The value of water equals the value we attach to life

For a local community in Thailand, their wetland forest is a foundation of livelihood and culture.

UN Development Programme
5 min readMar 19, 2021
Srongpol Chantharueang, Chair of the Boon Rueang Wetland Conservation Group, rows a boat in the Ing river to check his fish traps. Photo: RECOFTC

“World Water Day makes us realize that water is vital for life and is inextricably linked to our way of life and to the wetland forests we depend on. This is why the water is important to us.” — Boon Rueang Wetland Forest Conservation Group.

Downstream from the Doi Yao mountain range in Northern Thailand lies the Ing River, home of Thailand’s largest wetland forest and a biodiversity hotspot. Situated on the plain between the mountains and river is the Boon Rueang community. Water touches all parts of life for the people and habitats in this 483-hectare forest. It supports agriculture and drinking, and is home to more than 276 species of flora and fauna, and 87 fish species. As water provides for the forest, the forest protects against erosion, flooding and the effects of climate change. The interconnectedness of the ecosystem makes it act as one living, breathing organism, with water as the life force pumping through it all.

The Ing river flows from Phayao Province to Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand and discharges into the Mekong River at Ban Pak-Ing in Chiang Khong District. Photo: RECOFTC

“We grew up with the forest being a part of us. It was there where we were born.” —Chanraem Rueangwilai

World Water Day 2021 reminds us of the importance of valuing water. For the local community of Boon Rueang Wetland Forest Conservation Group , water means survival of its people and culture. Through the customary management of their wetland forest, they support food security in the area, protect wildlife, and preserve local culture and knowledge. In 2010, catastrophic floods spared the Boon Rueang village. The event made the community realize the important function of the wetland forest as a buffer. Community forestry and wetland protection are at the core of Boon Rueang’s activities.

Community members from Boon Rueang plant trees as part of a reforestation project in the wetland forest.
Photo : Phitchayetsapong Khurupratchamak
A woman from the Boon Rueang community ties monk’s cloth on a tree as part of an ordination ceremony to protect the wetland forest. Photo: Phitchayetsapong Khurupratchamak

“We have lived in the forest and depended on it for a long period of time. This is why we feel a strong ownership toward the forest. It is because it has been handed down from our ancestors to us, and we will pass it on to our children and grandchildren.” — Boon Rueang Wetland Forest Conservation Group.

While this ecosystem’s crucial functions are apparent to local communities, not everyone sees the unique benefits. In the past 50 years, there have been numerous challenges to the forest. In the late 1960s, investors wanted to use the area for milling and tobacco factories. As recently as 2015, efforts were underway to designate the area as a “Special Economic Zone” to advance industrialization.

A person fishes on the Mekong river, which feeds into the Ing river and the Boon Rueang wetland forest. Photo: RECOFTC

“They [the investors] were going to take our forest, so we had to help ourselves.”—Chanraem Rueangwilai

In response the Boon Rueang Wetland Forest Conservation Group started to spread awareness and collect funds from community members. Through advocacy and social media campaigns, the group promoted its community forestry management model and demonstrated how vital the wetland was to the local ecosystem, their own lives and livelihoods, and for protection against natural disasters. Eventually, the group worked directly with the government, culminating in a decision to reverse their push for industrialization. Through an exemplary mobilization campaign and peaceful negotiation strategy, they safeguarded their forest and livelihoods. The Boon Rueang community was awarded the UNDP Equator Prize in 2020 for their work.

Boon Rueang community members enter a swamp designated for fishing to check on their nets. Photo: RECOFTC
Boon Rueang community members use a net to catch fish in a swamp designated for fishing in the wetland forest. Photo: RECOFTC
A Boon Rueang community member brings in fish from a swamp designated for fishing in the wetland forest.

Outside encroachment on the forest is not the only issue threatening these wetlands. River flows are down due to dam building and the changing weather patterns that come with a changing climate. Local communities are forced to ration water. While wetland forests are an effective solution to climate change, they are also still vulnerable to it.

The Boon Rueang Wetland Forest Conservation Group is meeting this challenge. They collect data on the forest, working with researchers and academics to understand the importance of this ecosystem. They also revitalize the forest by planting trees, making it “as green as possible”, in the community’s words. This ensures that the benefits of the forest, from water to livelihoods to carbon capture and biodiversity protection, will exist for generations to come.

The Boon Rueang Women’s Group gather to prepare food that they collect mostly from the river and forest area for the community celebration of winning the Equator Prize in 2020. Photo: RECOFTC

Srongpol Chantharueang, chair of Boon Rueang Wetland Forest Conservation Group, knows the importance and fragility of this ecosystem. He explains how the mountains feed the rivers and the rivers provide water for the rice fields. “This is like our supermarket,” he says. With the money they make from selling rice, fish, and vegetables, they can send their children to school, construct houses, and more. “We share water resources by negotiating amongst ourselves, so we do not cause conflict.” It’s a lesson in sustainable management of natural resources.

On World Water Day and every day, water is paramount to a sustainable future. From biodiversity, to culture, to food, to economics, we must value water and the connectivity it provides. The wetland represents the villagers’ main means of support. While receiving proceeds from the fishery’s management, the Boon Rueang community redirects portions of that income to the conservation and maintenance of the wetland.

Based on the estimate from a study conducted by the group with RECOFTC and Kasetsart, the Boon Rueang Wetland Forest provides annual benefits topping US$ four million.

Community members from Boon Rueang walk into a swamp area designated for fishing in the wetland forest located inside the Ing River basin. Photo: RECOFTC

“Increasing forest area is an important solution, but not only for the Boon Rueang in Thailand. I would like to see this happening in all countries and continents. And nature will return its benefits back to us,” Srongpol Chantharueang says.

Chanraem Rueangwilai, Secretary of the Boon Rueang Wetland Forest Conservation Group (and a member of the Women’s Group in Boon Rueang community), fishes at Wang Pai Bamboo Palace in English) where the community catch fish for food and sales. Photo: RECOFTC

Written by: Kevin Strohm, Programme Assistant, UNDP Equator Initiative; Anna Giulia Medri, Senior Analyst, UNDP Equator Initiative; Martin Sommerschuh, Coordinator, UNDP Equator Initiative.

The Equator Initiative acknowledges with gratitude the whole local community of Boon Rueang Wetland Forest Conservation Group and RECOFTC for their insight and support.