Future of wetlands in tropical and subtropical Asia, especially in the face of climate change

Abstract

Tropical and subtropical Asia differs from other tropical regions in its monsoonal climate and the dominant influence of the Hindukush and Himalayan mountain ranges which result in extremes of spatial and temporal variability in precipitation. However, several major rivers and their tributaries arise in the Himalayan ranges and are fed by thousands of glaciers. Huge sediment loads carried by these rivers result in important deltas at their mouths. The climatic and physiographic diversity have endowed the region with many kinds of wetlands. Of these, the peatswamps of southeast Asia constitute about 56% of the world’s tropical peatlands, and more than 42% of the world’s mangroves occur in South and southeast Asia. Among other wetlands, riverine swamps are rather restricted whereas the seasonal marshes are a dominant feature. Another characteristic feature of tropical Asia are the innumerable human-made and intensively managed wetlands of which the paddy fields and aquaculture ponds are the most extensive. Throughout tropical Asia, wetlands have been a part of the socio-cultural ethos of the people and many communities have lived in wetlands. However, the pressures of high population and the economic development have extensively impacted upon wetlands which have been transformed for paddy cultivation and aquaculture, drained and converted to other land uses for economic gains (e.g., conversion to oil palm), and degraded by discharge of domestic and industrial wastes. Invasive plant and animal species have also played a significant role. The climate change is already being felt in the rapid retreat of Himalayan glaciers, increased temperature and variability in precipitation as well as the frequency of extreme events. Sea level rise is seen as a major threat to the coastal wetlands, particularly the mangroves. Increasing droughts have caused frequent fires in Indonesian peat swamps that have further feedback impacts on regional climate. However, the actual threat to wetlands in this region arises from the extensive hydrological alterations being caused by storage, abstraction and diversion of river flows for agriculture, industry and hydropower. Currently, the state of our understanding wetlands in general, and the efforts and infrastructure for research and training in wetlands are very poor. Although a few wetlands have been designated as Ramsar sites, the policies aimed at wetland conservation are either non-existent or very weak. Human responses to greater uncertainty and variability in the available water resources in different parts of Asia will be crucial to the conservation of wetlands in the future.

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Correspondence to Brij Gopal.

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This article belongs to the Special Issue “Effects of Climate Change on Wetlands”.

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Gopal, B. Future of wetlands in tropical and subtropical Asia, especially in the face of climate change. Aquat Sci 75, 39–61 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00027-011-0247-y

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Keywords

  • Wetlands
  • Distribution
  • Mangroves
  • Water resources
  • Glacier retreat
  • Sea level rise
  • Peat swamps
  • Fire
  • Wetland policy
  • Ramsar sites