You never miss the water until the well runs dry” fittingly describe the misgivings of many communities with regard to the importance of wetlands.

For decades, there has been a global clamor for the public to take cognizance of the value and benefits that wetlands provide. In 1971, governments the world over adopted the Convention on Wetlands (also known as the Ramsar Convention) as the only global treaty which focuses on the protection of wetlands. The Government of the Philippines enforced the Ramsar Convention on November 8, 1994 with seven (7) sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance and a surface area comprising 244,017 hectares. However, for the most part this was received half-heartedly, and in some cases, even on deaf ears. It was only during the historic temporary closure and rehabilitation of the world-class tourist destination - Boracay Island - that the conservation and wise use of wetlands became a hot topic. It hugged the headlines of the tri-media and was a favorite topic on the internet and the various social media platforms. This paved the way for creating public awareness on the importance of wetlands.

Following the marching orders of no less than President Rodrigo R. Duterte to clean up what he referred to as a “cesspool”, DENR Secretary Roy A. Cimatu took charge and sadly assailed how negligence resulted to the wetlands of Boracay losing its purpose. He emphasized that as kidneys of the earth, wetlands must be restored to act as catchment during rainy days and prevent flooding. Aside from absorbing excess rainfall, wetlands with their mangrove forest also serve as breeding grounds of marine species and are home to both endemic and migratory wildlife. True to his words, Secretary Cimatu pushed for the unprecedented action of reclaiming and rehabilitating the wetlands of Boracay Island to restore them to their original state. The same laudable effort has since been replicated across the archipelago with a sense of urgency.

Knowing the wetlands

According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), “a wetland is a place where the land is covered by water, either salt, fresh or somewhere in between. Marshes and ponds, the edge of a lake or ocean, the delta at the mouth of a river, low-lying areas that frequently flood—all of these are wetlands.” Eastern Visayas is host to a number of areas considered as wetlands. Among these, the DENR is monitoring seven (7) wetlands because of the presence of migratory birds considered as one of the gauges to determine a healthy wetland. These sites are: Ormoc Bay Wetlands in Ormoc City; Carigara Bay Wetland located in the municipalities of Carigara and Barugo, Leyte; Guiuan Intertidal Flats in Guiuan, Eastern Samar; Maqueda Bay Wetlands along the municipalities of Jiabong and Paranas, Samar; Lake Bito in MacArthur, Leyte; St. Bernard-Hinunangan of Southern Leyte; and Tres Marias Islands located in Palompon, Leyte. These wetlands have been verified to offer breeding grounds for fishes, sanctuary for migratory birds dubbed as “visitors without passports” and a dependable protection from flooding.

What then is the significance of wetlands?

Again from the WWF, “wetlands...are some of the most productive habitats on the planet. They often support high concentrations of animals - including mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates—and serve as nurseries for many of these species. Wetlands also support the cultivation of rice, a staple in the diet of half the world’s population. And they provide a range of ecosystem services that benefit humanity, including water filtration, storm protection, flood control and recreation. Without wetlands, cities have to spend more money to treat water for their citizens, floods are more devastating to nearby communities, storm surges from hurricanes can penetrate farther inland, animals are displaced or die out, and food supplies are disrupted, along with livelihoods.”(https:// www.worldwildlife.org/habitats/wetlands) We should therefore allow wetlands to co-exist with us and not treat them as a hindrance to our definition of progress and development. Wetlands are our natural dependable ally as they offer a myriad benefits free of charge. Properly managed, it can generate alternative livelihood through recreation tourism, assist in mitigating sea level rise, give rise to fertile agricultural lands, control destructive flooding and serve as buffer from storm surges and strong winds.

Presently, we are witnessing positive signs of people becoming more responsible to the environment. They are now enlightened of the importance of wetlands, drawing lessons from events such as storm surges and floods. Teresita Dumdum, a septuagenarian from the coastal town of Paranas, Samar has observed that more than 200 meters of once dry land along the coastline of Brgy. Poblacion in that town is now underwater due to increasing level of seawater. She shared, “this unfortunate event was happening just as the mangrove forest in the area was getting sparse and fish catch was becoming scarce.” This is a testament of the cause and effect relationship between healthy mangrove ecosystems with stable soil to that of bountiful marine resources. The absence of one results to wanting of another.

Wetlands as a thing of the past?

There was a time that wetlands as they are, were left undisturbed by any form of human activities. As a result, they thrived and were a healthy habitat of varied forms of wildlife. Wetlands then were a fully functional natural deterrent against flooding and a continuous source of water to the communities.

Through the years, wetlands have undergone a total make-over. Worst, in some places they cease to be as such and have been converted to other uses. Wittingly or otherwise, the less than favorable trend of wetlands condition can be attributed to many factors. It can be the wanting of needed information to have proper appreciation of its existence which can branch out to not well planned-out development of wetland areas. Another culprit may be attributed to irresponsible utilization of its resources and the population boom that results to illegal encroachment.

One such abuse is that of rampant cutting of mangrove as a rich source of quality fuel wood for home and commercial uses which is common among communities. Mangrove trees are also being used as raw material in the building of houses and fences.

Melchor Garado, a farmer from Brgy. Panagmitan, Guiuan, Eastern Samar, narrated how people from the poblacion and other neighboring towns would even use chainsaw to cut mangrove trees in great numbers to be used as firewood for their bakeshops. “It is a good thing that many bakeshops are now into electric ovens. Unfortunately, there are still reported incidents of cutting under cover of darkness and using bancas,” says Mr. Garado.

Vicente Abadiano, a 74 year old fisherman and a 20-year resident of Poblacion, Paranas, Samar has witnessed a noticeable decline of fish catch and the numbers of migratory birds visiting the area became lesser and lesser through the years. “It is clear to me now that the denudation of mangrove forest due to rampant cutting and illegal poaching is the cause for the dwindling of the once abundant presence of migratory birds,” says the elderly Abadiano.

A village chief in Motiong, Samar also attributed the cutting of mangroves and rural development into mangrove forest as culprit for dwindling coastal and marine resources as well as the proliferation of solid waste, especially those made of plastics. As part of several migratory sites that DENR is monitoring, there are also barangays in Guiuan, Eastern Samar with intertidal flats that are being monitored for the presence of migratory birds. Built up communities have replaced what used to be thriving mangrove trees in these wetlands. When Typhoon Ursula struck in December of 2019, the coastal barangay of Baras in that town experienced flooding caused by storm surge reaching up to 1.6 meters. Houses near the shore were washed away and docked fishing boats were destroyed. It was higher than what they experienced during super typhoon Yolanda. Clearly, the reduced number of mangrove trees has significantly increased the risk to storm surges and flooding in the area. “When mangroves were still in abundance, we would hide our boats there during inclement weather which was an effective shelter. That is no longer the case lately,” lamented Roberto Rodriguez, barangay captain of Brgy. Campoyong, an adjacent barangay of Baras, Guiuan, E. Samar.

Dwindling resources

“There was a time that the area was still thickly forested with mangrove trees and my father who was a fisherman, can easily catch 12 kilos of fish on ordinary days. Now, we consider it a lucky day if we are able to catch 3 kilos,” says Annalyn Caadan, a resident of Brgy. Baras.

Residents of the same barangay also noticed that fewer migratory birds are seen on the wetlands. They likewise testify that there are even species of birds which they haven’t seen anymore.

Melchor Garado, a farmer of Brgy. Baras was quick in pointing out the cause for the declined number of migratory birds and the dwindling fish catch. He said, “mangrove denudation has deprived fishes of their natural breeding grounds and it in effect denied the migratory birds the food they need as well as their roosting area.”

Hope remains for the wetlands

It is a bitter pill to swallow that we have to first suffer the consequences of the abuse many of us have committed on our wetlands and the environment as a whole. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, it is from humbly learning and accepting our shortcomings that we are able to start a new beginning armed with all the lessons of the past.

People and communities are now better equipped with the needed information for them to appreciate the role of wetlands to our very own existence - even survival. Even government projects geared towards urban and rural development already take into account the need to preserve and protect the wetlands. Progress is not simply equated to the length of roads concreted or the buildings constructed. The rule of thumb is that of holistic development – human progress and development that does not sacrifice the environment. In this case, the wetlands, knowing too well that it is not simply a saturated land. It is more than that.

Based on the monitoring of the World Wetlands Foundation (WWF), there has already been positive development since the Convention on Wetlands was signed in Ramsar, Iran as an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.

 Already, many governments, institutions and organizations have initiated efforts for wetlands conservation and protection. It is said that close to 193,000 hectares of wetlands have been protected since the treaty was adopted in 1975.

In Eastern Visayas, mangrove forest rehabilitation has been taking center stage with many sectors of society who are now into mangrove growing. Ecotourism ventures within wetlands have been developed or are slated for development. A concrete example is the Naungan Mangrove Ecopark in Ormoc City which has been a source of additional income by the members of the Naungan San Juan Mangrove Planters Association (NSJMPA).

 In St. Bernard, Southern Leyte, there is a proposed bird sanctuary along the wetlands that encompasses barangays San Isidro, Panian and Himbangan because of the monitored presence of migratory birds which the residents describe to be in their “thousands”. Having organized themselves into a mangrove planters association, they are now starting to witness the fruits of their labor with a significant increase of the mangrove forest in their area.

Josefa Tabala, an elderly who has resided in Brgy. San Isidro since the 1970’s is a living witness to the increasing trend of migratory birds in the area after they have been aggressive with mangrove growing along the coastal area. “Ever since we have restored the mangrove forest, it greatly reduced the flooding in our barangay and has sheltered us numerous times from strong waves. We also noticed the increasing volume of fishermen’s catch from the sea like that of shrimps, shells and different types of fishes,” shared Ms. Tabala.

Likewise, many local government units are increasingly cooperating with national government agencies like DENR and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) in the implementation and enforcement of environmental laws particularly on mangrove, coastal and marine resources. This is made even more effective with the support and compliance by the residents themselves. They now know better than to disregard the wetlands.

This recent development, both initiatives from the public and private sectors, is pointing us to the right direction - a revitalized and a hopeful future of wetlands. While optimistic of what lies ahead, we must not put down our guard and be swayed to complacency.

Hopeful, yes. But we must not forget that there is still much to done.