Mangroves: Loss, hope and survival

Oman joined the rest of the world in celebrating the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem, which falls on July 26 every year. A lot of emphasis has been given to the protection and restoration of mangroves. But sadly, despite their strategic importance, mangroves are under threat all over the world, and are being destroyed on a daily basis.
At the juncture of land and sea, mangrove forests support a wealth of life from tiny microbes to humans. Most importantly, they have a huge impact on the health of our planet, more than most of us realize. Mangroves occupy a zone between land and sea with dehydrating heat, choking mud, and high level of salt – conditions that would kill any ordinary plant within hours. Each mangrove has an ultrafiltration system to keep much of the salt out and a complex root system that allows it to survive in the area that is above water at low tide and under water at high tide. They’re brilliant adapters. To the local communities these forests supply food, wood, fuel depots, and medicines.
To evaluate the significance of mangroves, we would also need to understand the carbon cycle on our planet. We all know about the breathing process. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. So, do all living creatures. Oxygen is life and carbon dioxide is a toxin to most of us. So where does all of this carbon dioxide that we exhale go? How many of us know that there is a carbon sequestration process that takes place all the time? It is the ability to take carbon-dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere and hold it in storage.
Plants play the most important role in this carbon story. They take care of carbon. No doubt the forests are called the ‘lungs of the planet’. Forests help store the carbon and put it to better use. Some of this CO2 is stored in the plant itself but in some cases, a lot more of it is transferred to the soil beneath it. While most tropical forests store carbon above the ground, wetlands or mangroves also move a lot of their carbon into the soil.
According to some studies, mangroves, sea grasses, and marshes can suck up to ten times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than the average rainforest. Unfortunately, with our present lifestyle, we’re putting more carbon into the atmosphere, losing out on our carbon sinks, and making our planet weaker. If forests are the lungs of the planet, then we’re destroying not only our regular forests but even the wetlands (mangroves included) merely to meet our lifestyle related demands. Mangroves are disappearing and putting our eco system to a larger risk.
The stakes are higher for the countries with a coastline, as mangrove ecosystems provide benefits and services that are essential for life there. Mangroves are not only important for any coastal region’s marine ecosystem but also form a natural habitat for the sustainable development of local fauna and play a vital role in preventing soil erosion in tropical and sub-tropical regions.
On a positive note, stakeholders are waking up to conserve mangroves. Calls for mangrove conservation gained a brief but significant hearing following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Where mangrove forests were intact, they served as natural breakwaters, disintegrating the energy of the waves, mitigating property damage, perhaps saving lives. Post-tsunami, conservationists started lobbying against allowing a country’s mangrove “bio-shields” to be bulldozed for real estate construction. Similarly, when Cyclone Gonu hit Oman in 2007, environmentalists immediately intensified efforts to create a natural wall of mangrove forest to thwart any tidal threat along the country’s 1,700km coastline. Developers in Oman are encouraged to rehabilitate the affected areas through large-scale cultivation programmes.
There is a lot of effort made to protect mangroves in other parts of the region too. A dedicated inter-tidal nursery has been established on the Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, which has produced over 700,000 seedlings to date. Saadiyat is home to an abundance of marine life, rare birds and wildlife.
Forested wetlands provide a valuable nursery habitat for fish and crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill, woodlice and barnacles etc.); a food source for animals; and a source of nectar for honeybees. They support complex communities, where thousands of other species interact and hence are rich in biodiversity.
Coastal mangroves are among the most threatened ecosystems on earth. Current estimates indicate that up to 67 per cent of mangroves have been lost to date. If immediate steps to preserve Mangroves are not taken, nearly all unprotected mangroves could perish over the next 100 years. It is indeed our call now to save the most productive and biologically complex ecosystems on Earth.

Seema Sangra