Climate crisis looms as mangrove cover drops to unprecedented levels

Ruins of Tana River Lodge which has been gradually washed away. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Mida Creek is a tidal inlet that stretches across 32 square kilometres, and hosts seven out of the nine species of mangrove found in the country.

"We have to protect these forests and keep the environment clean. We often conduct clean-ups during which we have collected a lot of plastic bottles and old fishing nets," he says.

"We receive a lot of visitors, including researchers, tourists and students, who come to learn about mangroves. As a fisherman, I know what it means to protect the breeding areas in the mangroves. It means more catch and more money."

Mangrove forests in Kipini and Mida are part of mangrove forests in the country, covering 61,271 hectares. This is about three per cent of Kenya's natural forest cover, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

These forests are common features in protected bays, deltas, creeks, river estuaries and lagoons. They grow in the five coastal counties - Lamu, Kwale, Mombasa, Tana River and Kilifi - and are distributed along the 600-kilometre coastline.

According to the National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan, all the mangrove trees recorded in the Western Indian Ocean region are in Kenya.

Rhizophora mucronata (mkoko) and Ceriops tagal (mkandaa) are the dominant species of mangrove trees, making up 70 per cent of the formation. Other species include Avicennia marina (mchu), Bruguiera gymnorrhiza, (muia) Sonneratia alba (mlilana), Xylocarpus granatum (mkomafi), Lumnitzera racemosa (kikandaa) Xylocarpus moluccensis (mkomafi dume) and Heritiera littoralis (msikundazi).

Research has shown that mangrove forests are important in protecting shorelines and reducing erosion, protecting land and coastal communities from storms.

Together with sea grass, they provide critical habitat for aquatic organisms. They also provide important nursery areas for many coral reef fishes.

Although the use of mangroves as wood fuel is not considered a major threat, logging of mangroves for the construction of canoes, fences and houses remains a big threat.

The trees, which are known to be salt-tolerant, play an important role in global climate regulation. They store up to 1,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare, making them some of the most carbon-rich ecosystems.

Julie Mulonga, the director of Wetlands International Eastern Africa, says mangroves are the under-appreciated natural solution to the climate emergency.

Khamis Omar shows some of the beehives in Mida Creek, Kilifi County. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

"Drying up of rivers draining into the ocean as well as dwindling volumes lead to a hypersaline environment, which mangroves cannot stand. They end up drying because of too much salt," explains Francis Kagema, Coast Regional Coordinator for Nature Kenya, a conservation organisation.

Fresh water from rivers, he adds, is key for the health of mangroves.

"This is an emerging threat which cannot be ignored even as impacts of climate change continue taking a toll on freshwater flow into the ocean."

While experts warn that the effects of climate change on mangrove forests remain critical and under-researched, siltation and pollution remain a serious concern.

Poor farming practices and clearing of forests upstream has seen soil being swept downstream into the ocean. Large amounts of soil is deposited along creeks and canals where mangroves grow. This creates what looks like isolated islands. In most cases, the mangroves dry up.

Although single-use plastic bags were banned in Kenya in 2017, the lack of disposal mechanisms for old and torn fishing nets coupled with huge amounts of plastic bottles that find their way into the ocean has remained a problem. They choke mangrove roots.

Many groups that have been involved in clean-up exercises burn the bottles and old nets because they lack proper disposal mechanisms.

"It is an issue that requires attention because burning them is still harmful," says Mr Kagema.

At Kipini where River Tana enters the ocean, effects of siltation and pollution are visible. Some mangrove trees stand on what looks like isolated islands with roots tangled on plastic papers and old nets.

"These are not islands but deposits of soil being washed downstream. You can also spot the old nets and huge amounts of plastics which are trapped in here," says Mr Odera

The drying up of some of the mangroves, as a result, gives a lee-way to people to fell the already drying trees for poles and firewood.

A 2018 report on forest resources management and logging indicated that at least 40 per cent of mangroves across the coast are degraded.

In Mombasa, it is estimated that 1,850 hectares of mangrove areas are degraded, which translates to 49 per cent of the total area under mangroves in the county. In Kwale, 3,725 hectares (44.6 per cent) of the total area under mangrove is degraded.

In Lamu, another 14,407 hectares are degraded while in Kilifi, 3,422 hectares of mangroves are degraded.

[This story was produced with support from the Internews' Earth Journalism Network]