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WHILE a comprehensive assessment of the full impact of the tsunami disaster on natural ecosystems will take weeks or even months, conservationists are predicting that the effect is likely to be very severe ecologically as well as economically.
The latter consequence is largely due to the degraded vitality of the marine and coastal ecosystems that sustained a host of marine resources which in turn support thousands of coastal communities around the Indian Ocean.
The undersea earthquake off the west coast of Aceh province in Indonesia triggered killer waves across the Indian Ocean, causing widespread devastation that is expected to worsen the environmental crisis faced by the region.
“The tsunami has struck ecosystems that in many cases are already stressed by unsustainable resource use such as over-fishing and habitat destruction, including development or indiscriminate cutting down of mangroves for prawn culture,” said the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in a statement issued by its marine programme.
The Switzerland-based organisation that takes pride in its scientific input in worldwide conservation initiatives, warned that damage to the inter-tidal and sub-tidal areas is expected to be extensive, causing drastic change in the health of coastal marine ecosystems with serious implications for the fishery sector, particularly small-scale, inshore fisherfolk.
The force of the tsunami, it said, can move enormous boulders and sections of coral reefs. There is significant contamination by run-offs from land, with large quantities of waste and pollutants, debris, soil and organic matter (like sewage) hampering existing recovery plans.
Increased turbidity in the wake of the tsunami will smother and suffocate large areas, killing many organisms that may have survived the wave itself.
“This is a very serious consequence that may have lasting effects. Mangrove areas have been damaged and their fronts may have receded, particularly where they were weakened and large amounts of debris have been trapped in them.
“Coral reefs that did not sustain a direct hit by the tsunami may suffer from the aerial exposure caused by the receding water,” said the statement.
Apart from these immediate effects, conservationists warn of the long-term implications of devastated ecosystems.
Shorelines may have changed and are likely to increasingly do so if natural protection systems such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds have been wiped out. The effect of the loss of breeding fish populations, habitat and nursery grounds could have severe implications on the livelihood of coastal populations in the years to come.
Loss of key attractions such as beaches and reefs will also affect the tourism industry, a vital source of income in many parts of the region.
The IUCN Forest Conservation Programme, in a separate statement, pointed out that in the ecologically-fragile Andaman and Nicobar Islands where severe ecological damage has been reported, the effect could be worse.
Home to some of the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes, the damage caused to their habitat of inland estuaries and coastal mangroves could place these endangered indigenous people at grave risk, even though they are reported to have survived the tsunami itself.
“Moreover, if salination on the islands is deep and widespread, it could leave the soil less able to support vegetation, which in turn could increase their vulnerability to risks of further erosion and undermine the islanders’ ability to produce food,” it added.
While early observations suggest that not much harm may have been caused to terrestrial wildlife in protected forests along the coast, it is likely that trees, vegetation cover, freshwater sources, forest boundaries, roads and other physical infrastructure are affected.
There is also a possibility of salination of forest soils, posing high risks to forest survival and regeneration.
Based on analysis of the pattern of destruction, a theory is emerging that areas with healthier ecosystems were less affected. For example, in Sri Lanka, less altered and more vegetated parts of the sea-land interface withstood the tsunami to a much greater extent than areas where vegetation had been removed or the shoreline changed or encroached on.
“Structures in more obviously vulnerable locations, including many hotels and residential areas built too close to the sea or in coastal reservation areas, have fared worse and artificial canals that connect lagoons to the sea appear to have aggravated the damage by funnelling water inland, resulting in flash floods in urban and sub-urban areas as seen in Hambanthota town in the south coast,” it said.
Almost 40% of the total global mangrove area is concentrated in Asia. The continent, however, also accounts for the highest loss of the habitat over the last decade. This loss has primarily been attributed to the large-scale conversion of mangroves for aquaculture and tourism infrastructure development.
IUCN said post-tsunami rebuilding plans must be committed to sustainable coastal planning.
“This needs to be considered from the very start of reconstruction and rehabilitation. For example, setback lines that indicate the safe distance of constructions from the seashore must be adhered to, or where absent, defined, and coastal vegetation that prevents erosion should be actively promoted.
“While the effects of the tsunami have been disastrous, it is also a possibility to enhance coastal management and livelihoods for a more secure future,” it added.
Following the tsunami disaster, authorities in the Indian Ocean region are likely to pay more attention to the protection of coastal ecosystems.
Closer to home, political leaders are calling for a halt to coastal vegetation destruction. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi has ordered that mangrove swamps be left untouched.
In response to Abdullah’s comment, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Adenan Satem announced a three-month study to create an inventory of mangrove forest distribution in the country and pledged funding under the Ninth Malaysia Plan for rehabilitation.
Adenan also said that the country had 564,971ha of mangrove forests in Peninsular Malaysia, 340,689ha in Sabah and 126,400ha in Sarawak.
A veteran conservationist pointed out that the National Wetland Policy which was approved last February was left idle without an official launch and state governments hardly consulted the document in their coastal land use planning.
Mangrove management and conservation strategies are also covered by the National Forestry and National Biodiversity policies which have also been ignored.
The truth is, we don’t need another study to find out what we have and what we should do to protect the remaining mangrove forests. What is seriously lacking is the political will to do the right thing.
Tsunami affects turtle conservation programmes
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