Mangroves and disaster resilience

As soon as it was known that  Hagupit, the last but not the least typhoon that would hit the country this year, was barreling    its way to  the Visayas, “storm surge” warnings were up.

Two years ago ,  “storm surge” was not in  the country’s  disaster lexicon,  but it was introduced there by  Yolanda,  complete with illustrations  on how lethal it was.

Yolanda rewrote our typhoon playbook.  It has increased  this  nation’s  disaster IQ to the point that when a storm brews over the Pacific, the people on its forecast path already know the drill.

Most  now pack up  without prodding, batten down windows without prompting, and troop to the nearest evacuation center without being told to.

Officials  have also  memorized their  what-is-to-be-done spiel.  For sure, there’s the  televised national and local command conferences where orders are barked  with  gale-force strength including  rallying cries, the flavor of the month it seems   is “zero casualty.”

But while  it can be said  that we have  developed  some sort of a muscle memory on disaster response, it seems that we have not when it comes to disaster prevention, or what the UN types would call disaster resiliency.

There is no debate that   there are things to be done on how to mitigate  the effects of our geographical misfortune  of being the   doormat to the typhoon alley.

There is actually a  long checklist , but let me just focus on one, which is linked to storm surges.

It has been said that  mangroves  are the best  coastal defense against storm surge.   They’ve also been bruited as tsunami armors, which , by the way, is also a need in a quake-prone  country whose archipelagic contour  follows the outline of  the earth’s Ring of Fire.

Sadly,  we have stripped our coasts of these   natural  barriers.  From half a million hectares  at the turn of the last century, the area on which Philippine mangroves  are planted has shrunk to about 120,000 hectares at the beginning of this century.

If we  dial back our history lesson  to the start of the Spanish conquest,   we should remember  that Metro Manila was one big mangrove. In fact, it got its name from the swamp plant called nilad. 

During  the 20th century, we converted  almost a quarter of a million hectares  of mangroves into fishponds, or at a rate of  almost  200  basketball courts  a day.  To this day, the war of the  backhoes  against  bakhaws continues.

This is not to say that there’s not one redeeming  value in their  conversion.  Pond-raised fish, like tilapia and bangus,   now account for more than half of the country’s annual  fish output.

Not only do these ex-mangroves produce half of the fish we consume,  but at  a price half than the pricey species that commercial and municipal fishermen catch.

Because food security is a demand we  cannot ignore,  experts have proposed that for every hectare of mangrove  converted  into  fishpond, we retain and  nurture four.  This 1: 4 ratio  does  exist, but sadly on the reverse.

However,  it is not too late to expand our mangrove inventory. In fact, it becomes a national imperative —to boost climate change resiliency and  to  help attain food security. Rising seas and rising population demand that we must.

As source of cheap protein, a  hectare of mangrove can yield up to 650 kilos of fish, mollusks, crabs, shellfish  a year.  At a bargain P100 per kilo,  that’s P65,000 a year on 10,000 square meters of  tidal greenbelt.

Its effect  on fish density radiates to nearby  waters.  Corals near mangroves are known to exhibit up to 25 times more volume of fish.

Because mangroves are forests on water, then they yield wood, for fuel or even for furniture.  Nipa is of course a roofing material.  It is the same plant which oozes that nectar used in distilling nipa lambanog.

I’ve read one study on how a hectare of mangrove was able to yield 60,000 pieces of poles on Year 5 to 10 after planting. If you’ve been to a hardware recently, you would know how a lumber as hard as a cardboard costs nowadays.

They’re also a veritable medicine cabinet. They supply indigenous remedies to ailments. And provide sanctuary to birds. They’re not only spawning grounds for fish, they’re avian nurseries as well. Imagine mangroves to be a condominium, with stratified dwellers from the roots to the canopy.

There are mangrove  benefits which are hard to pin a peso sign on.  To cite one,  the deep roots of  mangroves are pollution sieves. They filter sediments and  prevent erosion.

These are not only anchors which  protect coasts hammered by typhoons, they serve as magnets for tourists, too.

Rustic accommodations in the middle of a mangrove forest, with the foliage serving as natural wallpapers, are the ones that fetch premium rates. Mangrove eco-tours, which feature kayaking, among many thrill sell-points, have built a wide fan base.  

Is there money for mangrove planting ? Yes, there is. For next year, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources plans to spend P7 billion in planting 300 million seedlings and saplings on 300,000 hectares of land.

I know that the bias is for upland areas. But regreening should  extend from ridges to (near the) reefs. And, for transparency requirements, mangrove replanting is easier to monitor and audit. How can you hide something which is   visible and countable  on the horizon?

And who has  ever claimed that species planted on water has been burned in a fire caused by lightning?

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