According to UNESCO, mangroves are disappearing at a rate that is three to five times faster than overall losses of global forest cover in the face of infrastructure development, urbanisation and agricultural land conversion.
When Cyclone Amphan hit Bakkhali in Bengal’s Sundarbans region in May 2020, it left a trail of destruction reminiscent of the 1999 Super Cyclone that killed thousands in Odisha. Experts rued that Amphan’s devastation could have been limited had it not been for the rampant deforestation, human activity, including tourism and finishing, and changes in land use reduced the health and the extent of the Sundarbans mangrove cover.
Sundarbans is home to the world’s largest mangrove cover — a prolific ecosystem between the land and the sea/ocean. Coastal communities all over the world depend on these ecosystems for their wellbeing, protection, and food security. They are breeding grounds for several estuarine and marine organisms as well. But their biggest contribution towards these coastal communities is to act as a natural barrier against tsunamis, storm surges, a rising sea, and erosion.
As climate change tightens its grip, storms such as Amphan will become more frequent and deadly. As the Sundarbans, and in fact mangroves across the world, continue to shrink, the condition of coastal and near-coastal communities will only get worse.
Mangroves have become highly susceptible to industrial areas along coasts and pollution caused by domestic and industrial sewage. According to UNESCO, mangroves are disappearing at a rate that is three to five times faster than overall losses of global forest cover in the face of infrastructure development, urbanisation and agricultural land conversion. According to its current estimates, mangrove coverage has shrunk by half in the last 40 years. Less than 1% of tropical forests are mangroves, such is its rarity, according to UNESCO.
Sundarbans apart, India is home to several other swathes of mangrove cover, including the Godavari-Krishna Mangroves, Bhitarkanika Mangrove Wetland, Baratang Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and the Pichavaram Mangrove Forest in Chidambaram. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Pichavaram Mangrove Forest protected several hamlets in Tamil Nadu, by preventing the seawater from entering the villages and minimising loss of property. Rows of mangroves near the sea reduced the impact of the tsunami by reducing the velocity and volume of the tsunami water.
According to central government data, India’s total mangrove cover was estimated at 6,740 sq km in 1987. It had shrunk to 4,662.56 sq km, according to 2011 data from the Forest Survey of India, Dehra Dun. Since then, however, there has been a turnaround with the mangrove cover increasing to 4,975 sq km at the end of 2019, according to a Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change report.
On its part, UNESCO has also undertaken several initiatives to support the conservation of mangroves. While inclusion of mangrove forests in the list of Biosphere Reserves, UNESCO Global Geoparks, and World Heritage sites have improved management and conservation, the decline still hasn’t been arrested fully. UNESCO also celebrates International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem on July 26 with the aim of raising awareness about mangrove ecosystems and to promote their sustainable management and conservation.
Whether its efforts pay off or not, the importance of mangrove forests cannot be overestimated. Mangrove forests have acted as natural barriers from natural disasters for centuries, and their conservation can only bring a positive effect as climate change continues to take hold.