The role of mangroves in protecting coastal communities

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The mangrove forests in Sasmuan, Pampanga have served as shield during storm surges. Now, new technology has been introduced to protect the area. Photo courtesy of SMART COMMUNICATIONS, INC.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Mt. Pinatubo eruption of 1991 took the lives of over 700 Filipinos and left more than 200,000 people homeless. In what seems like nature’s move to right itself, the mudflood, one of the most destructive byproducts of eruption, became the breeding ground of a mangrove forest in Sasmuan, Pampanga, which is a critical source of oxygen for the overly polluted Manila Bay.

The mangrove forest, which now has a wooden walkway for visitors, has been turned into an ecotourism area called the Sasmuan Bangkung Malapad Critical Habitat Ecotourism Area (SBMCHEA). Jason Salenga, the tourism officer of Sasmuan, says that this is their way of getting more people involved in the conservation of the area’s biodiversity.

Kung may ecotourism site kasi dito and of course critical habitat siya, mag-i-increase ‘yung awareness ng mga tao na hindi sila magtatapon ng basura kasi maapektuhan ‘yung critical habitat,” he says.

Visiting mangrove forests may not necessarily be the first thing on a tourists’ mind when wanting to explore the white-sand beaches or the mountain peaks in the Philippines. This concept of ecotourism or sustainable travel certainly is still a niche movement. But the area can be a sight to behold. The branches of mangrove trees naturally form an arch over the walkway, which leads to a bamboo hut where one can see a view of the ocean.

Connected Mangroves 006.jpg The mangrove forest, which now has a wooden walkway for visitors, has been turned into an ecotourism area called the Sasmuan Bangkung Malapad Critical Habitat Ecotourism Area (SBMCHEA). Photo courtesy of SMART COMMUNICATIONS, INC.

Recognizing the importance of the ecotourism area and the critical habitat, Smart Communications and Ericsson launched the Connected Mangroves project to help conserve the marine ecosystem of Bangkung Malapad. This project, which introduced a new data gathering technology and eventually won Ericsson the United Nations Framework for Climate Change award in 2016, is in conjunction with Smart’s Internet of Things project, which highlights the use of wireless technology that would enable government agencies and the general public to gather and monitor data that are relevant to the survival of the mangroves.

Naglagay kami ng mga sensors na nakikita na ho kung ano ang nangyayari sa tubig, anong nangyayari dun sa soil, gaano kalakas po ‘yung ulan at gaano kataas na ‘yung water levels doon, para ‘yung community pwede po nilang gawan ng paraan, depende po kung anong nangyayari sa community nila,” says Ellen Alarilla, head of sustainability and corporate responsibility for Southeast Asia, India, and Oceana at Ericsson.

Ericsson first introduced the Connected Mangroves project in Malaysia, and Alarilla says that 70-80 percent of the mangroves grew after only six months of monitoring, as opposed to the 20-40 percent that reached maturity prior to the project. “Ibig sabihin po mas mabilis ‘yung pagtubo, mas madali po nilang mare-reforest ulit ‘yung area nila,” she explains. 

mangroveforestSBMCHEA.jpg “Fishing is the main industry in this town and we need to know the salinity, and then we need to measure kung gaano kaya siya ka-severe, [kung] hindi na siya puwede sa mga isda,” says Jason Salenga, tourism officer of Sasmuan, Pampanga on the importance of data collection. Photo from SASMUAN BANGKUNG MALAPAD CRITICAL HABITAT ECOTOURISM AREA/FACEBOOK

Salenga also adds that the reforestation of the mangroves is particularly crucial for the people residing in the coastal areas of Sasmuan because the forest can serve as a shield during storm surges (the rapid rise of sea water level during a storm).

In 2014, Typhoon Glenda hit Pampanga, and two barangays in Sasmuan were unharmed by the storm surge because the existing mangroves were able to absorb a substantial amount of water.  

Pero meron kaming isang barangay na natamaan … Unfortunately, ‘yung mangroves nila doon medyo nag-convert sila into fish ponds, so nabawasan ‘yung mga mangroves. And from then on, doon nila na-realize kung gaano kahalaga ‘yung mga mangrove, lalo na dito sa bayan ng Sasmuan. That’s why we have so many planting activities,” he says.

This is also not the only time that mangroves ‘saved’ communities during storm surges. Filipinos living in General MacArthur, a community in Eastern Samar, largely survived Super Typhoon Haiyan because of their mangrove forests. The residents of the town say that they owe their survival to the mangrove trees. When natural disasters don’t strike, the value of these ecosystems can be hard to imagine — but these instances of calamities have a way of forcing people to reevaluate what is crucial and what is not.

Connected Mangroves 002.jpg Solar-powered sensors were installed in various regions of the mangrove forest and data, from soil salinity to ambient temperature, are instantly transmitted to the Connected Mangroves website. Photo courtesy of SMART COMMUNICATIONS, INC.

Data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature show that approximately 50 percent of the world’s mangroves have disappeared, and one percent is lost every year. The alarming rate in which mangroves are depleting is also a factor that Ericsson and Smart considered in introducing the new technology in the Philippines. Solar-powered sensors were installed in various regions of SBMCHEA and data, from soil salinity to ambient temperature, are instantly transmitted to the Connected Mangroves website, enabling the public to monitor the data collection in real time.

Getting all this information, such as the water level, could help the local government unit prepare for plausible storm surges, and hence, preempt evacuation plans when necessary. But it is not only beneficial to the local government or to government agencies such as the Department of Environment and National Resources or the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. Salenga says that it also informs the people within the community.

“Fishing is the main industry in this town and we need to know the salinity, and then we need to measure kung gaano kaya siya ka-severe, [kung] hindi na siya puwede sa mga isda,” he explains.

Kaya nga nagka-interesado yung LGU dun sa project ng Smart and Ericsson para din sa protection ng mga mangroves and protection ng habitat ng SBMCHEA,” he adds. “And of course, para din sa future ng mga anak namin, na madadatnan pa ito, na makikita pa nila ‘yung mga mangroves.”