Conserving Mangroves and Scaling up Climate & Economic Resilience in Sri Lanka

February 16, 2023

Sri Lanka has a wealth of biodiversity, and its mangrove ecosystem remains one of its most productive and unique assets. Growing at the border between land and sea mangrove trees anchor themselves along the shoreline providing protection and resilience to coastal and marine ecosystems and people dependent on them. The country has over twenty species of true mangroves and represents over a third of the global mangrove species. Data related to mangrove habitats in the country indicates the country’s mangrove ecosystem to be spread across over 19,000 hectares along the coast. However, the number is halved compared to that from two decades ago which indicates the need for conserving this important ecosystem, that presents diverse benefits that are environmental, climatic and economic.  

Benefits of mangroves

Mangroves are natural protectors of the coastline. Their roots filter the water, prevent erosion of the coastline and salt water intrusion. They also play a key role in climate control and protecting the habitats of many species. Mangrove ecosystems are high in its genetic diversity, and consists of over 3,000 species of fish who considers the ecosystem their home which use the mangroves as sheltered hatcheries and nurseries. Mangroves are equally important for birds  and play a key role in the migration patterns. Apart from the fish and birds, mangroves are also habitats to many other species such as fishing cats, monitor lizards, crabs and snakes. 

Due to their contribution to climate controlling, mangroves are also considered the blue lungs of the planet. They store carbon and help mitigate carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, which amounts to several times the amount of carbon than tropical rainforests. It would not be wrong to say that without mangrove ecosystems, there would be a reasonably higher number of greenhouse gas emissions which will be remaining in the atmosphere and further accelerate global warming.

Further, the mangroves also help people sustain and generate livelihoods. These include different forms of support for sustaining life through the provision of materials such as timber and fiber, as well as contributing to different livelihoods where materials such as corks, tannins, gums, as well as cosmetics, and materials for wetland handicraft are produced. In addition to these benefits, the mangroves also provide ingredients for medicine.

Other key sectors supported by the mangrove ecosystems are the fisheries and tourism industries. This includes mangroves’ contribution to preserving fish stocks and creating a habitat for the fish in the ecosystem, and providing opportunities for the tourism industry by supporting eco-tourism where mangroves remain a key attraction. Such benefits to economic empowerment of the country could be considered as measures to be integrated into efforts relevant to sustainable development and economic empowerment through environmental conservation. This includes building on existing efforts as well as introducing new avenues for generating revenue through efforts interlinked with environmental conservation and climate action focused on building resilience of both people and the biodiversity guiding and supporting existing to innovative action in tourism and other related sectors. 

Threats to mangrove ecosystems

Among the key threats to the mangrove ecosystems are human interventions which has resulted in contributing to the reduction of the ecosystem. While in some cases the ecosystem is over exploited for extracting their benefits, in other cases the ecosystem is destroyed or removed for diverse purposes which includes setting up different livelihoods such as shrimp farms, building houses, roads.

The mangroves are also affected by the different actions that cause pollution to the environment. Large amounts of pollution caused by mismanagement of waste, including dumping of waste into the waters around mangrove ecosystems have made some mangrove ecosystems to become polythene covered area, where the biodiversity is threatened. Additionally, oil spills and other industrial and transport activities which release oil and other pollutants to the waters also constitute threats to these ecosystems. 

Among other factors that threaten the mangroves are climate impacts such as sea level rise. While mangroves provide protection to the coastline from diverse threats, they are vulnerable to sea level rises and extreme events which create threats to their survival. In addition to sea level rise, other events that have become more frequent and intense such as rapid climatic changes caused by global warming form additional threats to the ecosystem. The pace of the changes potentially not allowing the mangroves to adapt to the changing climate and making them vulnerable to these factors which harm their ecosystems. 

In addition to these, in some areas grazing livestock also forms a threat to mangroves in the country.  At their early growth, mangroves are sensitive to disruptions such as this, as well as animal movement such as that of livestock and grazing leading to reducing their growth and forming additional threats the ecosystem.  

Conserving mangroves

To ensure that the mangrove ecosystem is protected, it is important that the awareness on its benefit is well known by the public, which will support and lead to collective action that is needed to protect them. To scale up the growth of mangroves, and restore them in the areas which have been exploited due to diverse reasons, actions such as assisted natural growth, rehabilitation, conservation, gap filling could be implemented. However, it is important that these actions are taken based on biodiversity assessments and taking into consideration the enabling environment including the stakeholders who could contribute to supporting the efforts. Such planning would lead to processes are inclusive and participatory, and help minimise adverse impacts to those dependent on the ecosystem. 

It is equally important that activities of conservation consider environmental, social and economic impacts of the activities. Through these efforts communities could be considered as champions of conservation and engaged in the activities rather than be considered a threat. Through increased awareness and capacity  building, identified trainings interlinked to economic benefits that are sustainable and environmentally friendly, communities could become guardians of these ecosystems. 

Additionally, conservation and restoration that is multi-stakeholder driven where partnerships are build amongst different stakeholders could provide avenues to scale up actions, and ensure that livelihoods are supported, and a just transition is the economic aspects interlinked to the utlisation of resources from the ecosystem. This includes building public-private partnerships, community-led initiatives, youth and community capacity building to play key roles in the conservation efforts, as well as efforts to generate innovative and local solutions to addressing threats to the ecosystems. 

It is also essential that laws and processes that are aimed at protecting the mangroves are strengthened in their implementation with the supported needed for their effective and efficient implementation being provided. This could facilitate creating deterrence for those who would be violating them and harming the ecosystem and help in conserving the mangrove areas from being acquired and utilized in harmful ways. Further, the newly adopted policy on mangroves in Sri Lanka consists of different aspects that relate to conservation and restoration, as well as engagement of communities in these processes. It would be important that stakeholders are made aware of the policy and key aspects of its implementation with guidance on how the policy contributes to achieving sustainable development in the country through key actions that aim to protect and conserve the mangroves of the country. 

Another important aspect of mangrove conservation and protection is the continued monitoring and evaluation to extract the maximum benefits of the efforts that aim to conserve the ecosystem. This could be further supported through sharing of lessons learnt to guide future actions by different stakeholders.

As we celebrate the World Mangrove Day this week, it is important for us to support efforts that related to mangrove conservation, and ensure that they are inclusive and participatory and based on planned activities contributing to scaled up impact with the engagement of multiple stakeholders and partnerships which could contribute to holistic efforts in implementing, leading to scaled up impacts that lead to building environmental, climate, social and economic resilience in Sri Lanka. 

Note: This article has been published on The Morning as part of the author’s weekly column.

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About the Author
Vositha Wijenayake

Vositha is an attorney-at-law specialising in public international law, with a focus on international environmental law, UN human rights law, refugee law and EU law. She has over a decade of experience in working on climate change, at national and international level. Vositha is a member of the national expert committee on climate change adaptation of the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, national expert on vulnerability and adaptation measures for the Third National Communication of Sri Lanka to the UNFCCC for the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, and is a delegate focusing on compliance, adaptation, loss and damage, and gender for the Sri Lankan delegation to the UNFCCC since 2016. She is also a consultant to the UNFCCC national adaptation plans and policy unit, and worked as a country support consultant to the UNDP NAP Global Support Programme. Vositha has an LLM in public international law from University College London, and an LLB from University of London. ‍