Mangroves and coastal security

Photos by Aaron Becker

The best cyclone defence: mangroves

The disaster of Cyclone Nargis in Burma’s Irrawaddy delta, which may have cost 100,000 lives, has its origin in the clearance of thousands of square kilometres of fresh-water swamp, forest and mangroves in favour of rice plantations, which was encouraged by the British colonial administration and continued after independence. Remaining mangroves in the area are sparse and quite unable to resist the winds and storm surges of a severe cyclone.

Compare the impact of last November’s Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh. This was stronger than Nargis, with a storm-surge at least twice as deep, yet it killed far fewer (some 4,000 people) and did far less damage. Sidr made its landfall in the Sundarbans, a 6,000 sq km area of mangrove that has been preserved for over a century. This protection was first put in place under the British administration, but it has been maintained by the Bangladesh Forest Department.

These mangroves sustain millions of fisherfolk (as well as the world’s largest tiger population), and in the case of Cyclone Sidr they absorbed enough of the storm’s energy to make it relatively harmless.

As global warming provokes ever more violent storms, the time has come to help Burma reverse the destruction of its mangroves. These forests can be replanted, and once re-established can maintain astonishing levels of fish and prawn production, while providing security for people who live and farm further inland.

This kind of ecological reconstruction is going to be needed all over the place, as we humans try to restore the world to a condition in which it can sustain us permanently. Given Britain’s role in deciding the different fates of these Asian mangrove forests, we should be taking an urgent lead in putting these particular pieces back together again.

Julian Caldecott, published in The Independent, 9 May 2008.