Wetlands not dams: Q&A with Hannarong Yaowalers

By Kristie Wang, Media Manager at Ashoka Changemakers

In Thailand, citizens routinely clash with government officials over the construction of dams that destroy fisheries and habitats. And recently, protesters have rallied against the Xayaburi “mega dam” currently being constructed on the Mekong River in neighboring Laos.

Thailand is seen as fueling the construction of the controversial dam, because of its agreement to purchase power from the project.

An estimated 50 million people live on the fish provided by the Mekong River, and critics argue that the dam will devastate this vital regional fishery. 

Ashoka Fellow Hannarong Yaowalersis tackling this challenge by promoting the restoration of wetlands as an alternative to large-scale dams and reservoirs. According to Hannarong, “Dams irrigate less than one-fifth of all farmland [in Thailand] and generate far less than the projected amount of electricity.” Their effectiveness at flood prevention is also questionable, since reservoirs need to be kept at maximum capacity in order to generate power. 

Wetlands, however, provide a natural form of flood protection. They are also a rich source of biodiversity and drivers of local fishing economies.
Hannarong is working to re-educate the public about the win-wins of protecting wetlands, which is no easy feat. In Thailand, the word “wetland” doesn’t exist outside of academic circles. Wetlands are typically considered waste areas, simply muddy regions without any use.

Hannarong is changing that by documenting their economic value, namely their benefits to household incomes and local economies. 

He collects data from fishermen, clam diggers, shrimp farmers, tour guides, and adjacent communities, and works closely with these groups to improve their income-generating abilities. 

For wetlands that have already been degraded, Hannarong partners with local communities to restore damaged areas and implement sustainable use practices so that fisheries recover and thrive, along with the people that depend on them.

Hannarong’s work has led to the creation of Thailand’s first inventory of wetlands, and the country’s first guidelines governing construction in wetland areas. He sat down with Ashoka Changemakers to discuss what it takes to spark participatory water management in Thailand.

The word “wetland” is not common in Thai vocabulary. How have you tackled the challenge of helping the public become aware of something that does not have a name?

Because this is a new and difficult vocabulary, it’s crucial to explain and establish common understanding. I find that the most effective way is to illustrate concrete examples. For example, I conduct field trips and explain the terms related to wetland ecology in the context of each local area. This makes it easier for the public to understand.

At first, I thought we would face many obstacles in trying to explain the idea of “wetland,” but once we adapt the terms to each local context and raise concrete examples, those obstacles actually become opportunities in making public communications and community management of wetlands more effective.

Your work brings together many different groups, including local villagers, scientists, and the government. What is your strategy for helping these groups work together and collaborate?

The strategy is to create opportunities for each group and each community to recognise the importance of wetland conservation and management, and to increase awareness about the benefits of wetlands – especially concrete benefits to each group ranging from local residents, academics and government officials. The result is active participation from all stakeholders.

Your work seems to prove strongly that good conservation practices directly benefit communities and local economies. How can communities be empowered to protect these resources? What’s the next step for protecting wetlands now?

Communities now recognise the benefits from participatory wetland management and conservation. The next step is to encourage communities to conduct community-based research and collect data on the importance of wetlands on biological diversity, community history and community economy. ​This type of research will enable local communities to conduct policy advocacy, and raise the level of wetland protection through new regulations.

For example, the legal registration of wetlands as nationally or internationally significant ecological sites is important.

As is pushing for wetland protection, and wetland management, to become one of the national priority agenda items in the natural resource management policy.

Editor’s note: Arthur Guinness Projects and Ashoka are supporting ideas that go beyond the ordinary to help unlock the potential of communities around the globe.

For more information, and to share your idea, visit Makers of More: Your Idea, Your Community, Your Action.

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