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Poverty & vulnerability

Some of the most significant threats to livelihoods come from environmental degradation and habitat loss. While environmental degradation poses a threat to rural livelihoods, the potential for promoting sustainable livelihoods, alleviating poverty and contributing to national development through wise management of wetland ecosystems has also not been realised in national and local government policy.

One of the main reasons for this policy neglect has been a misunderstanding of the nature of rural economies in wetland environments. In particular the significance of the diversity of economic activity has been overlooked in favour of agricultural specialisation. The main thrust of agricultural development in all four Lower Mekong countries has been overwhelmingly based on the expansion and intensification of rice production requiring the reclamation of agricultural land, extension of irrigation systems, and the development of agricultural extension services.

While increased rice production clearly has brought many benefits, there are concerns that the impacts on the aquatic resources have not been fully addressed, and that the potential of aquatic resource management has not been realised. This has important implications for addressing poverty, as poor people by definition tend to lack the capital to benefit from land-based, capital intensive strategies, and also tend to be more dependent on the aquatic, common resources. There is growing evidence that this process of intensification of agricultural production has been a contributory factor in growing economic differentiation, and rising landlessness.

Many wetland systems, particularly backwater swamps and floodplain areas have generally been regarded as wastelands, offering limited potential for economic development in their natural state. Often these wetlands have been specifically targeted for development through draining for agriculture or for flooding to establish irrigation sources.The tendency to overlook the significance of wetland resources and wetland livelihoods must also be seen as symptomatic of a lack of effective participation by rural people in development planning processes.