Seagrass protects Banshkhali shorelines

Seagrass at Banshkhali beachMinhas Uddin

Last week while scrolling through social media, a headline by the Reuters news agency on a group of volunteers planting eelgrass seedlings on a popular beach in Yokohama, Japan, caught my attention. As the escalating climate change impacts have become the single biggest existential threat facing whole of humanity today, Japan has taken up this action in a bid to combat the climate change and to achieve Japan’s environmental goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Interestingly it reminded me of what we have on our beach in Banshkhali, a upazila in the country’s southeastern coastal belt, around 40 kilometers south of Chittagong City.

Eelgrass, locally called uri, is a variety of seagrass that grows in shallow coastal waters, often at the intertidal zone of beach. Unlike Cox’s Bazar and other beaches in the country, Banshkhali beach has a vast shoreline that goes under water at high tide and at low tide water recedes far from the shore to a few kilometers down making a huge intertidal zone along the beach. Eelgrass has grown at the Ratnapur point of the shore spanning over three kilometers.

Eelgrass has spread over the area, and it now looks like a vast grassland. While this is a good food source for many animals like cows, buffalos, local people often keep them away from grazing and cutting as they understand how eelgrass protects them. The Forest Department also keeps it under surveillance
Seagrass along Banshkhali shore
Minhas Uddin

Though from our childhood we have been seeing some eelgrass at that point, in recent years, eelgrass has spread over the area, and it now looks like a vast grassland. While this is a good food source for many animals like cows, buffalos, local people often keep them away from grazing and cutting as they understand how eelgrass protects them. The Forest Department also keeps it under surveillance.

Being from a coastal village called Ratnapur in Banskhali and having grown up by the beach, I have witnessed things that we have lost to sea over the last few decades. I remember my father and many other people from our village used to cultivate watermelons, cucumbers, muskmelons and tomatoes on the sandy hummocks along the shore that no longer exist now. The rising sea or sea level rise has claimed it all in the last two decades. Not only that, a few years ago, a big area of mangrove forest has been cleared to make space for shrimp cultivation and salt fields, leaving us with no protection against cyclones.

Nevertheless, over the last few years, there has been a substantially visible change at Ratnapur point. The area has started being built back. The intertidal zone has thrived with eelgrass, protecting the shoreline from erosion. Basically, eelgrass helps accumulate the sea mud and other particles coming with waves and making the land compact. Over the period of time, this area becomes the home to mangrove forest or keora trees as they can easily grow there. The eelgrass is like a bed made keora trees. Further, it also plays a crucial role in protecting the coastal ecosystems. It provides shelter and food to a diverse aquatic species on the shore including crabs, seahorses, turtles and many other tiny invertebrates.

What we did not know is it has a capacity to absorb carbon from the environment. A study by Port of San Diego found in 2023 that eelgrass is a powerhouse in the climate change fight. It absorbs up to 10 times more carbon than forest on land. And then it made sense to me why the volunteers in Japan started planting the eelgrass on their beach and Reuters made it their headlines.

Seagrass bed at Banshkhali shore
Minhas Uddin

Bangladesh is one of the countries in the world hit hardest by climate change. The country has a long history of frequently being affected by climate adversities including floods, cyclones and embankment erosion due to sea level rise along the shorelines. According to Global Climate Risk Index, Bangladesh ranks seven among the nations most affected by the extreme weather. Bangladesh weather bureau said this year April is the hottest April on record.

Banshkhali, being on the coastline of the Bay of Bengal and having an over 40km coastline, has always been vulnerable to climate change. Every year people living along the shoreline are trying to adjust with the unpredictable and destructive behaviors of the sea. The powerful cyclone of 29 April 1991 still haunts many in our village. Banshkhali coastal areas were the most affected by that cyclone that caused over hundred thousand lives including more than 40,000 from Banshkhali and devastated the whole coastal belt including Pekua, Kutubdia, Moheshkhali, Anowara and Sonadia.

In the past, the embankment along the shore – without natural protection system like mangrove forest, seagrass or other trees and plants – has often failed to stand against the powerful tides and have broken. This eelgrass works like a natural protection for the embankment. Innovative climate ideas from Bangladesh sometimes made global headlines in the past few years. I think this vast tract of eelgrass– and if more planted on the rest of the shoreline and taken care of – could help us protect the embankment and could be another headline of combatting climate change like that of Japan.

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“For people along the coastal area, being aware of climate change is a survival need. Given the growing climate impacts that are affecting their life and livelihoods, they cannot survive without being aware of it and learning more of that,” says Md. Mujibur Rahman, a columnist, social activist and education-administrator from the coastal village. “To take climate action in line with the National Adaptation Plan is the prime need of the hour for us.” he added.  

We know now that eelgrass does not only help us protect our shorelines and ecosystem, but also contributes to significant carbon reduction from environment. To build a climate resilient coastal belt, we have to look to carbon friendly natured based solutions like planting more seagrass, mangrove and other trees on the shore. Mobilising local volunteer organisations and engaging them in creating climate awareness among people and supporting them to take other action like planting climate resilient trees could be a great step forward to achieve our climate goals by 2050.

* Parvez Uddin Chowdhury is a development worker from Banshkhali

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