Mangroves in the Irrawaddy Delta Could Be Gone in a ‘Few Decades’

By Simon Lewis 4 December 2013

RANGOON — The mangrove forests of Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta have been devastated by deforestation, and could be completely wiped out in the next few decades if nothing is done to save them, according to a new study.

The report from researchers at the National University of Singapore, published in the journal Global Environmental Change and posted online Nov. 21, employed satellite imaging to record the steady decline of the Irrawaddy Delta’s mangrove forests from 1978 to 2011, and gave a pessimistic forecast for the forests’ future.

It is estimated that half the world’s mangrove forestshave been wiped out in the past six decades. Those remaining—largely in Southeast Asia, South America and Central America—are under increasing threat from deforestation.

Mangrove forests are an important habitat, a bulwark against coastal erosion and also help to minimize the effects of extreme weather events, such as the 2008 Cyclone Nargis that killed more than 130,000 people after making landfall in the Irrawaddy Delta.

The Irrawaddy Delta, also known as the Ayeyarwady Delta, hosts the country’s largest area of mangrove forests and providesfertile farmland and fisheries to the local population, estimated to be 7.7 million people.

“The Delta is also one of Myanmar’s key biodiversity areas, hosting some of the most floristically diverse mangroves in the world and more than 30 species of ‘endangered’ fauna,including the Ayeyarwady dolphin, estuarine crocodile, which numbers only [approximately] 100 individuals in the lower Ayeyarwady Delta, mangrove terrapin, sarus crane and numerous migratory bird species, including the critically endangered spoonbilled sandpiper,” the report said.

The researchers conducted field trips and analyzed satellite imagery, concluding that the size of the Delta’s mangrove forests shrank by 64.2 percent over the 33-year period, with much of the area now used by small-scale farmers to grow rice.

The report, titled “Deforestation in the Ayeyarwady Delta and the conservation implications of an internationally engaged Myanmar,” estimated that the area of the Irrawaddy Delta covered by mangrove forests totaled some 2,623 square kilometers in 1978, but that figure had declined to just 938  square km by 2011. An average of 51 square km, or more than 3 percent of the forest was lost every year over the period.

Only the small protected area of the Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary and a few islands have survived untouched, the study found.

Following Cyclone Nargis, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization stated that if there were more mangroves in the Irrawaddy Delta intact, they would likely have reduced the impact of the 3.5-meter-high storm surge that tore through the Delta.

The new research paper claimed that just before the cyclone, the forest cover in the Delta was down to 933 square km, and that it had been reduced to 918 square km by the following year.

“Extensive flooding occurred during Cyclone Nargis, and on-the-ground observations and permanent plots noted extensive damage to some mangrove species, particularly in low-lying sites or areas that had already been severely degraded owing to fuelwood harvest and conversion to rice paddies,” the report said. However, “some mangrove species were able to recover rapidly after the disturbance event,” it added.

Deforestation in the area has slowed since a rapid period of forest loss in the 1990s, but the report’s projections suggested that the remaining forest may not last long. Its most pessimistic forecast predicted the mangrove forest will be gone by 2019. At best, the report said, the forest will last until 2044.

“Business-as-usual deforestationscenarios suggest that most, if not all, of the unprotected Ayeyarwady mangroves will be lost in the next few decades at a ratefaster than other mangrove deforestation hotspots in the region, suchas the Mekong Delta from 1965–1995,” it said.

The authors of the report warned that economic reforms in Burma since 2011, and the concurrent increase in interest from overseas investors, presented a new set of problems for the mangrove forests in the Delta. They pointed to agro-industrial companies taking an interest in the land for large-scale plantations—replacing forests with sugar for export, for instance.

“Thus, as seen in other developing countries, Myanmar’s policy objectives to promote private enterprise and increase [foreign direct investment] may also facilitate the transfer of control and use of land, leading to a ‘foreignisation of space’ to investors from China,Thailand, and Malaysia,” it said.

A report published last week by US-based research center Forest Trends warned that this process has already begun, with government-awarded economic concessions to local and foreign companies driving deforestation. Forest Trends’ research found that concessions were on the rise, and that by mid-2013 the government had given firms a total of 2.1 million hectares (5.2 million acres) of land, much of it in heavily forested regions, for development into plantations.

Noting the success of the small Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary, the report from the National University of Singapore called for more protected areas in the Irrawaddy Delta and elsewhere. Only 6.3 percent of Burma’s heavily forested land mass is currently protected, according to the World Bank, and current regulations to protect forests are poorly enforced.

“In the Delta, there is equally scope for community-based reforestation and forest management programs, which could rehabilitate mangroves and help to fulfill demand for fuelwood in the Delta, and substantial investment is expected for direct conservation funding to conserve coastal species and habitats,” the report said.

Edward Webb, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s department of biological science and the report’s lead author, told the Irrawaddy this week that more work was needed to uncover the underlying causes of deforestation in the Delta.

“Our paper shows that ultimately, mangroves have been converted to agriculture, suggesting what is the end use of the converted land,” Webb said in an email, noting that small-scale farming seemed to be the “major driver of deforestation,” albeit subsidized by the government in efforts to increase Burma’s rice crop. “However the route to getting to rice agriculture may not be direct, and the causality of conversion is not certain—this means that we are a long way off ‘solving the root of the problem.’”

Webb said the report’s findings were likely being played out in other forested areas of Burma. “There are various threats to forests across the country, including agriculture, mining, and logging, along with hunting of wildlife which has severe long-term implications for forest health,” he said.

“There does seem to be a lot more attention being paid to Myanmar as it experiences more international engagement. However we are very early in getting a clear understanding of the threats to forests, and how they vary across the country. This should be a top priority as the country continues on its path towards international engagement.”