We may not have the advanced technology or science to keep the tsunamis and cyclones at bay, but as it turns out we may not need them.
Experts at a press conference on Tuesday said that while the changing world climate has put Pakistan, among other coastline countries, at higher risk of natural disasters, mangroves are a great defence. The press conference was held at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) centre in Karachi to address concerns that have been voiced in the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan.
IUCN Country Representative Shah Murad Aliani said that mangroves act as carbon sinks because their root systems and biomass can store hundreds of tons of carbon per hectare. In the case of a tsunami, in which water does not only come from above but also from under the earth, the roots of mangroves act as a blockade. Their extensive aboveground root systems also hold back the ocean and reduce wave force by 90 per cent or more, protecting against typhoons and flooding.
IUCN’s Regional Director for Asia Aban Marker Kabraji said that this year’s tsunami helped to prove how useful coastal greenbelts can be. The 200- to 300-metre wide coastal forest in Japan successfully buffered most of the waves. Since the city had been planned such that most of the population and the financial centres were away from the coast, countless lives were saved. This would also help with its recovery, she said.
She said that it is to our advantage that Pakistan’s coastline is not as densely populated as Japan’s and that we have the natural shield of mangroves. “While mangroves don’t prevent natural disasters, they are the cheapest and most sustainable solution to mitigate destruction.”
However, this is where the good news ends. Our all important mangrove reserves are being cut every day, leaving our shores a lot less green and a lot more exposed.
IUCN Coordinator Natural Resource Management Rafiul Haq said that until 1950, mangroves along Pakistan’s coastline spanned 600,000 hectares. They have now been reduced to 86,000 hectares, even though some efforts to replant have been undertaken. Kabraji said that Pakistan has a 1,067 kilometre-long stretch of coastline, which is mostly barren and so, vulnerable to natural disasters such as tsunamis and cyclones.
In 1945, the Balochistan coast was hit by a massive tsunami, in which 5,000 people were killed. “There were reports of 30-foot-high waves, comparable to those that hit Japan. If it were to hit Karachi today, we can only imagine the destruction.”
Pakistan might not have been hit by a major sea disaster since then but it does have a history of cyclones in the Indus Delta and along the coast of Sindh and Balochistan. In 1999, Sindh’s coast was hit by a cyclone and in 2010, Cyclone Phet ended up splashing havoc all over Gwadar and Keti Bunder.
Kabraji suggested that mangrove strips up to an ideal one mile can act as setback zones along the coast of Sindh and Balochistan and can go a long way in making the first line of natural defence against climate change. The experts said that in light of these threats, Pakistan became a member of the Mangroves for Future programme that was launched in the aftermath of Japan’s 2004 tsunami.
In December 2006, former US president Bill Clinton started a partnership-led initiative to promote investment in coastal ecosystems founded on a vision for ‘a more healthy, prosperous and secure future for all Indian Ocean coastal communities’. The main objectives are to strengthen the environmental sustainability of coastal development and to promote the investment of funds and efforts in coastal ecosystem management.
It initially focused on the countries worst-affected by the tsunami, including India, Indonesia, Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Pakistan and Vietnam were later added with an overall aim to promote an integrated approach.
IUCN expert Ghulam Qadir Shah said that the IUCN Pakistan, along with the Sindh forest department, is starting an ambitious mangrove plantation project in June this year. Over 100,000 hectares of mangroves would be planted over a period of five years. This initiative is just the beginning. A more concentrated effort is needed to introduce greenbelts, mobilise the community, raise awareness and provide expertise and training in nurturing this national asset.
More mangroves would mean effective natural defense against natural calamities.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 23rd, 2011.