Mizzima.com Myanmar --The impact of climate change and the rehabilitation of region’s mangrove forests were dominant themes of President U Thein Sein’s opening address on May 11 at the first summit of Southeast Asian leaders to be hosted by Myanmar.
The President called for cooperation among the 10-members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to tackle the threat of climate change and proposed a regional humanitarian assistance centre to develop early warning systems for natural disasters.
He also stressed the need for the systematic rehabilitation of mangrove forests throughout ASEAN.
“Mangrove forests not only reduce the greenhouse gases but also reduce the impact of storms and floods in low-lying coastal areas,” U Thein Sein said in his speech.
Conservationists say mangroves are ecologically important because they act as a defence between the sea and coastal areas by dissipating the impact of strong winds and the storm surges they generate.
Mangrove forests are also a source of valuable products, such as medicinal plants and timber, and are rich breeding grounds for a variety of aquatic life and are therefore vital for the fishing industry.
Mangroves grow along the coast and line the estuarine waterways of five of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions: Yangon, Ayeyarwady and Tanintharyi regions and Rakhine and Mon states.
Conservationists say the awesome scale of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis when it roared across Ayeyarwady Region in 2008, killing up to 160,000 people, could have been mitigated if not for the destruction of mangrove habitats.
Mangrove specialist U Kyaw Nyein, an executive committee member of the Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association (FREDA), says the lessons learned from Cyclone Nargis mean that future conservation efforts are likely to include mangrove reforestration.
“President Thein Sein’s hometown is in the Ayeyarwady delta,” U Kyaw Nyein said.
“Over the past several years, mangroves have been more heavily damaged than other forest areas [in Myanmar],” he said.
A National University of Singapore report last year titled, Deforestation in the Ayeyarwady Delta and the Conservation Implications of an Internationally Engaged Myanmar, included research showing that the area covered by mangrove forests in Myanmar had declined by more than 64 percent since 1978.
Efforts to rehabilitate mangrove habitats have received little funding from the Myanmar government although it is involved in reforestation programmes.
A spokesperson for the Forestry Department in Nay Pyi Taw, Dr Toe Toe Aung, declined to say how much was being allocated to government-funded mangrove rehabilitation programmes.
Dr Toe Toe Aung said the government had conservation and rehabilitation programmes in the Ayeyarwady Delta but they were small-scale operations.
In addition to government-funded efforts, a rehabilitation programme supported by the Japan Investment Cooperation Agency had helped to rehabilitate 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares), he said.
“In November last year, we received Y568.5 million (K5.3 billion) in funding to continue the rehabilitation programmes,” Dr Toe Toe Aung said.
The funding provided by JICA would be shared between the Watershed Management Division and the Forestry Department of the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, he said.
“We are also striving to create a separate office under the Forestry Department that deals just with mangrove rehabilitation and conservation.”
FREDA has had mangrove rehabilitation programmes since 1998.
The island has been a wildlife reserve since 1994, but after Cyclone Nargis, there was a desperate need among survivors for charcoal and timber, which was provided by its mangrove forests.
“The demand for forest products fuel wood is very high and the people are very poor and don’t have other job opportunities,” U Kyaw Nyein said.
“The degraded surrounding mangrove forest created a difficult situation for Mein Ma Hla Island.”
Funded by donors, FREDA works in cooperation with the Forestry Department, supporting a departmental office and paying the salary of a deputy ranger – a total of about K112,000 a month.
Working in partnership with international organisations, FREDA has since 1998 replanted more than 3,255 acres (about 1,317 hectares) of mangroves in the delta – and a total of 5,000 acres (about 2,023 hectares) of forest throughout Myanmar.
U Kyaw Nyein said an acre of mangroves could be replanted for about K200,000 and in Bogalay, the reforestation programme could achieve up to about 500 acres a year.
FREDA chairman U Ohn said he welcomed President U Thein Sein’s decision to highlight climate change and mangrove reforestation in his ASEAN speech.
“But we need real support, which means the implementation of community forestry laws,” said U Ohn, 87.
“Real support means laws that support small to large-scale businesses involved in forestry and also the implementation of education to prevent their destruction,” he said.
Meteorologist and climate specialist, Dr Tun Lwin, 66, agreed.
“I think too many people confuse conservation and climate change,” said Dr Tun Lwin, a former director-general of the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology.
“The President has highlighted two issues: disaster reduction and climate change,” he said.
“Mangroves are more relevant toward disaster reduction but as for climate change, I’m not sure that many in the government are really aware of how bad it is in Myanmar.”
Dr Tun Lwin, an expert in the changing climatology of monsoon weather patterns, says the evidence of climate change is clear.
“We’ve got shorter rainy seasons where we have lost up to 40 days of rain since 1978,” Dr Tun Lwin said.
“That’s a huge impact on agriculture. And the dry zone, which used to get rain from May onwards, now only receives rain starting from July. It’s a big change.”
While he welcomes the attention to climate change, Dr Tun Lwin says he is not satisfied with the response to the impact of climate change on Myanmar.
“I’ll be frank,” he said.“I’m not satisfied with the response of action from government and private companies on this issue. There is no national body or committee on climate change and this is something I would like to see happen – to believe climate change education will be addressed.”
This Article first appeared in the May 22, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.