Nature Offers Solutions to Man’s Excesses

By Rhowan Ho, Dr. Chee Su Yin

November 2022 FEATURE
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Mangroves are an effective and beautiful coastal shield.

MALAYSIA EXEMPLIFIES THE tug-of-war between economic development and conservation that goes on in developing nations globally. We have seen widespread migration toward coastlines driven by benefits including infrastructure, industrial and urban development, and economic growth. Mangrove forests are swallowed by land reclamation, seagrass beds are entombed by artificial island constructions, and beaches are replaced by man-made coastal defence structures. All these permanently change the complex yet fragile machinations of nature.

Every metre of hardening comes with the loss of bountiful boons in fisheries, raw materials, oxygen production, water purification and natural coastal defences. Artificial coastlines are typically less biologically diverse. They support only a few local species while enabling large populations of invasive species to thrive and do not provide the same level of benefits that the natural ecosystems do. This is highly detrimental to coastal communities that depend on marine harvests and on the coastal protection natural coastlines provide.

Is there a viable compromise between the needs of a growing human population and conservation?

Nature offers an answer.

Nature-based solutions are defined as actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, simultaneously providing human wellbeing and biodiversity benefits. In a nutshell, the power of nature itself is harnessed to protect nature. This is done through five classes of management practices: ecological restoration, rehabilitation, reconciliation, protection and ecological engineering. These solutions have been promoted as cost-effective answers to broad socio-environmental challenges including coastal erosion, sea level rise, climate change and natural disasters.

For example, when the Indian Ocean tsunami ravaged the coasts of Southeast Asia in 2004, it claimed over 250,000 lives and left millions displaced. However, studies following the tragedy revealed that areas with healthy mangrove forests correlate with lower casualties, whereas zones where mangroves had been harvested for development saw significant infrastructural damage.

This prompted the Malaysian government to set up a coastal restoration task force to preserve and restore mangroves. Mangroves now provide USD65mil in flood protection and protect 15 million people from flooding each year. As an affordable tsunami and erosion shield that can literally be grown from the ground up, mangroves are a natural alternative to artificial cement wave-breakers.

Aside from their protective properties, mangroves synergise with two other natural ecosystems: coral reefs and seagrass beds. These are biologically diverse and highly productive; they nurture fish populations, weaken storm surges and provide numerous other services to coastal communities. They are also tightly interconnected –  mangroves filter out land-based pollutants which would otherwise move freely into the ocean and affect seagrass beds, coral reefs and other marine fauna. Like the legs of a table, they are each equally crucial for the stability of the whole; and the collective conservation of all three ecosystems together has been shown to be more valuable and effective than any single or pair of ecosystems.

Fishermen have much to gain from nature-based solutions.

Successful Endeavours in Malaysia

The Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve is one of Malaysia’s most successful nature-based solution endeavours so far. Declared a Permanent Forest Reserve in 1960, it is known as the best-managed sustainable mangrove ecosystem in the world. Apart from being an asset to the local economy, natural resources like charcoal, piling poles and fuel wood can be harvested on small scales for domestic use. It also maintains an incredible array of biodiversity.

The tangle of ancient trees in these virgin forests creates small, pocket ecosystems or microhabitats, with distinct humidity, sunlight and other resources, allowing native marine organisms to thrive. In addition to this, the 40,000ha of trees facilitate substantial carbon capture and storage, thereby counteracting the global rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases.

With the value and fragility of these forests in mind, some virgin and old-growth forests have been designated as protected zones and are reserved solely for education, research and ecotourism activities.

The Sipadan Island Marine Park is also another successful nature-based solution effort in Malaysia. Other than being a world-class dive spot, it is a fisheries paradise and one of the Earth’s largest galleries of marine life. Here, visiting permits are limited to 176 per day (each giving a diver the right to dive in or visit Sipadan for one day) to minimise human interference with the island’s ecosystem. The park is closed during the monsoon season to protect the delicate biodiversity in these reefs, which themselves sustain the lucrative ecotourism industry of Sipadan and its surrounding islands.

Thriving coral reefs benefit both humans and animals.

Along with a plethora of birds, fishes and marine mammal species, the marine park is a haven for large communities of turtles and sharks, including the elusive hammerhead and whale sharks. In the spirit of nature-based solutions, the coastal community continues to enjoy the products and services of this ecosystem. Although the area itself is protected, fishermen are free to catch the fish that leave its protective borders. This “spillover effect” has benefitted and continues to provide for the local community.

Because nature-based solutions are geared to be symbiotic and inclusive, they also provide a host of other co-benefits, including flood protection, urban heat reduction, avoidance or reduction of greenhouse gases, habitat and biodiversity benefits, tourism and green jobs.

To boost future applications of nature-based solutions for sustainable coastal development, education and training, synergy across laws and regulations, collaboration and communication between locals and environmental organisations, as well as the improvement of environmental monitoring methods need to be implemented.

Governments, local communities and all other stakeholders must remain aware of changing relationships between communities and their ecosystems, and actively pursue opportunities to implement nature-based solutions in this growing planet to protect it and its inhabitants from climate and biodiversity adversities.

Rhowan Ho

is an intern at the Centre for Global Sustainability Studies, USM, working on projects pertaining to the monitoring and protection of coastal ecosystems in Penang.

Dr. Chee Su Yin

is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Global Sustainability Studies, USM. Her research interests are in nature-based solutions and ecological engineering in the marine environment.