Published: August 9, 2017

An extensive blue-water mangrove is lined by red mangrove prop roots, Rhizophora mangle, reaching into the water at high tide

An extensive blue-water mangrove is lined by red mangrove prop roots, Rhizophora mangle, reaching into the water at high tide. Raja Ampat, Papua, Indonesia, Pacific Ocean. © Ethan Daniels

They do it all: sequester greenhouse gases, protect marine life, maintain fresh water and, of course, defend against rising sea levels and storm surges.

By Mark Tercek, President and CEO, The Nature Conservancy, and Mike Beck, Lead Marine Scientist, The Nature Conservancy

It’s the lazy days of summer, and many of the folks we know are headed to the coast to spend time with family and relax. We love our coasts, from the wildlife-rich wetlands, to snorkeling reefs and relaxing beaches. But these coastal lands are under threat—and that threat is growing every day.

As conservationists, there’s an imperative to preserve these habitats for their intrinsic beauty and existence in nature. Simply put: they were here first, and they should stay.

But we also recognize that these habitats have incredible value—value that scales far beyond any individual experience or family road trip to the shore. Natural coastal infrastructure provides habitats for a range of biodiversity, forms the backbone for numerous coastal tourism economies—and most importantly—plays a critical role in protecting the mainland from floods and storms.

One of the star players in the coastal protection game is the mangrove. Mangrove trees are anything but one-trick ponies. They do it all: sequester greenhouse gases, protect marine life, maintain fresh water and, of course, defend against rising sea levels and storm surges.

So how can TNC, a conservation organization, convince businesses and governments to invest in mangroves? By putting it in convincing terms: dollars and cents.

TNC recently partnered with World Bank, the Philippines Government and the University of Cantabria to determine the value of mangroves in the Philippines for risk reduction. With the Bank, we developed guidelines and applied tools developed by the engineering and insurance sectors to determine the value of benefits from mangroves and other critical coastal habitats, like reefs. We also applied state of the art hydrodynamic and economic models to show how critical these habitats are.

An idyllic tropical island sits amidst a seagrass bed on Turneffe Atoll, Belize, Caribbean, Atlantic Ocean. © Ethan Daniels

The findings are significant. In a snapshot:

  • Mangroves annually avert more than $1 billion USD in damages to residential and industrial stock. Without mangroves, the cost of damages to residential and industrial property would increase by 28 percent.
  • Based on the Philippines’s current population, the mangroves lost between 1950 and 2010 have resulted in increases in flooding to more than 267,000 people every year. Restoring these mangroves would bring more than $450 USD million per year in flood protection benefits.
  • Without mangroves, flooding and damages to people, property and infrastructure would increase annually by approximately 25 percent.
  • Currently, mangroves protect 613,000 people from flooding, of whom 23 percent live in poverty.

Why is this kind of work important?

Mangroves are being lost around the world—often converted to shrimp aquaculture that provides short-term gains for local economies. In just a few years, these ponds become diseased and are abandoned. And the lasting value of those mangroves—including protecting communities from flood—is lost forever.

Conventional approaches to measuring wealth and economic development have focused on built capital and grey infrastructure. These models often fail to account for the value of the goods and services provided by natural capital itself. And when we have valued natural capital in the past, it’s been in terms of resources we can extract, like timber, fish and fuel.

A freediver swims through crystal clear water near a limestone island in Raja Ampat. © Ethan Daniels

If decision-makers can’t see the bigger picture, it’s more likely they will choose over-exploitation and degradation of resources for short-term gains. In the process, these choices reduce the quantity and quality of the goods and services provided by nature.

To really support these decision-makers in making smart, long-term decisions about mangroves and other coastal ecosystems, we need better valuations of the protection services provided by these coastal habitats. We need to clearly demonstrate that these benefits can help meet risk reduction and environmental management objectives—and that they can do it for nearly the same cost (and more beauty) as artificial breakwaters. And we need to put these annual expected benefits in terms of dollars and cents that can be discussed with ministers of finance and development.

Many critical services, such as flood protection and climate mitigation, rely on keeping ecosystems intact. More studies like the one in the Philippines will demonstrate the value of leaving coastal habitats in place—a dollar value for climate regulation, water purification, and coastal defense among others benefits. 

At TNC, we’ve found that leading-edge science and rigorous valuations open entirely new opportunities for conservation and restoration.  And it opens new partnerships in developing innovative tools, such as parametric insurance policies and blue and resilience bonds for investing in nature. It is why we are working with Swiss Re, Lloyd’s and Munich Re on innovative tools to build resilience with coastal habitats. And it’s why others, like CH2M are working with us on developing engineering guidelines to use nature for building coastal resilience.

We know that the majority of investments in resilience happen following extreme weather events and natural disaster—but these investments rarely are designated to nature itself. Through this type of innovative science and sophisticated finance, we hope to show that nature is exactly the right investment to make.