Guardians of the Coastline: The Urgent Need to Protect Mangroves

Fragile mangrove ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change and unsustainable human activities. Over the last century a 40% decline in mangrove cover in India was reported. They are the primary source of livelihoods for many coastal communities and also protect inland areas and forests from worst effects of severe storms and flooding events. The need to protect mangroves is urgent.

Sitting on the edge of land and sea, and covering 0.15% of India’s land area, Mangroves are the most crucial, productive, and diverse ecosystems in the world with huge socioeconomic impacts on communities, and marine and coastal species. But with rising sea levels, altering weather patterns, and other anthropogenic factors, mangrove forests are now at risk of depletion threatening the survival of many dependent communities.

Mangroves are key to a healthy marine environment and are considered to be among the most important wetlands in the world. They play a vital role in offshore ecology, sustaining and securing the coastal ecosystem. Mangroves provide safe nursery sites for marine species and nesting and migratory sites for hundreds of birds that flourish among their branches. Economically too, mangroves provide numerous livelihood opportunities for the coastal communities through agriculture, shrimp gathering, fishing, and ecotourism. It is estimated that about 4 million people live in the Sundarbans and 72% of this population are directly dependent on forests for their livelihood. However, despite these critical functions, the sustainability of mangroves didn’t receive much attention. Mangroves are depleting fast and are now listed as one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world.

Over the last century, a decline of 40% was reported in the area of mangrove cover in India. Globally too, mangrove cover is declining at a rate of 2.1% annually, faster than coral reefs and rainforests due to various climate change-related phenomena.

“The mangrove forest ecosystem in general shows, exceptional morphological and, physiological adaptation skills to counter the environmental and natural stress associated with their intertidal habitat” reveals a study by Rajarshi Das Gupta and Rajib Shaw.  

Yet, mangroves are unable to adapt to rapid and extreme climate change over the past few years. Among them, sea level rise plays an important role in their degradation. According to reports, the average sea level has risen by 6-8 inches between 1993 and 2021, 2.5 times higher than the average sea level rise in the last century. Generally, mangroves retreat landwards to adapt to the rise but with the conversion of available land into agricultural fields, mangroves are now drowning. The Indian State of Forest Report, 2021 reported that Sundarbans lost 2 sq. km of its forest cover during 2017-2019, which is attributed to the sea level rise.

Storms and cyclones also have a huge impact on the mangrove cover. Over the past few years, cyclones have been intensifying due to increasing global temperatures and an increase in precipitation rate. The strong, high-speed winds associated with the cyclones uproot the trees and cause extensive damage to the forests. This was evident during the recent Cyclone Amphan in 2020 where vast swaths of mangroves in the Sundarbans were lost due to the strong winds, which accounted for nearly 40% of the forest area.

Apart from these, various anthropogenic factors such as the conversion of agricultural lands, promotion of unsustainable aquaculture, and mass tourism contribute to the degradation of mangrove cover. Local communities are poor and often are left with no other option than resorting to unsustainable farming and aquaculture practices that enhance their incomes. Further, due to rapid urbanization, accompanied by various developmental projects in the coastal cities large swatches of mangroves are lost every day. For instance, in Mumbai city, a total of 36.54 sq. km of mangrove cover was lost from 1990 to 2001 for various development projects.

The acceleration of unsustainable human activities coupled with the adverse effects of climate change is threatening the mangrove ecosystem, the lives of the people associated, and the country’s economy.

Mangroves act as breeding grounds for various commercial marine species that contribute enormously to India’s economy. These forests alone contribute 1.07% of India’s GDP and employ 145 million people in fisheries. Thus, any loss could severely impact the quality and productivity of the fisheries and the economic productivity of the coastal communities.

“We are left with nothing, with nowhere to go. There is no source of income. I just have a pile of rotting fish.” Elma Bibi (Cyclone Amphan, 2020)

“Mangroves play a vital role in stabilizing coastlines and protecting inland areas and populations from the worst effects of severe storms and flooding events,” – Bill Laurance, research professor at James Cook University, Australia. It was reported that Sundarbans reduced the speed of the cyclone Bulbul by at least 20 kilometres per hour, saving the southern part of West Bengal from the cyclone that could have been catastrophic for Kolkata. Hence, conserving mangroves is critical.

There has been little success in the restoration of the mangroves in the past years. The mangrove cover of India has increased by 17 sq. km according to the India State of Forest Report. But considering the extent of damage, this raise is nowhere near enough. The time it takes to restore mangroves far exceeds the rate of depletion. Thus, a balanced approach, involving the government, NGOs, and local communities is required for conservation. For example, the Mangrove Restoration Project in Gujarat was formulated on a similar line of thought. The PPP model and community-based approach, involved the government, local communities, and the private sector. Communities receive direct and indirect employment opportunities and secondary means of livelihood like the sale of fish, incentivizing them to participate responsibly. Through their concerted efforts and collaboration an estimated 5000 hectares of mangroves were restored and planted. Such efforts can be strengthened by devising sustainable coastal land use regulations and preventing illegal encroachments.

Rapid climate change is a looming danger to the health of mangrove ecosystems and unsustainable human activities are only exacerbating this problem. Any further loss in the mangrove cover will pose a massive threat to communities dependent and the economy. It is necessary to incentivize and implement conservation efforts that get buy-in from local communities by sustainably enhancing their livelihoods.

Sirinikitha B | Executive – Communications

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