Burma, Mangrove Forests, and the 2008 Cyclone

Do you eat shrimp imported from Asia? Do you vacation there?
“… large-scale conversion of mangroves into
shrimp and fish farms were among the main
destructive drivers.

“Other pressures included new development to
accommodate the growth in the tourism sector and
rising populations.”


Published: 2008/05/06 17:30:25 GMT

Mangrove loss ‘left Burma exposed’
By Mark Kinver
Science and nature reporter, BBC News

Destruction of mangrove forests in Burma left
coastal areas exposed to the devastating force of
the weekend’s cyclone, a top politician suggests.

ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said
coastal developments had resulted in mangroves,
which act as a natural defence against storms,
being lost.

At least 22,000 people have died in the disaster, say state officials.

A study of the 2004 Asian tsunami found that
areas near healthy mangroves suffered less damage
and fewer deaths.

Mr Surin, speaking at a high-level meeting of the
Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN)
in Singapore, said the combination of more people
living in coastal areas and the loss of mangroves
had exacerbated the tragedy.

Mangroves are salt-tolerant evergreens that grow
along coastlines, rivers and deltas
Found in more than 120 tropical and subtropical nations
The plants’ root systems have been shown to dissipate wave energy

“Encroachment into mangrove forests, which used
to serve as a buffer between the rising tide,
between big waves and storms and residential
areas; all those lands have been destroyed,” the
AFP news agency reported him as saying.

“Human beings are now direct victims of such natural forces.”

His comments follow a news conference by Burma’s
minister for relief and resettlement, Maung Maung
Swe, who said more deaths were caused by the
cyclone’s storm surge rather than the winds which
reached 190km/h (120mph).

“The wave was up to 12ft (3.5m) high and it swept
away and inundated half the houses in low-lying
villages,” the minister said. “They did not have
anywhere to flee.”

Storm shelter

Mangroves have been long considered as “bio-guards” for coastal settlements.

A study published in December 2005 said healthy
mangrove forests helped save Sri Lankan villagers
during the Asian tsunami disaster, which claimed
the lives of more than 200,000 people.

Researchers from IUCN, formerly known as the
World Conservation Union, compared the death toll
from two villages in Sri Lanka that were hit by
the devastating giant waves.

While two people died in the settlement with
dense mangrove and scrub forest, up to 6,000
people lost their lives in a nearby village
without similar vegetation.

“Mangroves are a very dense vegetation type that
grows along the shore,” explained Jeffrey
McNeely, chief scientist for IUCN.

“Where the saltwater and freshwater meet, that is
where the mangroves grow; they often extend from
several hundred metres to a few kilometers inland.

“Especially in river deltas, mangroves prevent
waves from damaging the more productive land that
are further inland from the sea.”

Lowering defences

A recent global assessment found that 3.6 million
hectares of mangrove forests had disappeared
since 1980.

The study carried out by the UN Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that Asia had
suffered the greatest loss, with 1.9 million
hectares being destroyed, primarily as a result
of land use change.

It found that large-scale conversion of mangroves
into shrimp and fish farms were among the main
destructive drivers.

Other pressures included new development to
accommodate the growth in the tourism sector and
rising populations.

Mette Wilkie, a senior forestry officer for the
FAO, said most of the mangroves in Burma had
suffered as a result of being overexploited.

“There are very limited areas that you would
describe as pristine or densely covered mangrove
in the Irrawaddy area,” she said, referring to
the region of Burma where Cyclone Nagris first
made landfall.

“There are some efforts in place to try to
rehabilitate and replant mangroves, but we do
know that the loss rate is quite substantial

“During the 1990s, they lost something like 2,000
hectares each year, which is about 0.3% being
lost annually.

“But that does not give you the whole picture
because the majority of these tidal habitats are
being degraded, even if they are not being
completely destroyed.”

Growing awareness

However, the global picture is not entirely
bleak. The FAO assessment showed that the annual
rate of destruction had slowed from 187,000
hectares during the 1980s to 102,000 hectares
during the early 2000s.

Some nations, such as Bangladesh, had actually
increased mangrove cover, the FAO reported.

The role mangroves can play in reducing the
devastation caused by extreme weather events was
among the reasons behind Bangladesh’s decision to
protect one of the world’s largest examples of
the coastal habitat.

The Sundarbans, located in the delta of the
Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, contain about
100,000 hectares of mangrove forest habitat.

“This has been allowed to grow, or in part at
least, because Bangladesh was really hammered by
a typhoon that killed something like 300,000
people a couple of decades ago,” Dr McNeely said.

“They realised that if they did not have that
mangrove buffer, another typhoon heading up the
Bay of Bengal would cause even worse damage
because the population is even more dense than it
was then.”



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