In the Shadows of the Sea: Beauty, Fragility and Restoration of Mangroves

Among the ecosystems of coral reefs, estuaries, and seagrass meadows there exists the intricate forests of mangroves. Compared with other coastal ecosystems, mangroves contribute an average of 14% to carbon sequestration in the world’s oceans and they are a source of livelihood for several communities. As anthropogenic activities and climate change threaten the health of Mangroves there is an urgent need to focus on conservation.

Not only is India a land of diverse cultures, but it is also a land with diverse natural ecosystems. With a coastline of 7500 km, the country harbours extraordinary marine life. The coastline is a breeding ground for marine turtles, foraging grounds for whales and a thriving habitat for other marine fauna and flora. Among the ecosystems of coral reefs, estuaries, and seagrass meadows there exists the intricate forests of mangroves. Mangroves are saline-tolerant trees found mostly near river mouths where freshwater meets the sea. The roots of mangroves are pneumatophores which means that they are aerial in nature and help the plant breathe in swamps where there is dense soil cover. These root systems are effective wave breakers that act as bio shields protecting human settlements in the region from extreme weather conditions like cyclones and tsunamis. Compared with other coastal ecosystems, mangroves contribute an average of 14% to carbon sequestration in the world’s oceans. They also sequester large amounts of atmospheric carbon and store it below the ground and in their roots thus contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gases, particularly CO2.

As a marine biologist, I have always been fascinated with these forest for the life that it holds underwater as well as over. The overlapping aerial roots form a network where the crooks and crevices are strategically used by marine predators to hunt for their prey and also where the prey seeks shelter. The creeks between the mangroves bubble with marine life like fish, crocodiles, snakes, and birds and smaller fauna like snails, shrimp and crabs. If you are lucky, you can also spot other wildlife like that of Fishing Cat and Smooth Coated Otters which are endemic to mangrove ecosystems.  

India is home to one of the largest mangrove forests in the world extending over 140,000 hectares – The Sundarbans. They lie on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal. The Sundarbans have been the lifeline of the human settlement in the severe cyclone-prone regions in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Also, mangrove stretches are scattered all across the coastline of the country in varying lengths. Some other prominent patches are in Bhitarkanika, Coringa-Krishna, Pichavaram, the Gulf of Kutch and the Andaman Islands.

Despite the ecological significance of these forests, their long-term viability has never received serious attention. Mangrove systems are fragile and Concerns are rising over the health of mangroves and it is only appropriate to further heighten voices against the degradation. Because a multitude of anthropogenic activities are accelerating the depletion way beyond the rate at which mangroves can be restored. The major threats are:

Climate change caused due to anthropogenic activities has altered weather patterns across the world. Untimely El-Nino ocean current cycles, severe cyclones and rise in sea levels also increase stress on marine ecosystems including mangroves.

India overtook China and is now the world’s most populous country in 2023. Exploding human population and parallel urban growth have colossal impacts on natural ecosystems. Urban coastal development, unsustainable aquaculture (to meet the food demands of a growing population) and exploitation of forests to meet resource requirements endanger mangroves.  

land conversion for cultivation is also high on the threat list for mangrove forests across the coastline. Deforesting and converting mangrove forests for cultivating crops like paddy will result in emissions of nearly 450 Mg carbon or 1,652 CO2 per hectare.

Though numerous attempts are being made to restore mangroves they are achieving little desired outcome due to several reasons ranging from lack of cohesive participation of all stakeholders to land jurisdiction disputes and legal bottlenecks in obtaining appropriate sites for plantations. Services of mangroves to climate and environment, communities and economy are irreplaceable and it is imperative to act collectively in restoration efforts. Mangrove restoration is a multidimensional challenge and is intrinsically linked to aspects like the livelihoods of communities residing, changes in climate, encroachments, etc. and thus requires multistakeholder partnerships among relevant stakeholders like local governments, civil society organizations and the private sector nudging local communities. For instance, the Action for Climate and Environment (ACE) Programme of Dr. Reddy’s Foundation (DRF) is developing strategies to minimise the impact of climate change in coastal regions through local community participation. DRF has been working towards mangrove rehabilitation in Andhra Pradesh since 2022 to restore degraded mangrove patches by increasing plantation of local mangrove species. DRF has collaborated with ICFRE Coastal Ecosystem Centre (ICFRE-CEC) of the Institute of Forest Biodiversity located in Visakhapatnam to rehabilitate mangroves as soft barriers against rising sea levels along the coast of Andhra Pradesh through a science-based approach. In this multistakeholder partnership, DRF’s experience in implementing developmental initiatives and trust among local communities will get large voluntary participation, while knowledge and funding partnerships will ensure meeting resource needs for successful implementation. Similarly, mission-focused partnerships with joint action agendas addressing different challenges concerning restoration efforts will have a greater probability of success and are the need of the hour. Thriving mangrove forests are essential for a thriving planet.

Sneha Prakasamma | Consultant-Coastal Ecosystems

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