Decades after devastating cyclone, mangroves are on the rebound in Mozambique

In the lead up to International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem on 26 July, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is running a series of stories on mangroves, and their impact on the environment and economies of countries across the world.

Twenty years later, people are still talking about Cyclone Eline in Xai-Xai, Mozambique.

The 2000 storm—the longest-lived cyclone on record in the Indian Ocean—hammered the local Mahielene community, which sits in the estuary of the Limpopo River about 225 kilometres north of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. Eline wiped out fields, homes and nearly 60 per cent of the mangroves that surrounded the Limpopo River estuary.

Suddenly, residents, who used these saltwater trees and bushes for wood and ate or sold the fish living among their roots, were without their livelihood. Nor could they rely on mangroves to filter pollutants from water and protect shorelines from more flooding and coastal erosion.

As a response to this environmental and socio-economic crisis, the community, the Mozambican government and partners launched an effort to restore the trees so essential to life in the Limpopo River estuary.

There are now around 120 hectares of thriving mangrove trees. But despite these impressive results, there’s still a long way to go. Four hundred hectares of mangroves still need to be restored to reach pre-Cyclone Eline cover, which is why the National Agency for Environmental Quality Control, Eduardo Mondlane University, and other partners are undertaking a project to restore mangroves and support the Mahielene community.

Mangrove seedlings in a nursery near the Limpopo River estuary in Mozambique.Mangrove seedlings in a nursery near the Limpopo River estuary in Mozambique. Photo by Nairobi Convention

“Planting and cultivating seedlings—the traditional mangrove restoration model—is often expensive, slow, and prone to failure,” said Jared Bosire, Project Manager with the United Nations Environment Programme’s Regional Seas Programme. There are just too many things that can go wrong, he noted. The sediment level could change, the water’s salinity could be too high, or the elevation may not be suitable for the seedlings.

That’s why this project will combine traditional planting techniques with a unique hydrological method that lets nature to do its work. Flooding after Cyclone Eline had caused sediments to shift and bury the roots of many mangroves. With the help of the community, the project proponents will dig channels in the estuary to allow seawater to flow in towards the mangroves, which will feed the existing trees and allow their own seedlings to thrive. “Essentially, we’ll be letting nature do its job,” said Celia Macamo of Eduardo Mondlane University. “We want to create the original, natural conditions to help the mangroves restore themselves.”

Their restoration efforts will be supported by the Guidelines on Mangrove Ecosystem Restoration in the Western Indian Ocean Region, a new publication from the Nairobi Convention and partners that provides a step-by-step guide on how to build successful restoration projects and avoid common replanting pitfalls.

The project aims to revitalize 20 hectares of mangroves. Officials will also help the local community of Mahielene design and approve a local mangrove management plan. It will outline a planting scheme, rules regulations for cutting mangroves, and penalties for offenders who break those rules. The management plan is expected to serve as a model for the restoration of the remaining 400 hectares in Mahielene and other degraded mangrove sites in the wider Western Indian Ocean region. The project will also help Mozambique achieve its targets under Sustainable Development Goal 14.2 under which the country committed to protect marine and coastal ecosystems.