"We have very few seedlings this year to replant the [mangrove] trees in Yangon division and the Ayeyarwady delta," Win Sein Naing, chairman of the Mangrove Service Network (MSN), an NGO, which has been restoring mangrove forests in the delta since late 2001, told IRIN. "We also don't have enough funds to rebuild the plantations."
According to the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) report, 16,800 hectares (30 percent) of mangrove forest were destroyed, while an estimated 20,999 ha of forest plantations were damaged in Yangon and Ayeyarwady Divisions.
In addition, clearing before the cyclone made the area more vulnerable. In recent decades, farmers in the Ayeyarwady Delta cleared vast tracts of coastal mangrove forests to expand rice cultivation and also used the trees for timber and charcoal.
In 1924, mangrove forests were estimated to cover more than 242,811ha. By 1998, only one-fifth, or 48,562ha, remained. Much of this loss was due to a boom in the charcoal industry in the 1970s, when urban demand for cheap cooking fuel resulted in a rapid degradation of the forests.
In the 1990s, agricultural encroachment and the introduction of shrimp farms further cut into the mangrove forests.
The loss of mangrove forests and associated ecosystems will have a significant impact on those segments of the rural population that depend on forestry for their livelihoods, environmentalists said. A large number of artisans, fishermen, landless poor and marginal farmers rely on them as a source of direct and indirect income.
Masakazu Kashio, a forest resources officer for FAO in Bangkok, suggested the government establish a proper land-use plan that recognises the need to protect vulnerable areas from high winds, storm surge and flood water.
Most of the thousands of people who perished when Cyclone Nargis hit are believed to have drowned in the 3.5m storm surge that swept nearly 40km inland.
"It will probably take more than half a decade to restore the [mangrove] forest," said U Ohn, general secretary of the Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association (FREDA), a semi-official NGO formed by retired personnel from the Forest Department of the Ministry of Forestry.
U Ohn said the group needed international funding to restore the mangrove forests. The estimated cost of restoring one hectare of mangrove forest is between US$400 and US$500, according to environmental specialists.
Mangrove forests are a source of food and shelter for myriad species. Many types of fish rely on them as nurseries, with fallen leaves supplying nutrient-rich food to fish too small to survive in open waters.
While restoring the forests is of a great importance, educating the people to their environmental value is also crucial, said specialists, who warn that if local residents ignore the value of mangrove forests, it could threaten their food security.
As the forests have been depleted, the fish population has dropped significantly in recent years, they said.
"Nothing will be sustainable," said U Ohn, "if you're going against nature itself."