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Should Singapore Accede to the Ramsar Convention?

Should Singapore Accede to the Ramsar Convention?

Ernest Cheong

Year 1, LLB

National University of Singapore


The Ramsar Convention provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. It was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and came into force in 1975. Since then, almost 90% of UN member states, from all the world’s geographic regions, have acceded to become “Contracting Parties”.

Article 1.1 of the Convention outlines a broad approach to the definition of wetlands. Under the Convention, wetlands encompass

“areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters.”

The specific aims of the Ramsar Convention can be summed up in its 3 pillars, which are as follows:

  1. Working towards the wise use of their wetlands through a wide range of actions and processes contributing to human well-being through sustainable wetlands, water allocation, and river basin management, including, for example, establishing national wetland policies; harmonizing the framework of laws and financial instruments affecting wetlands; undertaking inventory and assessment; ensuring public participation in wetland management and the maintenance of cultural values by local communities and indigenous people; promoting communication, education, participation, and awareness; and increasing private sector involvement;
  2. Devoting particular attention to the further identification, designation and management of a comprehensive suite of sites for the List of Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar List) as a contribution to the establishment of a global ecological network, and ensuring the effective monitoring and management of those sites included in the List; and
  3. Cooperating internationally in the delivery of wetland conservation and wise use, through the management of transboundary water resources and wetlands and shared wetland species, collaboration with other conventions and international organizations, sharing of information and expertise, and increasing the flow of financial resources and relevant technologies to less-developed countries.

Singapore has wetlands that would benefit from the protections afforded by the Ramsar Convention. This article aims to explore the applicability of the Ramsar Convention to Singapore, and how it would enhance the protection of local wetlands.


Worldwide, there are 2,289 Ramsar sites covering 225,399,512ha. Of the 10 ASEAN member states, 8 have acceded to the Ramsar Convention, with Singapore and Brunei being the 2 exceptions. There are a total of 53 Ramsar sites in ASEAN: 4 in Cambodia, 7 in Indonesia, 2 in Laos, 7 in Malaysia, 4 in Myanmar, 7 in the Philippines, 14 in Thailand, and 8 in Vietnam. They cover a total area of 3,121,348 ha.


Hong Kong’s approach to conserving the Mai Po Marshes is illuminating. This case study is relevant to Singapore in two respects. First, Hong Kong is land-scarce and all available wetlands constantly under threat from being drained and developed. Second, the wetlands are geographically near a neighbouring region. The Mai Po Marshes are located close to mainland China’s Shenzhen city, which is not under the jurisdiction of Hong Kong’s government. Industrialization and land reclamation in Shenzhen also increase sedimentation in the Mai Po Marshes, and threaten their very existence.

In light of their Ramsar status, the Mai Po Marshes have been listed in Schedule 6 of Hong Kong’s Wild Animals Protection Ordinance (Chapter 170) (WAPO (HK)), with access to the area being restricted by s 13(1)(a) WAPO, which states that no person, shall, except in accordance with a permit in writing granted by the Director of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation, enter into any area specified in Schedule 6. On a practical level, the reserve has been managed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (Hong Kong) since 1983, and runs guided tours in Mai Po Marshes.

However, unguided visits will require a permit from the Director; failing which, the offender is liable to a maximum fine of HK$50,000 on conviction. To enforce this law, nature wardens of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department are employed to patrol the marshes. As Mai Po Marshes goes up to the border with Mainland China, some areas in the marshes are also patrolled by the police.

China’s accession to the Ramsar Convention in 1992 has also opened up a forum for dialogue on the future of the Mai Po Marshes. Ramsar personnel have held meetings with stakeholders in the site, such as the Hong Kong SAR government, NGOs and urban developers. These have contributed to the Hong Kong government establishing two buffer zones to ensure that the long-term conservation of the marshes is balanced against development .

In summary, the Ramsar Convention allowed for a platform for communication and cooperation on the future of the Mai Po Marshes, and paved the way for the Mai Po Marshes to be protected under law.


According to Article 2.1, when a country accedes to 7the Convention, it has to designate at least one wetland as a Wetland of International Importance . This is subject to the site fulfilling minimally one of the nine criteria for identifying Wetlands of International Importance .

The wetland that comes to mind is Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Legally speaking, the reserve covers 202ha of land; the neighbouring Kranji Marshes, which is a public park (but with restricted access due to ongoing conservation works) covers another 56ha. However, the full extent of the Sungei Buloh wetland ecosystem is estimated at over 300ha. Using this larger figure, Sungei Buloh accounts for 0.41% of Singapore’s total land area. For comparison, in both absolute and proportionate terms, it is larger than Malta’s Ramsar sites: the Ghadira and Is-Simar nature reserves, which at 112ha and 5ha respectively, have a combined area of 117 ha, accounting for 0.37% of Malta’s total land area.

Sungei Buloh easily meets Criterion 2, which is as follows:

“A wetland should be considered internationally important if it supports vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities.”

Sungei Buloh is part of the East Asian Australasian Shorebird Site Network. Many migratory bird species use the reserve as a stopover when traveling from Siberia to Australia for the winter . These include the Masked Finfoot and the Nordmann’s Greenshank, that are endangered under the IUCN .


Sungei Buloh is recognized by the international community as a biodiversity hotspot. In 2002, Sungei Buloh was recognized as a site of international importance for migratory birds with Wetlands International presenting the Reserve with a certificate to mark its formal entry into the East Asian Australasian Shorebird Site Network, which includes Australia’s Kakadu National Park, Hong Kong’s Mai Po and Japan’s Yatsu Tidal Flats. The reserve was also listed as Singapore’s first ASEAN heritage park in 2003 .

Sungei Buloh has also received recognition from the local community — and is notable for the manner as to how it was granted Nature Reserve status. Unlike the other nature reserves, Sungei Buloh’s status came about as an initiative of civil society. In 1987, the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore branch) proposed to the government that Sungei Buloh be set aside as a nature reserve. This led to an area of 87ha being designated as a nature park in 1989. Eventually, on 1 January 2002, Sungei Buloh was officially gazetted by the government as a nature reserve. Accordingly, its name was changed from Sungei Buloh Nature Park to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

The protections accorded to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve are described in s8 and s9 of the Parks and Trees Act. These include bans on poaching, dumping of material, disturbance of animals, etc. Specifically, s8(2) of the Parks and Trees Act proscribes “any activity” that “may cause alteration, damage or destruction to any property, tree or plant” within the nature reserve.

Additionally, the 2008 Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve masterplan was conceptualized to balance between human use and human impact on the biodiversity of the area. To minimize human impact on the more sensitive parts of the reserve, Sungei Buloh has been zoned into activity areas (high, low and medium). The masterplan also includes enhancement works such as the removal of pondweeds to increase the water surface area accessible to marshbirds and re-planting . These measures help to preserve the ecological character of the reserve and ensure its viability as a functioning wetland ecosystem, which are consistent with the objectives of the Ramsar Convention.

In line with the masterplan, the Kranji Marshes were formally established as a public park in February 2016, in conjunction with World Wetlands Day.

The protection and maintenance of Sungei Buloh are relatively thorough and comprehensive. Due to international and local recognition, the government is proactively taking steps to safeguard Sungei Buloh and ensure its viability as a marshbird habitat. However, these protections fall short when it comes to guarding Sungei Buloh from being negatively impacted by neighbouring Malaysia.


Article 5 of the Convention is as follows:

“The Contracting Parties shall consult with each other about implementing obligations arising from the Convention especially in the case of a wetland extending over the territories of more than one Contracting Party or where a water system is shared by Coordinating Parties. They shall at the same time endeavour to co-ordinate and support present and future policies and regulations concerning the conservation of wetlands and their flora and fauna.”

The Convention provides for a framework by which countries can co-ordinate conservation efforts. This is of relevance to Sungei Buloh due to its close proximity to the state of Johor in Malaysia. It has a shared water system with the Straits of Johor, and is directly affected by developments in that area. However, under the status quo, there are no current frameworks for collaboration in place.

The current protections of Sungei Buloh may seem sufficient but they do not take into account the transboundary nature of ecosystems.

For example, crows from Johor threaten nest failure of other inhabitants of the reserve . Dead fish from fish farms in Johor have also drifted over to and polluted Sungei Buloh . These cases highlight the vulnerability of Sungei Buloh to external shocks, and emphasize the need for a working partnership with Malaysia that can be delivered by the Ramsar Convention.


Singapore’s Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve is a good candidate for a Ramsar site. While the Singaporean government has gone to great lengths to preserve the ecological character of the area, more can be done by way of collaborating with Malaysia through the Ramsar Convention to protect the reserve from external shocks.References

“Supporting Dialogue on the Future of the Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site”, Ramsar (21 October 2016), online: https://www.ramsar.org/news/supporting-dialogue-on-the-future-of-the-mai-po-inner-deep-bay-ramsar-site

A Guide to Kranji Marshes, online: NParks https://www.nparks.gov.sg/kranjimarshes

A Guide to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, online: NParks https://www.nparks.gov.sg/~/media/nparks-real-content/gardens-parks-and-nature/diy-walk/diy-walk-pdf-files/sungeibulohwetlandreserve_guide2014.ashx?la=en

A Guide to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, online: NParks https://www.nparks.gov.sg/~/media/nparks-real-content/gardens-parks-and-nature/diy-walk/diy-walk-pdf-files/sungeibulohwetlandreserve_guide2014.ashx?la=en

Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, Enforcement-Schedule 6, online: https://www.afcd.gov.hk/english/conservation/con_wet/con_wet_look/con_wet_look_enf/con_wet_look_enf.html

Audrey Tan, “Crows Ruling the Roost at Sungei Buloh Reserve”, The Straits Times (May 16 2017), online: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/trouble-flocks-to-sungei-buloh-reserve

Checklist of Birds Recorded from Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve as at December 2011, online: NParks https://www.nparks.gov.sg/~/media/nparks-real-content/gardens-parks-and-nature/parks-and-nature-reserve/sungei-buloh/bird-checklist-sbwr.pdf

Designating Ramsar Sites, online: Ramsar https://www.ramsar.org/sites-countries/designating-ramsar-sites

Grace Chua, “Dead Fish Wash Up at Sungei Buloh Reserve”, The Straits Times (April 18 2014), online: <http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/dead-fish-wash-up-at-sungei-buloh-reserve&gt;

Media Factsheet, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR): Past, Present, Future, online: NParks https://www.nparks.gov.sg/~/media/nparks-real-content/news/2014/12/factsheetsbwr_past_present_and_future.pdf?la=en

Media Factsheet, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve Masterplan: Phase 3, online: NParks https://www.nparks.gov.sg/~/media/nparks-real-content/news/2014/12/factsheetsbwr_masterplan_phase3.pdf?la=en

Ramsar Convention: https://www.ramsar.org/about-the-ramsar-convention

Ramsar Sites Information Service, online: Ramsar <https://rsis.ramsar.org/ris-search/?pagetab=1&gt;

The Ramsar Convention Manual, 6th Edition, online: Ramsar http://archive.ramsar.org/pdf/lib/manual6-2013-e.pdf

The Ramsar Sites Criteria, online: Ramsar https://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/library/ramsarsites_criteria_eng.pdf

Timothy Barnard and Corinne Heng, “A City in a Garden”, in Nature Contained (Timothy Barnard ed), Singapore: NUS Press Pte Ltd, 2014., at 301.

Wild Animals Protection Ordinance, c 170, online: https://www.elegislation.gov.hk/hk/cap170