Increasing Mangrove Resilience to Climate Change

By Jonathan Cook, WWF-US

Along the west coast of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island, the communities of Tikina Wai have lived near mangrove forests for many generations. Local people depend on these forests for fish, wood, medicinal plants and other resources; and the mangroves help buffer them from storms and floods. Yet Tikina Wai’s mangrove forests are threatened by human activities such as unplanned coastal development and the over-harvesting of those same natural resources. Now the impacts of climate change, particularly sea level rise, are beginning to add pressure on mangroves in Tikina Wai and elsewhere in Fiji.

Fiji’s coastal areas are not unique in this regard. Sea-level rise linked to anthropogenic climate change is affecting mangroves around the world, which already face a host of other direct threats. (Only 1 percent of the world’s remaining mangroves are adequately protected from those threats.) In 2009, with support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the HewlettPackard Company, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched a project to understand and promote mangrove resilience to climate change. WWF offices in Cameroon, Tanzania and Fiji worked closely with various partners, including government agencies, communities and research institutions, to understand how climate change is likely to affect mangrove ecosystems and to pilot a set of adaptation actions that can reduce vulnerability to those impacts.

Drawing on the pilot activities in three countries, the project developed a methodology that can be used worldwide for assessing the vulnerability of mangrove ecosystems to the impacts of climate change (particularly sea level rise) and for developing adaptation strategies. Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Planning for Mangrove Systems, published by WWF in April, is the culmination of these efforts. This manual brings together a wealth of on-the-ground experience and scientific knowledge to help conservation practitioners, protected area managers and other stakeholders who are responsible for protecting and managing the world’s mangrove forests in a changing climate.

“Understanding mangroves has been a confluence of traditional eco- knowledge and modern science. To be able to understand mangroves, one must engage communities linked to these habitats in all the aspects of field surveys, planning and management of these mangrove systems.This adds strength to the framing legislation and move for legal protection nationwide.” – Monifa Fiu, WWF South Pacific Program

The manual walks readers through a series of eight methods for assessing the vulnerability of mangrove ecosystems to climate change and assists them in planning adaptation activities. The methods include fieldbased techniques to assess forest condition and health; as well as more sophisticated approaches for understanding past and present change, like GIS and stratigraphic analysis. What makes this manual unique is the degree to which the methods were developed through intensive fieldwork carried out with researchers, local experts and community members. Each of the methods is paired with a case study from the WWF project that clearly describes how the method was carried out and how the results were analyzed. Guidance is given on how to combine the results from each method to form a composite understanding of vulnerability for a given mangrove area; and how to select and prioritize adaptation strategies for reducing that area’s vulnerability to climate change.

Some excellent materials for vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning have appeared in recent years. But there are still relatively few manuals that are geared towards a specific ecosystem type, contain methods based on significant field experience, and are available in a user-friendly format. This manual was explicitly designed to be both scientifically rigorous and extremely practical. WWF hopes that it will be a useful tool in efforts to help the world’s mangroves thrive in the future.

During four years of implementing the project and developing this manual, we learned some general lessons that may be valuable for those planning or implementing adaptation projects. First, it is not advisable to engage significantly in adaptation activities without doing some sort of a vulnerability assessment. A VA can look very different depending on your goals, unit of analysis, resources and capacity; but without an attempt to think methodically about how your area of concern is vulnerable to the combined impacts of climate change and other drivers of change, ‘adaptation’ will be a shot in the dark.

Second, carrying out a VA and adaptation activities depends fundamentally on the involvement of multiple stakeholders. It is important to identify both collaborators and partners, and audiences, at the beginning of a project. In all three countries, we worked closely with local communities to collect data and monitor ecosystem change for the VA, as well as develop and implement adaptation activities that could benefit both the mangroves and the people living nearby. And in each country, we sought to identify a policy audience for the VA whose actions would be relevant to our broader goal of increasing coastal resilience to climate change. For example, WWF worked with the national government in Fiji to promote a more inclusive approach to marine protected area systems that also included mangrove areas.

Third, the project benefited from the support of a global advisory group as well as informal assistance from a number of key individuals involved with climate change adaptation, especially with a coastal and mangrove focus. In addition to providing technical guidance, they helped identify additional opportunities around the world for testing, applying and adopting the VA methodology. Through the WWF network, we also sought to engage a global ‘user group’ of ground-level practitioners who were interested in eventually applying the methodology at their own sites of concern. Such ongoing constituency-building can help to ensure that a project’s eventual technical outputs are useful, relevant and widely disseminated.