[Coral-List] [Fwd: Press: Reef ecosystems buffer tsunami damage]

Jim Hendee Jim.Hendee at noaa.gov
Wed Jan 5 12:58:10 EST 2005

*On Asia's Coasts, Progress Destroys Natural Defenses*
December 31, 2004; Page A5

HONG KONG -- The ring of coral in crystal waters around the Surin Island 
chain off Thailand's west coast forms a sturdy defense against the sea. 
So when the tsunami struck on Sunday it punched a few holes in the reef, 
but the structure mostly held firm.

The reef, says Thai marine environmentalist Thon Thamrongnavasawadi, may 
have saved many lives. Only a handful of people on the islands are known 
to have perished -- most scrambled to safety as the first wave exploded 
against the coral.

Tragically, across much of Asia, coastal communities found themselves 
with no such shield against nature's fury. The protective reefs, sand 
dunes and mangroves that look out toward the Indian Ocean in a broad arc 
from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh and Indonesia have been dynamited and 
bulldozed by a force as unstoppable as the tsunami itself -- the force 
that drives some of the world's fastest-growing economies.

*/Natural Buffer/*

Where dense mangrove forests once provided a buffer between sea and 
land, now there are countless shrimp farms and hotels. Sand dunes have 
been flattened by coastal highways, reefs blown up to make way for ports.

Mangroves -- trees and shrubs that live in tropical tidal zones -- line 
one-quarter of the world's tropical coastlines. But Asia is hurriedly 
uprooting them as its economies take off. In less than 20 years between 
1975 and 1993, Thailand's mangrove area was almost halved, says Edward 
Barbier, a professor of economics at Wyoming University and editor of a 
recent book on Asia's disappearing mangrove ecosystems. India laid waste 
to as much as 50% of its mangroves between 1963 and 1977. Belatedly, 
some countries have made efforts at replanting.

Mangroves offer a double layer of protection against the pounding surf: 
Low red mangroves anchor themselves in mud flats along tidal estuaries, 
their flexible branches and tangled roots absorbing the sea's power. 
Behind them stand black mangroves as tall as trees.

Environmentalists point out that coastal communities around the world 
are vulnerable to natural calamities: Florida took four direct hits this 
year from hurricanes. But whereas the cleanup in Florida takes just a 
few months, it could be years before life returns to normal in poor 
parts of Asia.

To be sure, not even mangroves could have parried the blow from Sunday's 
tsunamis, and the waves inflicted severe damage on relatively 
undeveloped sections of coastline, too.

But ecological damage "has left coastlines vulnerable," says Mr. 
Barbier, and if natural defenses had been left standing, they "would 
have reduced some of the losses" by reducing how far and fast the waves 
surged inland.

In stripping the mangroves, Asian countries have created real estate for 
tourism, one of the region's biggest foreign-exchange earners, but along 
the most exposed part of the continent where the sea laps the shore. 
Thatched tourist cottages hang precariously off cliffs on the Malaysian 
resort island of Langkawi, and seafood restaurants stand on stilts above 
Thai beaches.

Yet while hundreds of sun-seeking tourists from northern parts of Europe 
and Asia were washed away by the tsunami, most victims were impoverished 
fishing families.

Environmentalists and economists describe a process in which relentless 
urban development, aquaculture and tourism create winners and losers 
along Asia's coastline. Tourist resorts increase employment 
opportunities for some locals, but push others aside. Wealthy tourists 
relax under umbrellas in the most desirable beach spots, while the 
fishing families they displace rebuild their flimsy homes in more 
marginal -- and more dangerous -- locations down the coast.

"They lose twice," says Mr. Barbier, who has studied the process in 
Southeast Asia -- once to the developers, next to the elements.

*/Jumbo Spoiler/*

But by far the greatest spoiler of Asia's coastline are shrimp farms. 
Thailand is now the world's biggest shrimp exporter; Indonesia and India 
are not far behind. The U.S. is the biggest buyer. Cheap tiger prawns 
have created prosperity around Asia, but at a cost: Shrimp farms demand 
water and flat land, both found in abundance where mangroves grow.

A typical fish pond looks like a bomb crater, and coastal Asia is pocked 
with them. Each lasts for no more than eight years before the many 
chemicals and antibiotics that are poured into them in the process of 
raising shrimp make them unusable. The shrimp farmers move on, cutting 
more mangrove
forests for new farms. In Indonesia's Aceh province, devastated by the 
tsunami, mangroves are being chopped down as timber for sale to nearby 
Malaysia and Singapore.

Along the east coast of India, had the mangroves been left standing, 
"hotels and settlements would have been a little further away," says 
Swayam Prabha Das of the World Wildlife Fund in New Delhi. "The damage 
could have been limited."

*/Lesson in Ecology/*

The Indian government is now reviewing the implementation of 
regulations, frequently flouted, that bar all development 1,650 feet 
from the sea in areas where mangroves and coral thrive. "I think some 
common sense will prevail now," Ms. Das says.

Likewise in Thailand, while Mr. Thamrongnavasawadi mourns the human loss 
along with the destruction of stretches of reef around the Surin 
Islands, he is heartened by the lesson in ecology that the tsunami 
delivered. Indeed, officials in the Maldives said extensive reefs 
smothered the tsunami, and though 69 people are confirmed dead so far, 
the loss of life there could have been much worse.

Mr. Thamrongnavasawadi's Web site is flooded with offers of help from 
divers eager to participate in a national project to measure the effects 
of the tsunami on Thailand's coral reefs. Of the 20 reefs around the 
Surins, two or three have been irreparably smashed, he says.

"It's a very clear point: Coral reefs save lives," he says.

(End of article.)

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