It was World Water Week last week, a week for discussing and acting on global water issues. With my hydrological background I feel compelled to write about something water related. Deciding the exact topic however, has been challenging, as I’m constantly bombarded with water themed stories:
Weather in Ranong today – feels like 37 degrees!
My Sydney-based family tell me about the ongoing drought with the city’s water supply plummeting to record lows;
Friends pray for rain under smoke clogged skies in British Columbia, Canada, as almost 600 wildfires rage across the province;
Drenched Kerala, India is still reeling from floods that displaced a million and killed around 400 people; and
Meanwhile, here in Ranong we are having (a supposedly) brief reprieve from the monsoon rains with stifling heat returning (alas storms are forecast for tomorrow).
This week my students and I have also been learning about the impacts of British colonialism on Myanmar (Burma), including political, economic, social, religious and of course – environmental impacts. Namely, the Brits were after raw materials (oil, precious stones such as rubies), wood from teak forests and agricultural land. Widespread environmental devastation ensued: deforestation and land use change – converting mangroves into rice paddies. Rice production increased so drastically that in 1924 Burma produced half of the world’s rice. Conscious of the importance of mangroves to both water and land environments, I’ll dedicate the rest of this blog to this incredible ecosystem.
Loss of mangroves, an important coastal ecosystem in South East Asia, continues to be a problem in Myanmar and Thailand to this day. 6% of Myanmar’s total mangrove area was lost between 2000 to 2012, the majority of which was transformed into rice agriculture. Globally, they are being removed as demand for food, biofuel and raw materials continually rises. Found in intertidal zones along coastal areas and rich in biodiversity, mangroves are sandwiched between the marine and terrestrial environments, providing many important ecosystem services which millions of people are reliant upon.
Mangrove roots extend like many splayed fingers into the underlying mud
Fishing is a mainstay for coastal communities in Thailand and Myanmar. Mangroves provide both habitat and breeding grounds for many marine species: fish, crab, shrimp and mollusks. Commercial fisheries and people whose livelihoods rely upon flourishing, healthy fisheries are therefore hugely dependent on mangrove ecosystems. Mangroves also provide coastal protection, buffering the land during storms by absorbing excess energy. Their removal means that coastal areas can be more prone to flooding. In addition, mangroves are a crucial carbon sink, capable of storing up to four times more carbon than forests on land. With carbon emissions continuing to rise, mangroves have an increasingly important function in sucking carbon from the atmosphere. Hence the elimination of mangrove ecosystems does not just affect the environment, but also people and the economy too.
Ngao Mangrove Forest Research Centre, near Ranong, Thailand
It’s essential that we are aware of the importance of mangrove ecosystems because of the fundamental role they play in our global environment, economy and the livelihoods of many. We need to encourage business and political leaders to incorporate sustainable thinking into decision making to ensure that valuable ecosystems, such as these are preserved and enhanced for generations to come.