KHARO CHAN, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Pakistan has drawn national and global attention for planting a record-breaking number of mangrove trees to conserve its coastal environment, but experts are raising doubts about the country’s ability to keep the saplings alive.
On June 22, the country set a Guinness World Record by planting 847,257 mangroves saplings in a single day, breaking an earlier record of 611,000 mangrove saplings planted by India in 2010.
The Sindh Forest Department carried out the planting between dawn and dusk with the help of 300 community volunteers at Kharo Chan, a coastal town in Thatta district in the Indus Delta, some 230 km (140 miles) east of Karachi. The effort took place as part of the Asian Development Bank’s five-year multi-million dollar Sindh Coastal Community Development project.
Mangroves help prevent coastal erosion and sea intrusion and protect against the effects of cyclones, which have become more frequent and intense in recent years.
But experts fear many of the newly planted seedlings may not survive, as they were planted at a time of year with particularly rough seas, and similar planting efforts elsewhere at that time of year have seen losses of 70 percent.
The mangrove cover in the coastal provinces of Sindh and Balochistan faces damage from timber harvesting, unchecked animal grazing and rising sea levels, as well as declining flows from the Indus river because of the Kotri Barrage in southern Sindh province.
For Yousuf Katiar, a resident of Kharo Chan, June’s record mangrove planting is a reason for rejoicing.
The 81-year-old fisherman pointed to an area now under the sea, which he said had been land dense with mangrove trees as recently as 20 years ago.
“It was not possible to take a view of the sea through them,” he recalled. Because of deforestation, he said, the town is increasingly exposed to harsh weather, tidal waves and sea intrusion which has worn away the coast.
“We are really helpless against the powerful timber mafia, for it enjoys strong support of local (politicians),” he said. “Any plantation of mangroves amounts to restoration of the life and livelihoods for thousands of the people in the area, including my village.”
The rate of erosion in Karo Chan is around 61 metres (200 feet) a year, according to a 2012 report by WWF-Pakistan. Another report by the programme estimates that Karo Chan, which comprises 41 villages, has lost more than 117,823 fertile hectares of land (290,000 acres) to erosion over the last 10-15 years.
Pakistan has lost as much as three-quarters of its mangrove forest cover during the last 30 years, increasingly exposing the country to risks from tropical cyclones like the devastating Yemyin (2007) and Phet (2010).
In the early 1980s mangrove coverage was between 250,000 and 283,000 hectares (about 620,000-700,000 acres). WWF–Pakistan estimates the present area under mangrove forest at a little over 80,000 hectares.
Mohammad Ali Shah, chair of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), a non-governmental organisation working for fishermen’s rights, said that the construction of reservoirs in northern Pakistan as well as in India had reduced the flow of sediment in the Indus delta that mangroves need in order to thrive.
“With the passage of time, the delta has suffered severe degradation because of the upstream diversions of the river,” Shah said, quoting research by WWF-Pakistan that shows that sediment flow has dropped by nearly three-quarters as water flowing into the Indus Delta has fallen from 30 million acre-feet (MAF) to 5 MAF over the last 25 years.
Tahir Qureshi, senior advisor for mangrove restoration initiatives at the Pakistan programme of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, warned that efforts to restore mangrove forests are unlikely to bear fruit if existing threats to them remain unaddressed.
“No effort for mangrove rebuilding will bear fruit (unless) the release of a minimum 10 MAF water as environmental flows into the Indus Delta from the Indus River is ensured,” Qureshi said.
Ali Nawaz, one of the volunteers who helped plant the saplings in June, said villagers were looking forward to the benefits the mangroves could bring.
“If looked after properly by the government, the mangroves would help check land erosion, sea intrusion and protect us from the cyclones that have become more frequent and intense in recent years,” he said.
But Sami Memon, an environmentalist and PFF spokesperson, questioned the timing of the tree-planting.
“June and July are months of rough sea and high tide in Pakistani coastal areas,” he said. “Choosing the month of June for mangrove plantation is inappropriate and unfavourable, for most of the seedlings get washed away or wiped out by the high tide.”
According to Memon, when the Sindh Forest Department broke records in June 2009 by planting more than 540,000 mangroves in the coastal town of Keti Bunder, some saplings were washed away by high tides within two days, and more than 70 percent of the remaining seedlings did not survive for want of proper care and monitoring in the following months.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development science reporters based in Islamabad.