Asia-Pacific, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

ASIA: Calamities, Climate Change – Reprieve for Mangroves

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 23 2008 (IPS) - Lack of access to military-ruled Burma has not stopped a global environmental body from setting its sights on the country’s Irrawaddy Delta, which was devastated by a powerful cyclone in early May. Rehabilitating mangroves is the draw.

In November, mangrove forestry experts from Burma (or Myanmar) will join others from the region at a four-day scientific conference in southern Thailand co-hosted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A major theme will be to foster ‘’Sustainable Mangrove Ecosystem Management.’’

‘’This will be an opportunity for us to discuss mangrove-related issues with the experts from Myanmar,’’ says Don Macintosh, coordinator of Mangroves for the Future (MMF), an IUCN initiative. ‘’It is an opportunity to bridge the lack of direct contact with Myanmar.’’

‘’Helping to replant mangroves in the Irrawaddy Delta is an area of interest,’’ added Macintosh in an IPS interview. ‘’But before any mangrove rehabilitation work begins to restore the coastal eco-system, we need to know the extent of damage; proper surveys will have to be done.’’

Efforts to rehabilitate mangroves in the Delta are part of a trend taking root across South and South-east Asia in the wake of natural disasters being linked to climate change. According to green groups, mangrove destruction has not only left coastal communities more vulnerable to a surge in sea levels during powerful storms, but such depletion also robs the planet of much needed carbon sinks to combat greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions.

What happened in the Irrawaddy when the powerful Cyclone Nargis struck in the early hours of May 3 has reinforced this view. The human toll it left in its wake was without parallel in the South-east Asian nation. The official toll was 84,537 deaths and 53,836 people missing, while 2.4 million people were severely affected out of 7.35 million people living in that flat terrain. Other estimates put the human toll much higher, with possibly close to 300,000 people being killed and some 5.5 million people affected.

Depletion of mangroves over decades was singled out by experts and environmentalists as a primary reason for leaving the communities exposed to a wall of seawater, which surged 40 km inland. During a 75-year period, from 1924 to 1988, close to 82 percent of the mangroves in the Delta were ‘’depleted’’, revealed the Forest Resources Environmental Development and Conservation Association, a Burma-based non-governmental organisation.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the mangrove area in the delta is currently less than half the size it was in 1975, ‘’just over 100,000 hectares.’’ The annual mangrove deforestation is ‘’the highest in Burma,’’ at one percent, of the seven countries affected by the 2004 December tsunami, adds the ‘Journal of Biography.’

But that has not earned Burma a place in the IUCN’s MMN initiative which covers India, Indonesia, Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The exclusion stems from the politics of this global green group, since its members have not given it ‘’clear direction to work with Myanmar,’’ says a ranking member of the IUCN’s Asia office.

The creation of the MMF, in fact, reflects the shift in responding to the ravages caused by climate change, with growing voices calling for resources to strengthen vulnerable coastal communities in disaster preparedness and adaptation than the customary trend of relief and restoration resources pouring in following a disaster.

MMF was set up following the 2004 tsunami, which flattened the coastlines of 11 Indian Ocean countries, with Aceh, in northern Indonesia, suffering the worst, where 163,795 people died. In all the death toll was 222,495, with Sri Lanka, India and Thailand also affected.

‘’The (MMF) programme adopts a new approach that re-orients the current focus of coastal investment,’’ states a background note. ‘’This means moving from a reactive response to disasters, to progressive activities that address long-term sustainable needs.’’

Attention to insulating coastal communities ahead of a disaster is gaining ground because of the populations involved. ‘’Ten percent of people worldwide live less than 10 metres above sea level and near the coast, a high-risk zone for floods and storms – about 75 percent of them live in Asia,’’ reveals a new report released this week by World Vision, a Christian charity.

‘’Mangrove forests which have served as natural barriers against rising sea levels by breaking big waves and halting sea water intrusion have been significantly weakened,’’ adds ‘Planet Prepare’, the 122-page report. ‘’The net effect of coastal degradation is that more and more people are flooding into a high-risk zone for floods and storms but are less and less protected from them.’’

‘’Replanting of mangroves helps to reduce risk to communities,’’ Richard Rumsey, Asia-Pacific humanitarian and emergency affairs director for World Vision, told IPS. ‘’It is a key area of investment. More money needs to be put into reducing risk.’’

But securing such funds may require a sea change from international donors, since only ‘’four percent of the estimated 10 billion US dollars spent yearly on humanitarian assistance goes to preparedness,’’ findings in the report reveal. ‘’Donor and affected governments must invest billions in preparedness rather than investing most emergency aid money in disaster responses.’’

The other benefit of restoring mangroves is its significant contribution to serve as potent carbon sinks to trap GhGs, the main driver of climate change. ‘’Mangroves are one of the best carbon sinks, because they lock up carbon in the soil through their root structure,’’ Jim Enright, Asia coordinator for Mangrove Action Project, a Washington D.C.-based environmental lobby, told IPS. ‘’Their carbon sequestration potential is greater than trees.’’

Yet in attempting to restore mangroves in the region, the complex relationship between nature and the communities living close cannot be sacrificed.

‘’What we have learnt so far is that planting a tree is easy, but sowing the seeds of sustainable development is more difficult,’’ says Maria Osbeck, researcher of the Stockholm Environment Institute. ‘’Programmes need to reflect the interests of different stakeholders and take into account the social and economical aspects of coastal resource management – to balance the needs of people and nature.’’

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