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Commentary (January 14, 2005)

Fight Natural Disasters with Nature

Michael Richardson (Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore)

Coastal communities and their governments in Asia and around the Indian Ocean are still reeling from the destruction caused by the tsunami. They are preoccupied with the heavy task of coping with the needs of survivors, clearing the ruins and trying to rebuild shattered families and livelihoods. Amid this urgent activity, there is not much time for long-term planning. But some conservation groups are calling on governments and international agencies to carry out environmentally sustainable reconstruction.

Otherwise, they warn, poorly executed redevelopment will make coastal and island communities just as vulnerable to future natural disasters as they were to the tsunami. Nearly 40 island nations - attending a UN conference in Mauritius this week on the vulnerability of small island states to natural disasters and climate change - are expected to endorse this call.

"Healthy ecosystems can save lives," says Isabelle Louis, Asia-Pacific programme director of WWF. "Places that had healthy coral reefs and intact mangroves, which act as natural buffers, were less badly hit by the tsunami than those where the reefs had been damaged and mangroves ripped out and replaced by prawn farms and poorly planned beachfront hotels."

For example, reports from Maldives suggest that the damage could have been much worse if the government's policy of protecting the network of coral reefs that shield the islands from the open sea had not been so diligent. When the seismic waves struck India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, areas with dense mangroves suffered fewer casualties and less damage to property compared with areas that do not have these barriers.

Tragically, the full force of the tsunami was felt in areas where coral reefs and mangroves no longer exist, or were never present.

Coral reefs are the equivalent of natural breakwaters, providing a physical barrier that reaches the sea surface, causing waves to break offshore so that they dissipate most of their destructive energy before reaching land. WWF estimates that coral reefs provide US$9 billion annually in economic benefits associated with coastal protection. The reefs are also important breeding grounds for fish.

Mangrove forests, too, act as natural shock absorbers. They provide nutrients and spawning grounds for a variety of fish and shellfish. They are also a source of timber, charcoal and medicine to local communities. When managed properly, they can support livelihoods, as well as provide coastal protection, the UN Environment Programme said.

Yet in many areas of Asia, mangroves and coral reefs have been replaced with hotels, shrimp farms, highways, housing and commercial developments. Conservation groups say it is vital that these coastal ecosystems are restored. They also recommend that developments are not built within a safety zone from the high-tide mark and that coastal-use planning and policies, including disaster-risk assessments, are carried out.

Sri Lanka's government has indicated that it intends to make sure communities and tourist resorts in the tsunami-affected areas are relocated a safe distance from the sea.

The president of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, told Australian Prime Minister John Howard when they met at the tsunami summit in Jakarta last week that he wanted help in getting children back to school and repairing coral reefs.

Australia has offered help in both areas. But these are just small initial steps in what conservation groups and the UN Environment Programme say should be a full-scale "green" reconstruction programme.

(Originally appeared in the January 14, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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