If you live in the Coral Triangle, chances are that you’re not that far away from a clump of mangroves. That may not mean much to you. But the truth is that without these highly unusual trees along our coasts, life as we know it would be quite different.
Mangroves are to the sea what a Humvee car is to a desert storm--well adapted, tough, resilient. Located at the intersection of land and sea in tropical areas, these trees are equally comfortable submerged or exposed to the air.
The secret to their adaptation? A distinct ability to tolerate and get rid of excessive amounts of salt that would have killed any other tree. To do this, they rely on aerial and salt-filtering roots and salt-excreting leaves.
A priceless resource
The tangled network of roots that forms the submerged part of mangrove forests is home to a thriving ecosystem. 75% of all tropical commercial fish species spend part of their lives in mangroves, which are equal measure nursery grounds, shelter and food.
In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that hit Southeast Asia, the reputation of mangroves as coastal “walls” of defense against strong winds and waves has also grown. If you are a farmer or fisher living close to the sea, mangroves are a buffer against nature at its harshest, minimizing damage to property and losses of life from hurricanes and storms.
It is no exaggeration to say that mangroves can save lives. One village in Tamil Nadu, India, was protected from tsunami destruction by a kilometre-wide belt of trees planted by locals.
But there’s more.
Mangroves also prevent shoreline erosion, help stabilize land elevation, retain nutrients and filter sediments and pollutants. They mitigate floods and also sequester carbon dioxide, one of the major greenhouse gases.
Mangroves are also useful in treating effluent, as the plants absorb excess nitrates and phosphates, preventing contamination of nearshore waters. As for humans, for thousands of years we have relied on them for firewood, medicines, fibers and dyes.
Considering how much mangroves do for us, you would have thought we would go out of our way to keep them where they are.
The 2010 update of the World Mangrove Atlas (WMA) indicated a fifth of the world's mangrove ecosystems have been lost since 1980, with a major loss due to the growth of coastal aquaculture.
In coastal cities such as Jakarta, Indonesia, which is exposed to the threat of sea level rise and erosion, only a small pocket of mangrove forest remains as a result of new housing projects and roads.
Bringing back the mangroves
Thankfully, efforts are underway to protect mangroves. Here is one example. In the Tikina Wai district in Fiji, WWF has developed an eco-tour of mangroves to supplement the income of local people. These activities will help ensure the health of these coastal guardians and build future resilience against climate change.
Whether you are stuck in traffic or getting ready for bed, let your mind occasionally wander to mangroves and other ecosystems that surround us from afar, and to which we owe so much without realizing it.
Fancy “owning” a clump of mangroves? Then why not purchase a small plot of land or sea in the Coral Triangle and help WWF’s work in the process?