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Nithin Coca headshot

Why Sri Lanka's Historic Mangroves Move Matters


Huge news for the environment: Sri Lanka's new government just took the unprecedented, historic step to protect all of its mangroves. The move, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, will provide long-term environmental, social and, last but not least, economic benefits to the Indian Ocean island nation, and provide a model for other vulnerable tropical nations to follow.

The importance of mangroves

Mangroves, which thrive in the mixture of sea and freshwater along coastlines, help maintain sea levels and hold back storm surges, forming a wall against flooding.  The hearty, shore-hugging plants encompass some of the world's most spectacular biodiversity and form a powerful natural barrier, keeping our water clean, our beaches strong and tempering the power of tropical cyclones.

The past decades have seen a massive reductions in global mangrove forests, mostly due to the expansion of shrimp farming, coastal shipping and erosion caused by development. The problem is that we need mangroves now, more than ever.

One big reason – climate change. Across the tropics, where most mangroves are located, temperature rise in the coming years will potentially cause the rainy season to shrink, leading to shorter but more substantial downpours, while the dry season will become longer and more desiccant. In fact, in Asia, the seasonal monsoon's onset may be delayed by as much as 30 days. This means harder soils with less absorptive capacity, and greater runoff, leading to higher and more frequent flood risk.

Another risk is sea-water intrusion due to higher sea levels, which can harm freshwater supplies and pollute groundwater. We all know how important water is to livelihood – the historic California drought is only making this more relevant than ever. Mangroves, with their numerous beneficial ecological services, can help protect our water supplies and build resilience to the effects of climate change.

Building resilience

Businesses can play a role in helping rebuild mangroves – in fact, many are. In Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and where I was based the past year, has a mangrove restoration project along the coastline near the city's airport -- an attempt to protect the mega-city, which is seeing increased flooding due to rising sea-levels and from the encroaching ocean.

The plantation is a beautiful, serene spot in the often polluted city. Rows of carefully plotted and maintained mangroves fill a swampy wetland: small but efficient. Each Mangrove is planted as the result of a donation, cared for by a nonprofit that runs the center. They also work to educate local children about the benefits of nature and the environment.

The money to run this project comes mostly from businesses – including corporations like Danone and Citibank. The benefits mangroves provide – cleaner water, less pollution and reduced flood risk – benefit the entire society and, more often than not, the company's bottom line too. Danone, for one, is Indonesia's largest provider of bottled water – and it definitely doesn't want saltwater or pollution to damage its business.

Here's to hoping that the Jakarta mangrove project continues to grow, that companies expand their support or corporate responsibility projects to protect and rebuild mangroves, and that Sri Lanka's move is the first of many more. Mangroves are just one piece of the solution to our global climate challenge, but they are one that everyone can get behind.

Image credit: Anton Bielousov

Nithin Coca headshotNithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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