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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mangroves and the Hungry Tide

Their roots provide habitat for young shrimp and crabs; their leaves are food for the manatee. In the branches of Florida Everglades mangroves, roseate spoonbills find a nesting spot, while the mangroves of the Sundarbans forest in West Bengal and Bangladesh support the masked finfoot.

Roseate spoonbill with young. Photo from the National Park Service.

Mangroves in Sri Lanka helped to buffer coastal villages from the ravages of 2004's tsunami. In Myanmar's Irawaddy Delta, the mangroves have fallen to loggers, and over eroded shores where they once grew, the storm surges of Cyclone Nargis raged unchecked.

Recent studies have underscored the importance of mangroves in maintaining the vitality of estuarine ecosystems and protecting humans from extreme weather patterns. At Mongabay.com, a recent article describes the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis:
"Four days after the disaster Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), spoke about the mangrove-effect in Irrawaddy. As reported by the AFP news, Pitsuwan said that increased population in the delta led to 'encroachment into the mangrove forests which used to serve as buffer between the rising tide, between big waves and storms and the residential areas... All those lands have been destroyed. Human beings are now direct victims of such natural forces.'"

Dr Deborah Brosnan, president and founder of the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, warns that all river deltas and their human populations are especially vulnerable to intensified weather patterns due to climate change.

Sundarbans mangrove swamp. Satellite photo from NASA Earth Observatory.

In the Sundarbans region, impenetrable mangrove swamp and invincible Royal Bengal tiger have managed so far to protect one another from human destruction. Writes Caroline Alexander in The New Yorker magazine,
"Washed by powerful, twice-daily tides flowing from the Bay of Bengal, and regularly buffeted by cyclones, the Sundarbans has always been unstable, its low landmasses constantly being eroded, silted, and reconfigured. Upstream pollution, from Calcutta; increasing salinity, caused by naturally occurring displacement of freshwater sources; and depredation of the forest by villagers cutting wood are long-standing threats. Still, the Sundarbans remains 'intact,' thanks partly to stringent conservation measures and to its inaccessibility, and partly to the Sundarbans tiger, whose presence insures that the forest is too dangerous to enter casually. 'Without the tiger, we would have no forest,' I was told by villagers, fishermen, wood collectors, honey gatherers—by all who cautiously skirt the forest." (Read more at New Yorker online)

Royal Bengal tiger. Photo from Bergoiata.org.

However, threats to the Sundarbans and other world mangrove forests are multiplying to include new issues, from overharvesting of shrimp to accelerated climate change. Mangrove forests enjoying fewer environmental regulations, such those in as Indonesia or Mexico, stand a still greater risk, as reported in an Environmental News Service article quoting a UN report.

Here is an interview at Grist.org with Alfredo Quarto, director of the Mangrove Action Project, on initiatives to preserve and restore these intricate, beautiful ecosystems.

The Hungry Tide is a compelling novel by Amitav Ghosh about the Sundarbans, its people and environment, and the turbulence which characterizes both its political history and its continuing ecological balance.


  1. Gorgeous photos...interesting content...and you live in Amsterdam? One of my favorite cities to visit. Lucky you!

  2. Thanks, P.Price! Glad you stopped by and enjoyed the site; please do visit again. Amsterdam is indeed nice, especially the bike paths.