Mangrove forests not only protect coastal communities from natural disasters, but also provide shelter to the marine life which earns them a living. A decade ago, their dwindling numbers spelled disaster. Now, however, signs are more encouraging.
Efforts to conserve of one of the largest arid climate mangrove forests in the world has borne fruit and the cover of the Indus delta has expanded to 220,000 hectares.
The Sindh Forest Department claims over hundred per cent growth in the Indus deltaic mangroves over the last 10 years. It adds strategies are being implemented to expand the mangrove plantation to more than 260,000 hectares.
The Indus delta mangrove forests are an important ecosystem in the coastal deltaic region formed by the River Indus. The forest is, almost entirely, dependent on freshwater discharges from the river and a small quantity of freshwater from domestic and industrial effluents of Karachi.
Sindh Forests, Mangrove and Rangelands Chief Conservator Riaz Wagan says the mangrove forest was measured at 107,000 hectares in 2009/10. "In 2020, this has expanded significantly to 220,000 hectares along the area extending from Korangi Creek to Kajar Creek.
He reveals that the plantation of 10,000 more saplings has started in the month of May as part of an annual plantation activity along the coastal belt. "This will continue till October 2021," he says.
The chief conservator continues that by the year 2023, 30,000 more saplings will be planted to achieve the target of 260,000 hectares - the level of mangrove forestation in the 1980s. "The covered area of mangroves forests decreased over the last two decades of the previous century," he says.
The official continues that lack of freshwater flow in the Indus deltaic region, soil erosion due to sea intrusion, pollution, unregulated cutting and reckless utilisation of mangrove trees are also major factors contributing to deforestation.
According to Flora of Pakistan, eight species of plants have been identified along the coast of Pakistan, out of which four have completely disappeared. Meanwhile, three species are on the verge of extinction and only Avicenna Marina is surviving in the Indus delta. At present, out of the four mangrove species found in the Indus delta, Avicenna Marina makes up 90 % of total mangrove forests.
A Handbook on Pakistan's Coastal and Marine Resources was published by Mangroves for the Future - a joint initiative of stakeholders including the ministry of climate change and forest department. It notes that an area of 344,846 hectares, comprising varying densities of mangroves, mud flats and water channels, was declared as protected forests in 1958.
It was placed under the management and control of the Sindh Forest Department. However, the marked area has reduced significantly. A 1985 assessment by the Sindh Forest Department, using Landsat data and ecological surveys, revealed an area of 280,470 hectares under mangroves. In 2003, SUPARCO said the total mangrove cover reduced to 86,728 hectares, while other figures from 2005 outlined a further decline to 85,000 hectares - the lowest on record.
It is estimated that 90% commercially important tropical marine species, especially prawns, spend at least some part of their life in the mangroves. IUCN had warned in 1998 that If mangroves deplete, up to 250,000 tonnes of fish caught off the Sindh Coast will be at risk.
The economic importance of mangroves of Indus delta can be measured from the fact that they provide important breeding zones for fish, shrimps, lobsters and crabs. This helps the national economy earn foreign exchange of around US$100 million annually from exports, besides providing employment and a livelihood to more than 100,000 people associated with the fishing industry.
Riaz Wagan says the Forest department has adopted a strategy to engage local communities. He adds a significant majority of local residents have started cooperating with government agencies after observing the benefits of mangrove rehabilitation. He says the participation of local communities is vital for the conservation and rehabilitation of mangrove forests.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 4th, 2021.