- Around the world, mangrove forests have undergone a decades-long decline that is just now slowing to a halt.
- In Pakistan, by contrast, mangroves expanded nearly threefold between 1986 and 2020, according to a 2022 analysis of satellite data.
- Experts attribute this success to massive mangrove planting and conservation, as well as concerted community engagement.
- Many in Pakistan are looking to mangroves to bolster precious fish stocks and defend against the mounting effects of climate change — even as threats to mangroves, such as wood harvesting and camel grazing, continue with no end in sight.
KARACHI — His sandaled feet drenched in black mud, Rashid Rasheed points to one of the mangrove nurseries he’s been looking after for the past few years. With wooden walls topped by green netting, a dozen nurseries shelter thousands of saplings.
Rasheed, a researcher and nursery expert with the government of Balochistan province in Pakistan, has been leading a drive to establish nurseries in the coastal town of Dam. The goal is to expand and enhance the town’s scattered patches of natural mangrove forest, which have shriveled due to human activities.
“These nurseries have 50,000 saplings that are ready to be transported to the creeks for planting” Rasheed tells Mongabay.
Rasheed’s work is part of a five-year project initiated in 2019 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ South China Sea Institute of Oceanography that has planted mangroves on 16 hectares (40 acres) at Dam, and at other sites in Balochistan and neighboring Sindh province.
It’s one of many projects aiming to restore Pakistan’s mangroves. These semiaquatic trees offer a host of benefits, such as protecting coasts against storms and rising sea levels, providing habitat for fish, birds, and other wildlife, sequestering carbon better than most other ecosystems on Earth, and sustaining the livelihoods of some 120 million people globally, according to the IUCN.
Around the world, mangrove forests have undergone a decades-long decline that’s just now slowing to a halt. But Pakistan bucks this trend. The country’s mangroves expanded from 48,331 hectares in 1986 to 143,930 hectares in 2020 (119,430 to 355,659 acres), a nearly threefold increase, according to a 2022 analysis of satellite data. “It is because of the constant endeavor by government and NGOs,” the analysis states, citing restoration, research, and awareness-raising campaigns “now being religiously carried out to conserve and regrow mangroves” by local, national and foreign bodies. Fishing communities, who depend on mangroves for fuel, shelter and as fish nurseries, are often key to the success of Pakistan’s mangrove restoration, providing the labor for planting and protection.
Many in Pakistan are looking to mangroves to bolster precious fish stocks and defend against the effects of climate change — even as threats to mangroves, such as wood harvesting and camel grazing, continue with no end in sight.
Pakistan’s regreening fringe
About three-quarters of Pakistan’s 1,050-kilometer (652-mile) coastline lies in Balochistan province, where the remaining mangrove trees stand in dispersed patches. The rest of the coast lies in Sindh province, where more than 90% of the country’s mangroves live. There, the Indus Delta stretches over 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres), an intertidal wetland home to the world’s seventh-largest mangrove forest, which supports the livelihoods of at least 100,000 people in fisheries.
However, many people in the once-prosperous delta have been forced to leave in recent decades, as damming and diversions of the Indus River, compounded by sea level rise, have led to the sea encroaching, freshwater becoming scarce, and farmland turning saline. Pakistan’s alarming vulnerability to climate change is well documented. The devastating mega floods in 2022 — made 75% more intense by climate change, according to scientists — killed at least 1,700 people, displaced 8 million, and inflicted losses of $30 billion.
To cope with these and other environmental disasters, national and provincial governments under various ruling parties have carried out massive tree-planting projects to enhance terrestrial forest cover since 2008. Among these at the national level, the ongoing Ten Billion Tree Tsunami, initiated in 2018 by then-prime minister Imran Khan, includes restoring mangroves. The Sindh provincial government has undertaken various efforts to increase mangrove forests, its Forest Department having established a mangrove conservation wing in 1990.
In one of the more market-oriented initiatives, in 2015 the Sindh Forest Department entered a 60-year public-private partnership with U.K-based blue-carbon developer Indus Delta Capital that aims to restore and protect 225,000 hectares (556,000 acres) of mangroves and improve the livelihoods and well-being of 42,000 people living among them. The project had planted nearly 74,000 hectares (183,000 acres) of mangroves by the end of 2021, project documents state, and its first two carbon credit auctions generated revenues worth $40 million, according to media reports.
In recent years, as the effects of climate change have begun to devastate Pakistan, such restoration projects have been supported by more overarching policies aiming to protect ecosystems and enhance climate resilience. These include the country’s National Adaptation Plan, released in August, its Protected Areas Initiative and Ecosystem Restoration Initiative, as well as its Living Indus Project, launched in 2022 to make the Indus Basin climate-resilient by centering wetland restoration. The government has also been proactive in protecting mangroves, such as declaring the Indus Delta region a protected area in 2010.
Keys to survival
“The wetland restoration efforts demonstrate Pakistan’s commitment to environmental conservation and sustainable development,” Bilquees Gul, co-founder and former director of the Institute of Sustainable Halophyte Utilization at the University of Karachi, tells Mongabay. “The success of these initiatives is evident in the increased coverage of mangrove forests in Pakistan and the improved health of these ecosystems.”
Globally, large-scale tree plantings and carbon-credit projects, including ones in Pakistan, have come under increased scrutiny. Mangrove planting in particular is often frustrated by low survival rates. A 2015 literature review that included 54 studies of mangrove restoration projects globally found that the median rate of mangrove survival in “developing” countries, as assessed usually only a year or two after restoration, was 44.7%.
Pervaiz Amir, a water expert and steering committee member of the Global Water Partnership in Pakistan, said Pakistan’s mangrove plantation survival rate is initially right in line, at 40% to 45%, but it increases with restocking.
“By restocking … we mean gap filling and planting more trees where saplings did not germinate or [were] destroyed for one or another reason,” Amir says. Including restocking, Gul puts the survival rate over the last two years at 90%.
Community engagement is another key, experts say, especially finding ways for people to benefit from the mangroves.
“Community members have been benefiting from our massive plantation drives” in Sindh, Shehzad Sadiq Gill, a divisional forest officer with the Sindh Forest Department, tells Mongabay. “We hire them in developing mangrove nurseries, and they are paid wages for transporting the saplings from nurseries to the [planting] site.”
In Ibrahim Hyderi, a fishing village in Pakistan’s capital, Karachi, just northwest of the Indus River Delta, the port was teeming with fishing boats when Mongabay visited in August. Four forest guards in khaki uniforms stood ready to set sail with their boss, range forest officer Zeeshan Ali Chang, to patrol natural and restored areas of the local mangrove forest. The guards are community members hired by the Sindh Forest Department during restoration initiatives.
The goal is to protect both the mangrove and the community’s interests from illegal woodcutters and camel grazers, Chang says. After engagement with the community, the Sindh Forest Department designated certain patches of mangrove for grazing, while instituting penalties for those who go beyond. “These people have been living here for generations and have been dependent on the mangroves for livelihood,” Chang says.
Another crucial boon the mangroves provide local people: fish. Akbar, a young fisherman in Ibrahim Hyderi who doesn’t give a surname, says he values the mangrove forests as nurseries for many varieties of fish and shrimp. He says he believes fish catches are good because of the mangrove forests, which he calls timar trees in the local Sindhi language.
“These timar trees are the lifeline for the fishing community,” Akbar says. “We have fishes, shrimps and crabs, which are a source of our livelihood. These are in abundance where timars are present.”
Threats to the mangroves
Despite the successes, numerous forces are pushing back against the expansion of Pakistan’s mangroves. The country is under a major economic and energy crisis, and households and businesses are turning to wood as fuel. Half of the population has no access to clean fuel for cooking and, according to one estimate, around 68% uses firewood. Mangroves remain under constant threat from woodcutters, both individuals and syndicates. There’s little data tracking such losses, but anecdotal observations suggest they’re significant.
Tariq Alexander Qaiser, an architect and environmentalist who’s been working to conserve the mangrove forest on Bundal Island off Karachi, tells Mongabay deforestation on the island is increasing, both for local household use and commercial sale.
“First, the trees are chopped off and left to dry,” Qaiser says. “Later on, the wood is loaded on boats, giving an impression that they [woodcutters] are taking ‘dead’ wood.”
Livestock grazing, especially by camels, raised for meat, milk and transportation, is a major threat to recently planted saplings and mature forests alike, in many parts of Sindh and Balochistan.
Pollution poses yet another risk. Solid waste, like the floating single-use plastic bags surrounding the dinghies at Ibrahim Hyderi, can block waterflow to mangroves or break their roots and branches, stunting or killing them. Untreated sewage, which can acidify local waters, slows mangrove growth, according to Mehran Ali Shah, chair of the Pakistan FisherFolk Forum, a Karachi-based civil society organization that advocates for fishing and agricultural communities.
“This ocean acidification … is rising because of untreated waste released into the ocean, and seashores have been turned into dumping yards in Karachi,” Shah tells Mongabay. “There are no treatment plants installed here.”
And then there are hydrological factors, including the impeded flow of freshwater into the Indus Delta due to upstream dams and barrages, compounded by rising sea levels. The result is reduced silt reaching the delta and elevated salinity, both of which slow mangrove growth and push many fish species away, Shah says.
For his part, Qaiser blames the altered hydrology for diminishing mangrove diversity. “After its inception, Pakistan had eight species of mangroves, but of eight species, four have vanished and … two are on the brink of vanishing. This is just because of the impeded flow of [fresh]water into the Indus Delta,” Qaiser says.
These problems go far beyond mangroves: The National Adaptation Plan notes that rising saltwater intrusion into the Indus Delta is increasing salinity inland, reducing freshwater supplies and arable land, and sending residents to live in Karachi. There, resources are already strained, it says, and while some areas of the city are already submerged due to rising sea levels, many more will follow in the next 35 to 45 years. The plan promotes mangrove restoration to help address these issues.
“Stress on mangrove forests comes from multiple factors, such as chopping down of trees either by mafias or by the local community for fuel,” Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, an independent expert on climate change and development, tells Mongabay. “Sea, however, is a grave issue which is taking its toll on not only [the Indus] Delta but poses a threat to the agriculture of the area.”
A look into the future
Despite the challenges, the Sindh Forest Department is doubling down on mangrove restoration. According to Gill, citing the department’s own numbers, the province’s mangrove cover had shrunk to 80,000 hectares (198,000 acres) by 1990, when it established its mangrove conservation wing. Under the recovery program, mangroves have since expanded to 240,000 hectares (593,000 acres), and the goal is to get them up to 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) in the future.
“Indeed, this is a challenging task to complete, but we believe we can achieve this given our restoration track record,” Gill says.
Banner image: Workers at a mangrove nursery in Dam, a coastal town in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Image by Ayaz Khan for Mongabay.
Ayaz Khan is a researcher and journalist based in Pakistan covering climate change Follow him on X: @Ayaz_Jurno.
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