Egypt replants mangrove ‘treasure’ to fight climate change impacts

Workers replant mangrove trees on Egypt’s Red Sea coast near Marsa Alam. The trees act as a natural barrier against rising seas and extreme weather conditions.

On Egypt’s Red Sea coast, fish swim among thousands of newly planted mangroves as part of a program to increase biodiversity, protect coastlines and combat climate change and its effects.

After decades of destruction during which the mangroves were cut, only fragmented tracts remain, totaling some 500 hectares (1,200 acres), the size of just a few hundred football fields.

Sayed Khalifa, the head of the Egyptian agricultural syndicate that leads the replanting of mangroves, calls the unique plants a “treasure” because of their ability to grow in saltwater where they have no problems with drought.

“It’s quite an ecosystem,” Khalifa said, knee-deep in the water. “If you plant mangroves, sea creatures, crustaceans and birds all come in.”

Between the tentacle-like roots of month-old saplings, small fish and tiny crab larvae dart through the shallows, making the trees prime breeding grounds for marine life.

Khalifa’s team grows tens of thousands of seedlings in a nursery, which are then used to rehabilitate six key areas on the Red Sea and the Sinai coast, with the goal of replanting some 210 hectares.

But Khalifa dreams of expanding the mangroves as far as possible, along a marina some six kilometers (four miles) to the south.

The government-backed program of about $50,000 a year was launched five years ago.

Mangroves absorb five times more carbon than land forests, and because they live in salt water, there is no problem of drought.

‘Punch above their weight’

Mangroves also have a powerful impact on combating climate change.

The resilient trees “bump above their weight” and absorb five times more carbon than land-based forests, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

The stands of trees also help filter out water pollution and act as a natural barrier against rising seas and extreme weather, protecting coastal communities from devastating storms.

UNEP calculates that protecting mangroves is a thousand times cheaper than building sea defenses over the same distance.

Despite their value, mangroves have been destroyed at a rapid rate worldwide.

More than a third of mangroves worldwide have been lost worldwide, researchers estimate, with losses of up to 80 percent in some Indian Ocean coastlines.

Mangrove expert Niko Howai, from Britain’s University of Reading, said that in the past many governments had not appreciated “the importance of mangroves”, but instead offered lucrative “opportunities to earn revenues”, including through coastal development, in the to keep an eye on.

Mangroves are home to many other species and also act as a powerful carbon sink that fights climate change.

In the case of Egypt, “mass tourism activities and resorts, which cause pollution,” as well as boating activities and oil drilling have wreaked havoc on mangroves, said Kamal Shaltout, a professor of botany at Egypt’s University of Tanta.

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Shaltout warned that efforts to restore the mangrove will be “in vain” if these threats are not addressed.

“The problem is that the mangroves we have are so limited in number that any damage will cause total disruption,” he said.

Impact of mass tourism

There is little reliable information to say how much has been lost, but Shaltout said “there are areas that have been completely destroyed”, especially around the large resort town of Hurghada.

Tourism on the Red Sea accounts for 65 percent of Egypt’s vital tourism industry.

The extent of damage, a 2018 study by Shaltout and other researchers found, “probably far exceeds what could be replaced by a replanting program for years to come.”

  • Sayed Khalifa is leading the mangrove reforestation project, which aims to increase tree cover along the Red Sea coast.

  • As part of the mangrove reforestation project, seedlings are grown at a special nursery.

  • Mangroves are notable for growing in salt water, and the trees are important nurseries for marine life.

Attempts to connect replanted areas may be blocked by barriers from marinas, resorts and coastal towns.

“Mangroves are hardy, but they’re also sensitive, especially as saplings,” Howai said.

“It is not impossible to combine the reforestation of mangroves with existing development projects, but it is becoming more challenging.”

To be successful, Shaltout said tourism companies need to get involved, including by taxing resorts themselves with replanting.

“It may even come with certain tax breaks, telling them that just as they have made a profit, they also have a role to play in protecting nature,” the botanist said.

Following the journey of mangroves in southern Japan

© 2022 AFP

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