COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AlertNet) – Rapid destruction of South Asia’s mangroves, which act as a buffer against extreme weather conditions such as storm surges and rising sea levels, is endangering lives and livelihoods in the region, experts say.
Asia is home to 41 percent of the world’s mangroves, but in countries including Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India they are fast disappearing. Ajanta Dey, a project director at the Nature, Environment and Wildlife Society, a Kolkata-based organisation that works on environmental and sustainable livelihood issues in eastern India, says her organisation believes at least 40 percent of Asia’s mangroves have been lost in the last 50 years.
“There has been a lot of destruction,” she told AlertNet.
Preserving mangroves is important because they can act as a natural shield against storm surges and other severe weather. Most are also rich biodiversity hotspots, harbouring fish, shellfish and other animals that can provide food and income for people in the area.
But in Pakistan, over 80 percent of the mangrove cover has been lost in the last 80 years, according to the Pakistan office of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Mangrove forests that once covered over 600,000 hectares are now reduced to around 86,000 hectares.
And such mangrove losses are now spreading increasingly across South Asia, including to India and Bangladesh’s coastal Sundarbans region, and to regions of Sri Lanka undergoing rapid development after years of conflict.
Along Pakistan’s Indus Delta, mangroves have been cut down largely to be used as firewood, or low-lying mangrove areas have been used for landfill, IUCN research found.
Tahir Qureshi, a senior advisor on coastal ecosystems at IUCN Pakistan, told AlertNet that communities living near mangrove forests bear the brunt of the harmful impacts from their destruction.
“Livelihoods of local populations (have) decreased, poverty has increased and the coastal areas have become exposed to cyclones, tsunami and other natural disasters,” Qureshi said.
According to Siddiq Roonjha, an elderly fisherman from Kerti Bunder, a coastal village in Pakistan’s Thatta District about 200 km (125 miles) southeast of Karachi, the villagers did not fear storms and cyclones before development set in and the mangroves were destroyed.
“In those days there used to be thick mangrove forests and we would go and hide our boats in them. That is why no storm or rain was such a danger to us,’ Roonjha recounted in a short video titled ‘Sentries of the Coast’ released by IUCN Pakistan.
The old villager blames the depletion of the mangroves on the development and expansion of Karachi. As the city grew, so did the demand for firewood and the mangroves were cut down en masse.
"WE ARE AFRAID FOR THE FUTURE"
“We are afraid of the future. There is no cover. We are left with nothing,” Roonjha lamented. The fisherman said his catch had been reduced so much that he had gone hungry on some days.
A similar scenario is evolving in Sri Lanka and India, where rapid cutting of mangroves is threatening the incomes of local communities while putting them at increased risk from extreme weather.
After the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami that killed over 30,000 people, interest in protecting Sri Lanka’s mangroves grew because of the protection they offered.
But as the island recovers from over two decades of civil war, rapid development is now threatening mangroves on the northwestern, eastern and northern coasts.
Such development “is likely to impact on the remaining mangrove areas” in the country’s Northern and Eastern Provinces, an IUCN study said.
Delicate natural habitats along Sri Lanka’s northwest Mannar lagoon are already threatened by rapidly advancing tourism projects. The Coast Conservation Department says the area is now prone to heavy coastal erosion because of changing monsoon rain patterns that mean the rain now comes in short, intense bursts.
In India, depletion of mangroves in the low-lying Sundarbans region is affecting the lives of millions who live close to them.
“Everyone knows that mangroves are essential to their existence in this vulnerable area,” Dey told AlertNet. In particular, the mangroves help protect delicate sand embankments around villages from cyclones and storm surges.
Dey said that research by her organisation found that there was a direct link between the income levels of nearby communities and depletion of their nearby mangroves.
In Kolkata, Dey and her group are engaged in a project to replant around 6,000 hectares (13,200 acres) of mangroves, with a target of replanting 4,500 hectares (9,900 acres) in 2012. By the end of 2011, close to 2,500 hectares (5,500 acres) had been replanted.
In Pakistan the IUCN has so far replanted around 30,000 hectares (66,000 acres) while the government has agreed to replant 100,000 hectares (220,000 acres) by 2018.
“We need to keep focused and stick to our targets,” Dey said.
Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka.