Mangroves Part II
A long with their defensive role against natural disasters, the social, environmental and economic benefits of mangroves increase their importance manifolds, as these forests are among the most productive and diverse ecosystems on the planet. They are connected to the lives of 1.2 million Pakistanis living in and around forests. Of these, 900,000 live on the Indus Delta and the other 300,000 live on the coast of Balochistan. More than 90% of this population is involved, in one way or another, in fishing – a sector that plays an important role in poverty-alleviation and food security of coastal communities, while also providing employment and livelihood, directly and indirectly, to millions of people associated with this industry.
In Pakistan’s context, mangroves are very important because around 80% of fish caught from the country’s coastal areas, spend some part of their life in mangroves or are dependent on the food systems in mangroves. As a result, during the financial year 2020-21 (July-March), Pakistani fishermen caught 465.200 thousand metric tonnes from the country’s marine sources. According to Pakistan Economic Survey 2020-21, “During FY2021 (July-March), 136.370 thousand metric tonnes of fish and fishery preparation, valued at US$303.606 million (Rs 48,945 million), were exported – shrimps, which are the most important catch from mangroves, constituted a major chunk of this foreign exchange earning.
Another important benefit of mangrove forests is that they provide the communities living around them with fodder for the livestock, and wood to be used for construction purposes or as fuel.
The Indus Delta’s mangrove forest ecosystem is a supportive natural ecosystem that provides habitat, shelter and breeding grounds for many economically important wild animals and plants. According to the Zoological Survey of Pakistan, 98 species of fish have been recorded in the Indus Delta mangroves so far. Due to the nutritious food resources available in these areas, most fish are attracted to mangrove swamps during high tide. The presence of three species of lizards and 14 of snakes is a pertinent example of the presence of both terrestrial and aquatic animals in mangroves. The evergreen forests and wetlands of the Indus Delta mangroves are home to many birds. In particular, they are home to thousands of migratory birds during the period between November and February. The route through which these birds enter Pakistan is called ‘Indus Flyway’ or ‘Green Route’. It is also known as International Migration Route 4.
Mangroves are also an important weapon in the fight against climate change, as one of the hallmarks of these forests is their “blue carbon’ storage function. The tree’s ability to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, the primary catalyst for climate change, sets it apart from other plants. These are carbon-storage hotspots which reduce carbon in the atmosphere and store that in living plants and their soils, where it can last for centuries. Like all forests, mangroves transmit carbon dioxide to leaves, wood, and roots through the process called photosynthesis, and as they grow, so does the storage of carbon in their biomass.
Mangroves’ capacity to store carbon and separate that from the atmosphere is more than any other ecosystem on the planet. In fact, they are capable of converting 4 to 5 times more CO2 into organic carbon than ordinary trees. Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change has recently, with the support of the World Bank, conducted Blue Carbon rapid assessment which concluded that in total, mangrove forests and mapped tidal marshes store approximately 21 million tonnes of organic carbon. It further said that existing mangrove forests potentially store approximately 19.8 million tonnes of organic carbon the commercial value of which ranges between US$873.1 and US$1.4 billion. Moreover, around one million tons organic carbon, valued at between US$44.4 million and US$74.1 million, is stored in tidal marshes.
According to experts, a mangrove tree absorbs 308 kilograms of carbon dioxide in its 25-year life. Mangrove trees on one hectare absorb 840 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air in this period. It has been estimated that one hectare of mangrove forest provides a financial benefit of US$1,94,000 in the domain of ecosystem services. In the case of tourism alone, one hectare of mangroves provides $1,079 a year. Thus, for all its merits, it surpasses other ecosystems. That is, mangrove forests are important ecosystems for both biodiversity and humanity.
Despite their invaluable benefits, mangrove forests in Pakistan have been severely degraded as a result of climate change, illegal logging, pollution, overuse of natural resources and coastal development, especially in the Indus Delta. It has been adversely affected in recent years due to over-exploitation of resources, pollution, scarcity of freshwater from the Indus and coastal urbanization and industrialization. The survival of Indus Delta mangroves hinges on freshwater flows and their growth is best in areas where that flow is better. But with the gradual and steady decline in the amount of water flowing from the Indus River to the Delta, there has also been a significant reduction in about 270 million tons of sand and soil reaching the Delta annually. According to World Bank, it has shrunk to 13 million tons, and 90 percent of its groundwater has become saline due to the advance of seawater.
The drop of average annual rainfall to less than 221 mm and sometimes prolonged periods of drought and long heat waves make other important causes of concern. Due to these reasons, the supply of freshwater to the Indus Delta mangroves has greatly reduced. Due to the scarcity of river water, the non-admixture of freshwater in the sea has proved to be an obstacle in the ‘environmental water cycle’ due to which the environment, especially the coastal forests of mangroves, and certain species of fish and the Indus Delta have been severely affected. Pakistan Climate Change Policy (2012) states, “Increased intrusion of saline water in the Indus delta [is] adversely affecting coastal agriculture, mangroves and the breeding grounds of fish.”
Although different people hold varied opinions regarding the flow of freshwater into the Arabian Sea, environmentalists are in unison in expressing the inevitability of that water flow for a sustainable ecosystem for a country’s economy.
According to an estimate by IUCN Pakistan, for healthy growth of mangroves, an average of one cusec (28 litres/second) of freshwater flow is required for every 40 hectares (100 acres). Obstruction of ecological water flow has allowed Arabian Sea tides to enter large swathes of land in lower Sindh, the Indus Delta region, and the waterways of the Indus through which freshwater flowed into the sea. As a result, the salinity of water in these areas has increased up to 50 ppt that could be hazardous to the mangrove ecosystem and the habitats of marine species that thrive in it, as well as the communities that depend on it. As a result, 1.2 million people have migrated from the Delta to Karachi.
The second major threat to the mangrove environment is increasing marine pollution. As per a document of Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change, more than 400 million gallons of waste and 8000-14000 tons of solid waste per day from urban areas of the country, besides 90,000 tons of oil discharge from ships annually, are polluting the port areas. In addition, illegal logging for mangrove for fuel and construction purposes, overgrazing of animals, changes in the topography of forests for purposes including urban sprawl and development are significant triggers for mangrove degradation in some places.
Owing to these factors, mangrove area in Sindh, which was 344,870 hectares in 1966, has reduced to 140,922 hectares by 2020. In Balochistan, the area has decreased from 7,340 hectares in 1988 to 5,436 hectares by 2020. This decline in area covered by mangroves has resulted in huge economic losses. For instance, in 1951, the Indus Delta produced 5,000 tons of fish but that has now fallen to 300 tons in recent years.
Although we have lost large areas of mangroves, things are, encouragingly, changing now. Individuals and organizations are now beginning to realize their economic, social and environmental benefits and more and more efforts are being put in to protect what is left and to start rehabilitation programs. In this regard, the country has been working hard for the last 2-3 decades to restore mangroves on a large scale. Planting of mangroves in coastal areas that were erstwhile mangrove-free is a new honor for Pakistan. We have planted mangrove trees in such areas where only a few countries could do.
Thanks to the efforts of provincial forest departments of Sindh and Balochistan, WWF-Pakistan, IUCN and other national and international bodies and related organizations, an increase of 207% has been recorded in area covered by mangroves – 477.22 sq km in 1990 to 1463.59 sq km by 2020 – an increase of 3.74% per annum. The good news of the increase in mangrove area has been given in a recently published research paper – prepared by a seven-member team of experts from three institutions – titled as “Evaluating Mangrove Conservation and Sustainability through Spatiotemporal (1990-2020) Mangrove Cover Change Analysis in Pakistan”.
The corresponding author of this paper, Dr Hamad Gilani, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Space Technology Pakistan, says, “The latest area covered by mangroves in Pakistan is, in 2020, almost 1,465 sq km or 146,400 ha. Mangrove forests in the country are divided into eight areas that are not geologically interconnected. Of this area, 1395.66 sq km is in the Indus Delta. They cover 13.56 sq km area of sandpits. The total area of Sonmiani Khor in Balochistan, Kalmat Hor, Sahidi Khor, Sawar Khor, Shabi Creek, Ankra Creek and in Jiwani is 54.36 sq km. To add up to this achievement, mangroves have been included as part of the federal government’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami program. In one of the world’s biggest mangrove restoration campaigns, 43.50 million mangroves will be planted in the coastal areas of the country.”
Syed Ali Imran, Project Director of the Balochistan Forest Department’s Ten Billion Tree Tsunami program, says, “There are only two notified protected mangrove forests in Balochistan which cover an area of 734 acres in Lasbela District. Although this area is very small to preserve the status of these forests, yet if a mangrove tree exists outside the protected forest area, it is included in the list of protected reserve trees under the Forest Act, 1927. It means that all mangrove species are classified as protected. However, to protect biodiversity and employment opportunities in the fisheries sector, giving all the mangrove forests a protected status has become imperative and indispensable.” He added that the process in this regard has already been started and it is quite encouraging that that the total areas under mangroves in the province has risen from 10028 acres to 13433 acres during the last fifteen years.
In this context, Dr Babar Hussain, currently the Natural Resource Management Coordinator at IUCN Pakistan, says, “The IUCN has been a mangrove planter in the coastal areas of Pakistan for the last several decades. We have planted 7.7 million date palms in the last five years. In addition, during May-June this year, we planted 400,000 mangrove trees in Balochistan’s Miani Hor area. In this activity, we have taken the local communities on board; they are trained and given incentives, e.g. in Kharo Chan, we provided the communities with solar panels. In addition, we trained the community at Kaka Pir Village in Karachi in the context of eco-tourism in terms of mangroves. Money generated from this activity is spent by the community on hiring teachers in their schools.” He added that the IUCN has started Karachi Conservation Program at Port Qasim in which private business sector has also been included.
Dr Tahir Rasheed, WWF-Pakistan’s Regional Head for Sindh and Balochistan, says, “WWF-Pakistan has been working for the protection and afforestation of mangroves through various initiatives for the last two decades. At the same time, much has been done to alleviate the poverty of the communities concerned, to improve their living standards, especially for the welfare of women. We are currently in the final stages of a project on sustainable management of the mangrove ecosystem consisting of 17 villages of the Indus Delta. Under this project, two community-based nurseries with a stock of 125000 plants have also been set up to enhance the role of communities in the protection of mangroves.” In his opinion, more effective legislation is needed to restore, protect and expand mangrove forests, in order to sustain the encouraging increase in mangrove forest.
Arif Ali Khokhar, who is currently serving as the Conservator of Forests at Mangroves Forest Management Circle Karachi in Sindh Forest Department, explains the restoration of mangrove forests in Sindh province by saying that it was a unique and commendable work of its kind in the world. He said, “Sindh Forest Department started small mangrove rehabilitation projects whereby mangrove trees were planted on an area of 35,000 hectares. In this way, we have so far restored 240,000 hectares of mangrove forests in the province.” (This has been confirmed by the abovementioned research of Dr Hamad Gilani, et. al.) Mr Khokhar further stated that under the Ten Billion Trees Tsunami Program of the federal government, the Sindh Government has set a target of planting 40,000 hectares of mangrove forests in the province, of which 40% have already been planted and the rest will be done in the next three years.
Commenting on the strategy adopted for the protection of restored forests, Mr Khokhar said, “For every 400 hectares of land, we have hired one person from the local communities at the wages fixed by the government. These watchmen are responsible for protecting the mangrove forests in their area. We are also preparing to introduce our mangrove forests to the international carbon market. If our blue carbon credits are recognized, we can get a lot of foreign exchange from it.”
Today, the mangrove forests on the face of the earth are, indeed, the result of centuries of nature’s efforts. But due to increasing human population, improper utilization and climate change, the pressure on these forests is increasing day by day. Therefore, keeping in view the benefits of mangroves, the dependence of human civilizations on them, and their economic significance, , the Government of Pakistan has been persistent in putting in efforts the results of which are fruitful. However, the journey is still on and much remains to be done.
The writer can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org