The Regional Flyway Initiative: Building a Business Case for Sustainable Wetlands

The Regional Flyway Initiative seeks to mobilize $3 billion in innovative and blended financing over the next 10 years. Photo credit: ADB.

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Governments work together to develop viable projects and financing to protect and preserve the wetlands along the East Asian–Australasian Flyway.


Birds’ ability to fly will always be a source of fascination for us ground dwellers. Indeed, along with that sense of wonder, birds also provide a window to the true state of the environment.

Birds are indicators of nature’s health, and in the case of migratory waterbirds, they can be the “sandpiper on the mudflat” for the state of wetland health. Disappearing migratory waterbirds is a clear sign that all is not right with their wetland habitats.

Inspired by the journey of the 50 million migratory birds that annually soar over the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), in partnership with the East Asian–Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) and BirdLife International, is developing a Regional Flyway Initiative, which builds a business case for the protection and sustainable management of wetlands through viable nature-based solutions that can deliver for people, nature, and climate.

Wetlands Are Not Wastelands

The East Asian–Australasian Flyway, the most threatened in the world, hosts important wetlands that are critical ecosystems, providing habitats to a diverse array of species and essential services and benefits to communities.

Wetlands occupy only between 5% to 8% of the earth’s total land surface, yet they hold more than 35% of the estimated 1,500 gigatons of organic carbon stored in soils.[1] They help build climate resilience and contribute to food and water security.

The Convention on Wetlands (2021) estimates the global value of wetland ecosystem services for human health, well-being, and security at $47.4 trillion a year. Yet, this amount still does not completely consider intangible benefits, such as personal and cultural values, that wetlands can and do provide.

Figure 1: Ecosystem Services and Co-benefits of Wetlands

Source: ADB Regional Flyway Initiative (adapted from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Europe).

Notwithstanding the limitations, preserving and managing ecosystem services are possibly the only way toward a more sustainable and resilient future. However, there is increasing pressure between nature conservation and economic development, more so during times of social and economic stress.

Over the last 3 years, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us the need for a deeper mindfulness in how natural assets, such as wetlands, should be managed and utilized in a more sustainable manner. Nature-based solutions provide an alternative yet realistic pathway where economic development can continue while still preserving and sustainably managing ecosystems. These solutions—as applied in wetlands—can become part of countries’ menu of options, but understanding the challenges is the first order of the day.

How Missteps in Pursuit of Growth Impact Wetlands

The drive toward economic growth—while necessary—leads to compounding problems. Urbanization is a key driver of unsustainable land conversion and intertidal reclamation, ultimately causing extensive loss or degradation of coastal and inland wetlands. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimates that about 87% of both inland and marine/coastal wetlands were lost in the last 300 years.[2] Widely referenced challenges and threats to wetlands are captured below (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Threats and Challenges to Wetlands

Source: ADB Regional Flyway Initiative with data from Hughes (2017), Gallo-Cajiao et al. (2020), Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust Limited (n.d.), and United Nations Environment Program (2019).

Saving the Flyway’s Migratory Birds

The dwindling population of migratory birds must compel governments to understand the intrinsic link between the decline and the state of the ecosystem, especially wetlands. Out of 250 regional populations of migratory waterbirds in the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, at least 36 involve species that are globally threatened, while 19 are near threatened.[3]

Figure 3: Globally Threatened Birds in Southeast Asia

Source: ADB Regional Flyway Initiative, 2022.

Nature-Based Solutions

Nature-based solutions are defined as “actions to protect, sustainably use, manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, which address societal challenges, effectively and adaptively, providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.”[4] These are long-term solutions that are often more cost-effective and deliver far better results than traditional methods. Their viability should be ascertained based on science, policy, consensus, and best practices.

The IUCN Global Standard for Nature-Based Solutions[5] is among the tools that may contribute to viability analysis. It provides the criteria for assessing solutions, which includes identifying the societal challenge being addressed (Criterion 1) and determining the net gain to biodiversity and ecosystem integrity (Criterion 3).

For example, a mangrove restoration program should result in significant benefits to both the community that hosts it (e.g., by way of income from fishing) and the species that depend on it (e.g., as feeding and wintering grounds for migratory waterbirds).

Ambition to Options

The Regional Flyway Initiative seeks to mobilize $3 billion in innovative and blended financing over the next 10 years. This money will be used in ADB’s developing member countries along the flyway, and it is expected that a mix of grant and loan resources will be critical.

Thus far, five project models were developed to build understanding around what a project might eventually look like while showing investment viability, not just nature conservation. These are (1) habitat restoration and protection; (2) sustainable aquaculture/fisheries; (3) sustainable agriculture; (4) pollution prevention and water management; and (5) nature protection/eco-tourism. Final projects will likely be a mix of these models, and interested countries or project owners may develop other options based on their needs, conditions, priorities, and policy guidance.

Figure 4: Potential Project Models in Wetlands

Source: ADB Regional Flyway Initiative, 2022.

Identifying Critical Wetlands through a Site Selection Process

A two-stage process of identifying at least 50 critical wetland sites in the flyway is currently being completed. These priority sites will hopefully be taken up by the countries for future planning and programming.

ADB, with BirdLife International and the EAAFP, worked with Wetlands International and the Paulson Institute in developing a site selection framework based on long-established and globally accepted criteria, such as those used for Ramsar sites, EAAFP Flyway Network Sites, Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). The framework was used to identify a long list of 147 sites in 10 countries, which will be taken forward for further analysis and consultation.

The first phase of the site selection work was shared during the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands 14th Conference of Parties (CoP 14) through one-on-one country dialogue and during a hosted side event where the preliminary results were presented to all countries present.

The second phase will use socio-economic factors, consultation feedback, and the Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment (TESSA) to complete the site prioritization process to identify the final 50 sites.

Meanwhile, at the 11th Meeting of Partners (MOP11) of the EAAFP in Australia (12–17 March 2023), the Regional Flyway Initiative is co-organizing a capacity development workshop (14–15 March), which is supported by the Government of the United States through the Department of the Interior. The workshop aims to build capacity of wetland managers, policymakers, and conservation practitioners through a deeper appreciation of tools and practices in assessing the natural and economic value of wetlands. This feeds into another capacity development training activity, which is going to be held in ADB in June 2023.

Critical to Achieving the SDGs and Climate Resilience

In terms of economic valuation, the ecosystem services being derived from wetlands often outweigh the benefits from other terrestrial ecosystems, especially when it comes to climate mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity and human health (adapted from Convention on Wetlands, 2021). For ADB, investments in wetlands present great value for money compared to other nature-focused projects.

Wetlands, especially those in the most threatened migratory bird flyways, should be part of integrated and whole-of-system development planning. Viable nature-based solutions should be at the heart of wetland site protection, conservation, and management. However, the following are critical requirements for success:

  • Innovative interventions/projects with the right balance of models and case studies to learn from;
  • Adequate and innovative financing, blending loan and grant finance and including the private sector;
  • Appropriate human resources with relevant skills;
  • Relevant standards for design, and ultimately, monitoring;
  • Commitment to accountability and integrity (as part of good governance); and
  • Strong and authentic collaboration (emphasizing “community” rather than “competition”).

Building a business case for sustainable wetlands is challenging. Nevertheless, it begins with a shared commitment to a more sustainable and resilient future for all. Through nature-based solutions in the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, people and nature—with its 50 million migratory birds—can certainly soar their way into that shared future.

This article is an accompanying material for the Regional Flyway Initiative Brief: Nature-Based Solutions that Deliver for People, Nature, and the Climate, which may be accessed here.

[1] W.J. Mitsch and J.G. Gosselink. 2015. Wetlands. 5th ed. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.

[2] E. S. Brondizio et al, ed. 2019. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Bonn: IPBES.

[3] East Asian-Australasian Flyway. What is a flyway?

[4] International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 2020. Ensuring effective Nature-based Solutions. Issues Brief. July.

[5] IUCN. 2020. Global Standard for Nature-Based Solutions. A User-Friendly Framework for the Verification, Design, and Scaling Up of NbS. 1st ed. Gland, Switzerland.

Duncan Lang
Senior Environment Specialist, Climate Change, Resilience, and Environment Cluster, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Department, Asian Development Bank

Duncan Lang is ADB’s lead for the Regional Flyway Initiative and currently also leading the biodiversity component of the ongoing update to ADB’s Safeguard Policy Statement. He led ADB’s support for the recent development for a sensitivity mapping tool for energy planning (AVISTEP) with BirdLife International.

Mary Anne Velas-Suarin
Senior Technical Expert (Consultant), Regional Flyway Initiative, Asian Development Bank

Mary Anne has gone full circle in gathering solid technical and consulting experience in the government, private, and civil society sectors. She managed and supported projects in environment, transportation, health, and energy while learning from and working with visionaries and thought leaders. She is trained in USEPA’s TO-15 Method in Air Quality Monitoring, certified in DMAIC Methodology/Six Sigma, a proponent of sky bike lanes, and supported Philippine legislators and cabinet secretaries in drafting and evaluating important legislation.

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The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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