Mangroves thrive in UAE desert to help fight climate change

Visitors planting mangrove saplings in Jubail Mangrove Park, in Abu Dhabi. PHOTO: QUEST FOR ADVENTURE
A section of Jubail Mangrove Park, north of Abu Dhabi city. Abu Dhabi is home to about 70 per cent of the UAE's mangroves. ST PHOTO: SHABANA BEGUM

ABU DHABI - On the way to Jubail Mangrove Park, north of Abu Dhabi city, you will see two distinct habitats divided by the highway.

On one side, cacti, ghaf trees and desert bushes, some withered, are scattered on dry land with dust swirling around them - a typical scene in an arid climate.

But along the coastline, you will see clusters of stout, healthy mangrove trees half-submerged in the salty waters and extending into the Persian Gulf. A green oasis has sprung up from an oil-rich region.

Mangroves and deserts hardly sound like a strong pairing, but mangroves dominate the coastal vegetation of the Arabian Peninsula.

The species that dominates the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the grey mangrove, or Avicennia marina - recognised by its carpet of spindly breathing roots encircling each tree. The hardy plant can thrive in high temperatures and salinity.

Abu Dhabi is home to about 70 per cent of the UAE's mangroves, and this figure is set to only grow. During the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last year, the UAE pledged to plant 100 million more mangrove trees by 2030 - to soak up more planet-warming carbon dioxide and guard against sea-level rise.

Last week, the United Nations' top climate science body cited reforestation as a way to help limit the release of greenhouse gas emissions and help mankind avoid a harsher climate change impact.

UAE has about 180 sq km of mangroves, which capture 43,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Adding a 100 million more trees will almost triple the coverage to 483 sq km.

"I call the Avicennia marina the 'tree of giving'," said Mr Fawaz Chehab, 42, head ranger at Jubail Mangrove Park.

"It takes all the bad things, and gives us all the good things by filtering the water and the air."

Mangroves pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by photosynthesis and trap it in the leaves, branches and roots - turning it into blue carbon, which is abundant in the soil and underground.

Blue carbon refers to the carbon locked up in marine ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrass meadows. Mangroves can soak up three to four times more carbon than forests on land.

Jubail Mangrove Park also serves as a nursery for young fishes, sheltering them from predators out in the sea. At times, flamingos will flock on the outskirts of the mangroves.

A section of Jubail Mangrove Park. The UAE has about 180 sq km of mangroves. ST PHOTO: SHABANA BEGUM

In Singapore, the Avicennia marina is critically endangered, and is one of the rarer mangrove species. A few trees are found on the mainland, while the rest are on some of the southern islands.

Mr Fawaz said it is not easy for the mangrove population to naturally regenerate and multiply.

During fruiting season, only 5 per cent of the fallen pod-like seedlings will take root and grow, while the rest of the seeds will either be washed away by the tides or eaten by mangrove crabs - hence the need for human-assisted planting, he explained.

Mr Fawaz is employed by outdoor recreation firm Quest for Adventure, which early last year pledged to plant 50,000 mangrove trees across the emirates to mark the UAE's golden jubilee.

The planting process starts with plucking germinated seeds from the trees before they fall. The seeds will sit in freshwater until they split open to become seedlings. The planted seedlings will be left to grow in nurseries.

A germinated seedling of the grey mangrove that has split open to reveal its thick, seed leaves and root. PHOTO: QUEST FOR ADVENTURE

The saplings are planted in various forests across the emirates between September and March, with the help of visitors and students.

After completing its 50,000 trees project, Quest for Adventure will contribute to UAE's 100 million tree effort.

"We expected the government to announce 30 million trees, but they announced 100 million, a massive challenge. I was speaking to my boss the next day and I said, 'This is a new challenge. You and I have to save all the seeds that we can from now,'" said Mr Fawaz.

In February, the Abu Dhabi Mangrove Initiative was launched to spur research and innovation in mangrove conservation. Soon, a state-of-the-art mangrove nursery for research and learning will be set up in the emirate.

One research area under the initiative is to develop genetic and planting methods to breed resilient strains of mangroves.

Young, grey mangrove (Avicennia marina) plants at Mirfa lagoon. PHOTO: ENGIE ASIA, MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

In a separate and high-tech planting project, drones are being used to drop mangrove seeds into Abu Dhabi's Mirfa lagoon.

Energy giant Engie and the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, alongside tech and imagery firm Distant Imagery, have planted more than 50,000 seeds to date since their Blue Carbon project started in 2020.

The drones were built by Distant Imagery. The project team first mapped the site and analysed environmental conditions to identify the most optimal planting locations within the lagoon.

A number of seeds were also made heavier by coating them with solid nutrients so that the "seed balls" can penetrate hard soil.

A drone releasing seeds of the grey mangrove over the Mirfa lagoon in 2020. PHOTO: ENGIE ASIA, MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

Each drone - a heavy-lift multicopter - can carry up to 25kg of seeds. It is equipped with varied dropping mechanisms based on the soil, elevation and tidal characteristics of the site.

Ms Florence Fontani, vice-president of communications and sustainability at Engie Africa, Middle-East and Asia, said using drones to plant mangroves is a more efficient and less labour-intensive method, allowing the seeds to reach inaccessible corners of the lagoon.

"Sometimes, when people walk and plant manually, they may (unknowingly) destroy mangroves and plants that are already there."

Ms Fontani added that the success rate of the drone-planting efforts is between 35 and 43 per cent, and is expected to increase as drone technology improves over time, with artificial intelligence and other technologies. The drones also regularly track the saplings' growth using cameras and sensors.

An aerial shot of Mirfa lagoon (right), the location of ENGIE's Blue Carbon project. PHOTO: ENGIE ASIA, MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

The Blue Carbon project is preparing to plant more seeds from September this year.

Associate Professor Daniel Friess, a mangrove expert with the National University of Singapore's geography department, noted that the location of planting determines the success of mangrove restoration.

"But ensuring that the physical conditions are suitable over large areas is challenging and takes a lot of planning and investment before any large-scale planting should occur," he added.

A million more trees in Singapore by 2030

In 2020, Singapore launched its OneMillionTrees movement to plant a million more trees across the island by 2030 – to bring the total number of trees here to more than eight million.

This is part of the nation's City in Nature vision, which aims to infuse more greenery into the urban landscape. 

One benefit of planting more trees is that it reduces the urban heat island effect – where urban structures trap heat in the day and release it at night.

To date, more than 366,200 trees have been planted, according to the National Parks Board’s (NParks) TreesSG website. 

Families can also plant a sapling in neighbourhood parks to mark the birth of their child under the recently unveiled FamilyTrees programme.

For those looking to experience the whole tree-planting journey – from excavating the soil using the hefty changkul (gardening hoe) to removing weeds around planted saplings – they can volunteer to help reforest the coastal habitats of Kranji Coastal Nature Park

As part of the movement, more trees – including native and critically endangered species – will be planted in areas such as streetscapes, gardens, parks, park connectors and nature reserves.

Under the 10-year project, about 100,000 trees are to be planted each year, compared with the annual 50,000 previously.

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