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Land use change: pushing waterbirds from the map


Rapid land use change for intensive agriculture and urban functions has a devastating impact, particularly on wetlands. In the light of World Migratory Bird Day 2011 on 14-15 May, Wetlands International calls for attention on the implications of land use change for waterbirds.



Land use change to agriculture impacting wetlands

Growing demands for agricultural lands for food and fuel are expected to have an exceptionally strong impact on wetlands and thus on migratory waterbirds.

The ever growing global population also has per capita an ever growing footprint; especially due to increasing demands for agricultural products. Reclamation of an area of the size of the Netherlands has been caused by the new, additional biofuel demands in the EU in the coming decade.

But hectares tell only a part of the story. An earlier investigation of Wetlands International shows that natural areas with enough water (wetlands, rainforests) fall are especially vulnerable to the development of, for instance, biofuel crops like sugar cane and palm oil. Reclamation of the Tana wetlands of Kenya (photo) for sugar cane is a clear example of this. This area is hugely important for waterbirds and hosts 22 species including the Little Stint, Marsh Sandpiper and Lesser Sandplover, which are recorded here in numbers exceeding their 1% of international importance.

Land use change towards intensive agriculture in countries with water stress also has a considerable impact on downstream wetlands. A clear example are the irrigation projects around the Niger River on the Inner Niger Delta home to millions of waterbirds, including many species of intra African migrants and long distance migrants from Eurasia such as Garganey, Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit. 

Coastal development and waterbirds

A similar situation applies for coastal wetlands. In particular, coastal areas are under severe pressure of land use change for urban development, tourism, aquaculture (e.g. shrimp ponds - photo Vietnam) and agriculture. 

A striking example is the rapid loss of mangrove forests on tropical coasts. Mangrove forests tend to vanish at a rate 3-4 times higher than forests on land[1].

The main driver to the loss of these coastal wetlands vary, in some areas due to their conversion into fish and shrimp ponds, such as in Thailand and Indonesia. In other areas, coastal marshes and associated wetlands are greatly threatened due to urban, port, industrial (such as the Yellow Sea region in China and Korea) and tourism development (such as the CotoDonana National Park in Spain) and associated infrastructure.

Another area of concern is the rapid industrial and urban developments on the coasts of the Yellow Sea (China, Korea - photo Jan van der Kam). In the case of the Yellow Sea, 30-40% of the populations of 25 species of shorebirds depend on the area, including the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, now considered amongst the world’s most endangered shorebird, as well as many other globally threatened waterbird species, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Saunders’s Gull, Relict Gull, Chinese Egret and Black-faced Spoonbill. In addition to globally threatened species, this region is of critical importance for long distance migrants such as Bar-tailed Godwit and Great Knot, species that are now rapidly declining due to the loss of safe feeding and resting areas at this crucial stopover site..

A chain of wetlands falling apart?

Of approximately 1929 Ramsar sites / Wetlands of International Importance, more than 15% are degrading due to land use change[2]. These are the areas that are globally recognised for their importance. Figures for the continued loss and degradation of many other wetlands are expected to be much worse. This loss and degradation of wetlands crucial for waterbird migration is having a direct impact on the survival of populations.

Governments and business should live up to their promises

Most countries have signed up to the Ramsar Convention and Convention on Migratory Species to work together on the conservation of migratory waterbirds. These conventions have provisions to prevent the loss of key areas for migratory waterbirds. With the development of the Critical Site Network Tool, a partnership consisting Wetlands International, Birdlife International, the Secretariats of AEWA and the Ramsar Convention and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, has provided access to information about key areas for migratory birds in the African-Eurasian flyway and there are plans to expand the tool to other flyways as well.

It is time that country governments live up to their promises. Also companies should take their environmental-social responsibility seriously and should not invest in developments that violate the intentions of these international agreements.

More information


Szabolcs Nagy

Head of Strategy and Programme, Biodiversity and Ecological Networks

Wetlands International




Alex Kaat

Communications Manager

Wetlands International  

+31 (0)6 5060 1917


[1]101 Spalding, M., Kainuma, M., Collins, L. (2010) World atlas of mangroves.


[2] Wetlands International, 2010. State of the World’s Waterbirds 2010.


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