, Thailand's first Ramsar site, now faces competition among authorities to develop its tourism potential without any thought being given to the environmental impact, Nirawan said.
"So, community-based management would be an answer. If local residents have the right approach to wetland management and get sufficient support and information, they can manage these areas wisely with the participation of all parties," she added.
Yanyong added that apart from Bueng Kut Ting, community-based wetland management projects were being conducted at three other sites — Nong Khai's Bueng Khong Loeng, Loei and a Nan watershed area.
Information from these four sites will be included in the draft wetlands bill, he said.