Mangroves: Insurance against wrath of nature

Relax in our fabulous, affordable wooden beach cottages with sweeping sea views and crystal clear water full of vibrant tropical fish. Enjoy a cold drink in your hand and a warm, salty breeze on your face as the sun sets over our endless white beach. Awake to the sound of rumbling waves…

And tourists all over South Asia did. That it would be the rumbling of a 30 meter wave was not mentioned in the travel brochure. The wave, known as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, turned out to be the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, hitting Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand the hardest. When booking their holiday to these destinations, tourists would have been happy to tick an insurance option against this kind of disaster. As would be all 200 million people worldwide, living directly along coastlines, and in particular the millions of South Asians affected by tsunamis.

Insurance on the Cheap

Alright, better safe than sorry: For the next trip to the beach, we shall take a tsunami insurance. But who will provide this? Surely not AXA or Allianz. The answer waits just around the corner of the beach: A couple of inconspicuous, torpedo-shaped seedlings in the sand. And these will insure against a 30 meter wave? Wading a bit further in the chest-deep, brackish, tea-coloured water, we can see towering giants. 25 meter tall and densely packed, with webs of entangled prop roots extending like skirts from each trunk. That is more like it. But what might these tall mangling structures be? Mangling is the right catchword. Mangle is the Spanish origin for the word mangrow, today known as Mangroves. Mangroves narrowly refer to the plant family Rhizophoraceae and are, in words of one syllable trees up to medium height that grow along the seashore of the tropics and subtropics.

Sure, these trees provide an enjoyable scenery, yet, how on earth can a few trees insure tourists and coast dwellers from a fierce tsunami? The 2004 tidal wave did not only leave horrific human tragedy in its wake but also some lessons. Lessons learnt by the lucky inhabitants of three mangrove-sheltered villages of the Cuddalore District on India’s East shore. And even more so by their, not so lucky, neighbors. The former experienced the cushion effect of mangroves protecting their villages. Already 30 trees per 100 square meters reduce the maximum flow of a tsunami by more than 90 percent. Satellite photographs remarkably show, how the later found their two villages in shreds, due to deciding against this insurance option provided by mother nature.

And as insurance provider mother nature is now being taken seriously on the market. Some insurance agencies offer cheaper policies for resorts with beaches seamed by mangroves. Not only to protect from the odd tsunami, but also from much more frequent calamities, such as typhoons and floods. Calamities, which sound all too familiar to millions of oceanfront Philippinos, Indonesians or Indians. Let alone the people of Fiji, Tuvalu, or the Federated States of Micronesia, who live just 2 meters above sea level. Sea levels which are on the rise as the globe warms and the poles melt. Such rise turns average surf into a flood. And storms, multiplied by the very same global warming, into small tsunamis.

Blue Carbon Locked into the Soil

Better be climate change insured than – of course by mangroves. Mangroves which can yet do much more. They can fix climate change in the first place, and thus render an insurance against it obsolete. Sounds too good to be true? How can a couple of trees in the water mitigate climate change? Well, by addressing the very cause of it, the boosted carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which lead to the warming greenhouse gas effect. Just like any other tree, mangroves capture carbon from the air and store it in their wood. But mangroves do an even better job. To discover their secret, we have to dig deep in the muddy, grubby ground. In the rich, tidally submerged soil mangroves store about 90% of the fixed carbon in the form of organic material, which decomposes very slowly. Thus they continuously lock huge amounts of “blue carbon” into the soil under the sea level: 1,000 tons per hectare, more than three times as much as tropical forest on land.

Mother Nature’s Bank Account

This carbon lock is great news for the climate and great news for us. We can kick back and conveniently continue our beach holiday, enjoying the wooden beach cottages, the colorful fish, the sweeping views and the clear water, as advertised in the brochure. Without having to worry about mangroves anymore.

Or do we? Sorry to say, but without mangroves the travel brochure would read quite differently: Dull views, lifeless oceans, filthy water and no wooden cottage. Indeed, mangroves are spot on all-rounders: They are a source of timber and construction materials, e.g. for beach resorts, while, at the same time providing them with sweeping panoramas, promoting wellness and recreation. They filter coastal pollution, prevent soil erosion and improve biodiversity. For instance they are home to the endangered Kalimantan Proboscis Monkey. Besides, they capture and accumulate sediments in their roots, which serve as nursery to many species of fish that feed the world. Nearshore fisheries, critically important to millions of costal communities in Southeast Asia and worldwide, but also most large-scale commercial offshore fisheries are utterly dependent on mangroves as breeding grounds.

No wonder that Vietnam decided to plant and protect nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves, spending US$1 million but saving annual expenditures of well over US$7 million, on dyke maintenance alone. Try to get such interest rate from your bank. If you include the other services provides by mangroves, one square kilometer of mangroves is worth jaw-dropping $900,000 a year. What a nice savings account for every coastal community. But this account has a flip side: By hastily taking too much money out of the it – say in form of timber for a beach cottage, worth a couple of hundred dollars – you will lose an incredible amount of yearly interest rate.

ASEAN: Bestowed with Mangroves

For the ASEAN region as whole, this foregone annual benefits is estimated at staggering US$ 2.2 billion by year 2050, with Indonesia expected to suffer the highest losses at US$ 1.7 billion per year. Sadly, many have not realized the vast value of their mangrove account yet. While Southeast Asia’s account contributes 35 percent of the mangroves found on earth, half of it was already lost during the last decades. With grim symmetry also half of global mangroves are lost, as well as half of Philippine mangroves, or half of Vietnam’s mangrove rich Mekong Delta. ‘An area of 628 square kilometers of mangrove got stripped away each year throughout the last couple of decades,’ stressed Demetrio L. Ignacio, Jr., Acting Executive Director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, in his message as keynote speaker during the Regional Symposium on Mangrove Ecosystem Conservation in Southeast Asia, held on 27 February 2013 in Surabaya, Indonesia. Indonesia contributes around three million hectares of mangroves, an estimated 21 percent of the world’s remaining supply. But conversions to oil palm plantations and shrimp ponds makes Indonesia rapidly losing its green fringes. Similarly in the region, mangroves are lost to aquaculture, to urban, coastal and agricultural development.

This not only causes a huge financial loss, but also loss in biodiversity, loss in esthetic value, and loss in food and livelihoods – particularly severe for the estimated 600 million people, depending directly on mangrove resources. And what is more, loss in carbon storage. Almost 1.2 billion tons of carbon is emitted annually from mangroves, 10 percent of carbon emissions from deforestation globally.

Mangroves for the Future

‘Our biggest challenge is to make the public aware of these true values of mangroves,’ summarizes Mr. Ignacio, whose Centre addresses the problem in numerous ways, with support from the German Development Cooperation’s Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (GIZ BCCP). But how do they want to save mangroves with all their values?

By planting them, easy as that. And you can almost watch them growing. On suitable ground, some species can reach up to two meters within two years. A cakewalk. What is more challenging, is to protect your new planted seedlings, as well as old-growth mangrove forest. As we have seen, they are just so versatile in the goods they provide that people get easily lured into making the fast buck, rather than using the full mangrove potential. To realize this potential, mangroves conservation needs to be mainstreamed into development planning, what the initiative Mangroves for the Future tries to do. Set up after the 2004 tsunami, it offers grants to communities to protect their mangroves, which has been implemented already in about 90 projects across South and Southeast Asia. In these projects people are also trained to understand how best to use and protect their precious mangroves.

Such understanding of Mangroves is also crucial in the bigger picture. Mangroves research is a little bit behind compared to other tropical forest issues. The multitalented plants simply challenge the talents of scientists, as well as decision makers. Forging collaboration between science and policy is thus high up on the mangrove agenda of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, the mangrove knowledge hub of the region.

And also on the agenda of next week’s International Mangrove Action Day. Let’s all take action and help the little torpedo shaped seedling to protect us from waves – by protecting it from the wave of deforestation. Help it to provide shelter, livelihood, food, water and a stable climate. Help it to grow in its role as a true multi-tasker of nature.

First published on Saturday, 20 July 2013 16:56, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror