Can we afford to lose them?

T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR –

Employing one of the finest carbon capture and storage technologies, they combat climate change. Not just that. They are ever vigilant to thwart catastrophic tidal threats as well, and, going further, ensure sustainable living. Commonsense would suggest they need to be rewarded and feted, right? Reality is, however, disquieting: Mangroves are under severe threat in several parts of the world.

Coastal mangroves are among the most threatened ecosystems. We have lost nearly 67 per cent of mangroves by now. Almost the entire unprotected mangroves could perish over the next 100 years if urgent preservation efforts are not undertaken, warn experts.
Mangroves sequester vast amounts of carbon — about 1,000 tonne of carbon per hectare — over thousands of years. They can absorb nearly ten times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than the average rainforest. They also guard against coastal erosion.
Emissions resulting from mangrove losses form one-fifth of global emissions from deforestation, resulting in economic damages to the tune of $ 6-42 billion annually.
More than a sixth of the world’s mangrove species face extinction due to coastal development, tourism, shrimp farming, urbanisation, marinas, logging, agriculture and other factors, points out the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In the last five decades alone we lost almost half of mangroves. Roughly, 150,000 hectares of mangrove wetlands are lost annually, suggests an FAO study.
With a coastline extending across 1,700 km, stakes are especially high for Oman in the preservation and development of mangrove forests. Though the mind-numbing devastation wrought by a tropical cyclone in 2007 intensified the Sultanate’s sense of urgency in securing its coasts by strengthening the natural defence wall as provided by mangroves, the efforts at nurturing Oman’s mangroves started much before.
Over the last two decades, the Sultanate has been actively fostering its mangroves and has so far planted hundreds of thousands of mangrove seedlings. It is noteworthy that real estate developers in Oman are encouraged to undertake large-scale mangrove planting projects to make up for the affected mangrove wetlands.
The government has been working with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) since 2000 to plant mangrove seedlings in the various governorates.
Mangroves have been a definitive feature of Oman since known history and beyond, providing camel fodder, timber, quality air, resistance to salinity, and safety to the people.
They have also ensured a thriving fisheries sector. In fact, dense mangrove forests covered a significant part of Oman’s coastline and islands in ancient times.
The government’s mangrove development efforts are in line with Oman’s vision to protect its marine environment. The country is a member of the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment, along with Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE, and works with JICA and the UN in developing focused strategies.
What is more significant is that people’s awareness about the value and importance of mangrove ecosystems, and the need to nurture the same, has grown over the years. Communities are increasingly participating in mangrove seedling plantation projects.
Oman has dense but scattered clusters of mangroves on the northeast coast. Trees grow up to 6 m in height on the southeast coast. The Qurum area in Muscat is home to one of the largest mangrove forests in the Sultanate. Under the guidance of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, 1,000 mangrove trees were planted in Qurum Nature Reserve in 2012. The Qurum Reserve was declared a Ramsar wetland site of international importance in 2013, and is being promoted as an ecotourism destination.
Avicennia marina dominates the mangroves in the Sultanate. Avicennia covers approximately 1,000 hectares of coastal areas stretching from Batinah Governorate in north through the Governorate of Muscat, Al Sharqiyah Governorate, Mahout Island to the Governorate of Dhofar in the south. Avicennia trees are recorded to be exploited by Omani fishermen for more than 4,000 years.
Sadly, the vibrant living relation between Omanis and mangroves has faded over the decades, mainly driven by new lifestyles and changed perceptions and priorities. Omanis traditionally used mangrove trees as fodder for camels and also as fuel. Fishing stakes were also made of them.
Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs has been holding highly successful education and awareness programmes to raise environmental awareness across communities about the importance of cultivating and protecting mangroves.
The ministry has organised several cultivation campaigns targeting school students, fishermen and various social and cultural organisations including the Omani Women’s Association.
The major focus of the Sultanate’s Marine Environment Conservation Department under the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs is to conserve existing forests, and expand them by replanting seedlings. Efforts are in full swing to plant one million mangrove seedlings.
On a different note, Oman can turn its mangroves into a great tourist attraction by promoting mangrove boardwalks, which can also enhance local people’s income.