• This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
home_icon-01_outline
star
  • Earth.Org Newsletters

    Get focused newsletters especially designed to be concise and easy to digest

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Earth.Org PAST · PRESENT · FUTURE
SHOP Support

The 1950’s were known as the Great Acceleration which was marked by profound human transformation of the planet. Forests have declined rapidly since the Great Acceleration due to industrialisation, urbanisation and land degradation, particularly in South Asia. There are almost 16 different forest types in the region which vary from tropical rainforest to coastal mangroves. With the population of South Asia set to grow to 2 billion in 2050 from 1.8 billion today, how can South Asia ensure the survival of its forests?

The graph below shows forest area as a share of land in South Asia from 2000 to 2015, which excludes agricultural production systems. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are seeing a gradual decrease in forest cover while India has seen a gradual increase in forest cover. Only Bhutan has seen a small increase in overall forest cover.

You might also like: Insects Decline on Land, Fare Better in Water, Study Finds

south asia forests
A graph showing various countries in South Asia and their forests as share of land area (Source: Our World in Data).

India

India is the 6th largest country in the world and has 4 types of forests: tropical forests, subtropical, temperate and alpine. Since the early 1950’s the country has been increasing its afforestation and reforestation efforts and consequently, the country has increased forest cover by 70.5% between 1950 and 2006; there are now more mangrove forests and forests in hill districts.

In 1952, the country set a target to have 33% of its land under forest cover, however this is currently at 21.54%. Ajay Narayan Jha, the secretary of the ministry of environment forest and climate change, wants to convert open, moderate and degraded forests into dense forests to improve the quality of existing forests. 

The overall increase in forestry in India is attributed to both conservation efforts and better satellite data, however a research paper states that the figures ‘ignore’ the ground realities of India’s situation – by including commercial plantations which are largely monoculture and should not be counted as an increase in India’s forest cover. This could mean that India’s actual forestry numbers are far less than the official counts. Additionally, within the country, there are massive differences in forestry among states with Andhra Pradesh and Kerala recording increases in forest cover while the North-Eastern states of India are recording India’s largest rates of forest cover decline. This is attributed to cultivation and development activities.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, with 163 million people living on a delta plain bordering the Bay of Bengal. As a consequence of this, only 6% of Bangladesh is forested, paling in comparison to the rest of South Asia. Over 50% of Bangladesh’s forests have been deforested in only the last 20 years, which can be mainly attributed to the massive increase in urbanisation and agriculture. Further, illegal sand mining is prevalent in the country, which is an extremely destructive process that has been linked to floods in Kerala. For Bangladesh this illegal practice has led to a sharp decline in river bodies and forests; when sand and minerals are illegally extracted, river banks become unstable and collapse during times of heavy rain or monsoons season, affecting water quality. The Sundarbans is a 10 000 sq km mangrove forest which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been badly affected by sand mining and deforestation. 

This mangrove forest environment is crucial to protecting Bangladesh’s coastline from tropical storms. Additionally, conflict in Myanmar has led to the large-scale movement of refugees entering Bangladesh through Cox’s Bazaar. This mass migration has forced Bangladesh to build security outposts in the region, however, these have been built on protected forestry land. The government has also drained and filled wetlands to create settlements to relieve the overpopulation crisis which has hampered the country’s forest preservation efforts. Bangladesh is in a difficult position as the country will need to find a balance between relieving its overcrowding crisis in urban areas while conserving forests.

The rise of aquaculture in Bangladesh has also contributed to the decline in forests; in 2013, there was an estimated 8.3% loss in forest cover, partly because land was cleared to make way for shrimp farms.

Sri Lanka

Between 1990 and 2005, Sri Lanka had the world’s highest rate of deforestation. Deforestation is attributed mainly to the rise of the plantation sector, particularly for coconut production.  However, since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has made significant progress in protecting and preserving its forests, with 22 national parks and a newly-added UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2015, the country declared all mangrove forests to be protected by law. The country also plans to quadruple the size of the Sinharaja Rainforest to 36 000 hectares, which is the country’s only UNESCO Heritage Site- listed rainforest with over 50% of the country’s endemic species and 60% of endemic trees  found in this rainforest. The country hopes to utilise the forest’s bufferzone and incorporate nearby defragmented forests into the rainforest

However, this progress was marred when the state built a second international airport inside a bird sanctuary in 2013 in the south of the country. This project, along with two expressways which run through many sensitive environmental areas, was seen as a major setback in the government’s promise towards environmental protection. Although the state has been paramount in setting out legislation, it has been the work of grassroot community action which has spearheaded Sri Lanka’s protection of forests. There are women-led initiatives that cultivate mangrove ecosystems which allow for the careful fishing of prawns which reside in mangrove ecosystems. Other citizen-led groups, such as Reforest Sri Lanka, have been planting trees in neglected areas such as abandoned tea estates. Despite the failings of the government to protect its forests, citizen-led groups have been educating, preserving and protecting Sri Lanka’s natural environments. 

Bhutan

Bhutan is the world’s only carbon negative country, which means it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces. This small mountainous country is 80.9% forested– the highest rate of forest cover in South Asia. Almost 51.4% of the country’s area is designated as natural parks and sanctuaries. The country enforces strict environmental policies such as ensuring that 60% of the country remains forested; this is also contained in the country’s constitution. Such policies fall under the country’s four pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which has helped the country concentrate on conservation and forestry. GNH is the measure of economic and moral progress of Bhutan, which differs from the typical practice of focusing on economic indicators. However the country’s rigid environmental policy has been criticised as rural communities continue to lose livestock due to the protection of snow leopards (however, the government compensates farmers for killed livestock by). 

Bhutan’s efforts should be commended both in South Asia and globally. The country’s stern environmental laws have allowed it to protect and maintain its forests, setting a precedent for the rest of the world.

South Asia is fast developing economically and is experiencing rapid population growth. If countries in South Asia are to combat global warming, they will have to work together to protect forests which transcend national boundaries such as the Sundurbans and forests on the Himalayas. Although environmental progress has been slow, concern for the environment is becoming an important macroeconomic objective of South Asian governments and with the rise of citizen-led groups and the involvement of communities, the fight for South Asia’s forests remains far from over. 

Rising sea levels and increased frequency of flooding are now common occurrences under the climate crisis. In the United States, Bangladesh and Hong Kong, there are a growing number of projects that have been incorporating natural strategies of flood defence in the wake of destruction brought on by the climate crisis. One of these strategies involves oysters.

Mostly regarded as a culinary delicacy, the oyster offers a multitude of functions that make it a beneficial asset in ecosystem services, reducing risks for areas that are or will be affected by shoreline erosion, flooding, and storms. To mitigate floods, oysters create friction between waves and the sea floor, serving as a natural breakwater. Breakwaters are built to protect a coast from the force of waves and are traditionally constructed with large rocks. Rebuilding oyster reefs provides benefits such as ecosystem enhancement and an increase in marine biodiversity because oyster reefs offer shelter for marine creatures. 

You might also like: Blue Whales Are Making a Comeback in the Atlantic 

New York: Flood Defence and a Return to the Past

New York was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was after this storm that New York began applying disaster mitigation processes to redevelop the affected areas. Through a design competition launched by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Staten Island Living Breakwaters Project won funding to develop their project on the South Shore of Staten Island, creating a ‘living’ breakwater system, which helps protect coasts while also providing habitats through constructed reefs for finfish, shellfish and lobsters

The living breakwaters are constructed as 3 200 linear feet of nearshore breakwaters using construction materials that also provide habitat enhancements. In addition to the breakwater construction, the plan includes an active oyster restoration by New York’s Billion Oyster Project, installing oysters on the breakwaters themselves as well as cultivating oysters in hatcheries and other remote settings.  

While oysters have the ecological capability to filter nitrogen, provide habitat for smaller creatures, and act as a natural storm barrier, they are also aiding the return of New York’s historical ecology; the city was once a site brimming with oysters in the brackish waters, but due to pollution and overharvesting, the populations declined. The re-implementation of oysters in this environment bridges a connection between the past and the future- mitigating the effects of the climate crisis as well as restoring a historical marine ecosystem.  

Bangladesh: Strengthening Livelihoods  

One-third of Bangladesh’s population resides on the coastline. The coastal shoreline provides residents with resources such as fish, shrimp, crab and sea salt for extraction. However, like New York, the coastline is under threat from increased natural disasters and coastal erosion. These disasters are not only a threat to the ecology of the coastline, but also to the livelihoods of the people who rely on these coastliness. 

Oysters offer a solution to these threats in Bangladesh, acting as ecosystem engineers and working as a natural solution for coastal defence by protecting erosion-prone areas. Conventional barrier techniques in Bangladesh have proven to be too expensive to sustain, and seemingly only provide short-term solutions. With future projections of increased sea-level rise, monsoons and cyclone frequency, people are in need of long-term and cost-effective solutions. While not yet implemented, researchers argue for the exploration of oysters as a solution. By creating artificial oyster reefs as living shorelines, the coastlines of Bangladesh can be protected in a self-sustaining manner, continuing to provide for the population. 

In a study conducted by the University of Chittagong, IMARES Wageningen University, the Agricultural Economics Research Institute, and Royal Haskoning, an engineering consultancy firm, the concept of living shorelines with oyster reefs were examined. Anticipated benefits included climate-proof coastal and flood defence and an improvement of livelihood through practices such as oyster aquaculture and enhanced tourism and recreation. 

Hong Kong: Protecting Coastlines and Preserving Tradition

Oyster habitats have been depleted in Hong Kong due to increased dredging, land reclamation and overharvesting. The Nature Conservancy in Hong Kong is focusing on how oysters can be restored as a means of both global warming mitigation and preservation of a tradition.

Hong Kong has a history of oyster farming that has lasted over 700 years. This tradition is at risk due to impending natural disasters. While oyster farmers are continuing to operate, their livelihoods are at risk, as is the aquaculture-based heritage of Hong Kong. With the reintroduction of millions of oysters by the Nature Conservancy, reef development has been accelerated alongside the improvement of biodiversity and the construction of a natural storm surge barrier.

Oyster Restoration: A Solution

Oysters are a return to the past and a return to the natural. What can be seen here is not only an ecological and climate-crisis related movement, but also a movement of social resilience. Oysters serve as a means of flood defence and biodiversity restoration, but they also allow societies to reflect on their ecological histories as well as foster communities with a focus on the natural landscape through economic development, natural design research and traditional practice. 

The largest mangrove forest in the world in the Sundarbans is shrinking. A new coal power plant might wreak havoc on the already vulnerable region.

The Sundarbans: The World’s Largest Mangrove Forest 

The Sundarbans- the largest continuous mangrove forest on the planet that spans more than 10 000 sq km along the Bay of Bengal- is shrinking. Thanks to human encroachment and climate change, the forest has been losing almost 16 sq km of vegetation per year since 1991.  Earth.Org’s own analysis based on satellite imagery shows that in Bangladesh, home to the largest swath of Sundarbans mangroves, the forest has lost 442 sq km of its vegetation in the last 28 years. 71% of the forested coastline is also retreating by as much as 200 metres a year due to coastline erosion. 

Containing multiple UNESCO Natural World Heritage sites within itself, the Sundarbans forest is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species. The flora is comprised of a rich mosaic of different types of vegetation; half of all known 110 mangrove species are found within the delta. It is home to over 260 bird species, Indian otters, spotted deer, wild boar, fiddler crabs, mud crabs, three marine lizard species and five marine turtle species dwell in this impervious maze. The forest also hosts endangered species like the estuarine crocodile, Indian python and the iconic Bengal tiger. The mangrove ecosystem plays an indispensable role as breeding and nursery ground coastal fisheries in the Bay of Bengal. 

The Sundarbans is also a natural barrier that protects over 6.5 million people who live in the region from tides and cyclones. For the inhabitants of surrounding areas, the forest is an abundant source of subsistence. 

Human interference in the form of upstream agriculture, industrial shrimp farming, logging and hydrologic interventions have been gradually deteriorating the mangrove ecosystem. 

Active human encroachment is coupled with the collateral effects of the climate crisis.  The forested coastline is being rapidly overtaken by rising sea levels and storm surges. The increased salinity of the soil has made hectares of mangroves weaker and more vulnerable to retrenchment. Scientists warn that a continuing coastline retreat will trigger major mangrove disappearance within the next 50 years. 

You might also like: The Climate Crisis Could Increase Volcano Eruptions

Earth.Org used NASA’s Landsat satellite data to generate images to analyse the changes in vegetation in Sunderbans.

A new threat 

Construction of a new cross-border coal-fired power plant is underway in the nearby town of Rampal. Despite strong opposition from UNESCO, the 1320-megawatt plant is set to start generating power by March 2021. 

Leading conservationists argue the power plant would spew thousands of tons of toxic coal ash and air pollutants, and discharge mercury-laden water at varying temperature into rivers, damaging water quality.

“Despite objections from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Bangladesh has approved more than 320 industrial projects in the area, including the massive Rampal coal-fired power plant, bypassing requirements for public participation and environmental impact assessment,” says United Nations (UN) expert John H. Knox

Preservation of Mangrove Forest in Sunderbans

The bilateral cooperation between Bangladesh and India and the Ramsar Convention had improved conservation strategies at the Sunderbans in the last decade. But experts say it is highly critical to avoid human pressure on the wetland and its resources in the future too. Both governments need to take environmental concerns into account while installing industrial projects near the mangrove forest.  

Governments should invest towards agricultural techniques that mitigate damage caused by environmental changes and by the encroaching threat of the fossil fuel industry. Traditional practices endemic to the region can adapt to periodic ecosystem disruptions, such as rising sea levels or waterlogging. An example includes a practice in Bangladesh of implementing floating cultivation systems that utilise soilless beds made from seaweed. Sustainable and regionally traditional agriculture can significantly increase the market value of commodities. If traditional and sustainable agriculture becomes the norm in the region, the value of commodities will rise and revenue from foreign markets will increase substantially. With more diversified revenue streams, the state can justify the higher cost of implementing renewable energy infrastructure rather than allowing the region to become reliant on fossil fuels.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Hand-picked stories once a fortnight. We promise, no spam!

SUBSCRIBE
Instagram @earthorg Follow Us