Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Environment & The Tsunami

Think before you buy cheap shrimp; you could be contributing to future disasters

If you haven't already, please take a moment to visit the post below to find out how to contribute money to help the survivors of the Boxing Day tsunami, then read on. Tsunamis are rare, especially in the Indian Ocean, and when a 9.0 earthquake hits there is nothing that humans can do to prevent the destruction that follows. Without minimizing the innocence of the victims, the reality of the suffering, or the horror of this massive loss we should pause to consider some of the man made issues that exacerbated the damage and loss of life; intensive coastal development, industrialized shrimp farming, over-population, rising sea levels, destruction of coral reefs, and the logging of mangrove swamps.

Shrimp farming calls for the removal of mangrove forests and the dynamiting of coral reefs while pollution and over fishing kills reefs. Reefs and mangrove swamps have traditionally and ecologically acted as brake parachutes and shock absorbers on tsunamis and flood tides. Without them, there was nothing to mitigate the incoming force of the water. Construction right on the beach further exposed thousands of people to the waves when throughout our existence humanity has recognized the immediate shoreline to be a treacherous place to set up shop (the foolish man built his house upon the sand, as the spiritual puts it).

There are those who will say that this is not the time to examine the environmental force multipliers that made this disaster so much worse, that we should take time to mourn the dead and help the living. It goes without saying that we should be doing both of these things but this should not preclude our seizing this chance to work to mitigate the damage wrought by our species that so cruelly and inadvertently added to the death toll. If the impact of development and human activity is negligible as some will claim, why is it then that northern California and New Zealand (prime tsunami targets) imposed restricted use coastal zones in the most likely affected areas?

You can choose to agree or not, but this article for one makes a moderately compelling case for at least thinking about our interactions with nature's coastal defenses:

From India's The Hindu newspaper:

The mangroves in Pitchavaram and Muthupet region acted like a shield and bore the brunt of the tsunami. The impact was mitigated and lives and property of the communities inhabiting the region were saved.

"When we started the foundation 14 years ago, we initiated the anticipatory research programme — a two-pronged strategy — to meet the eventualities of sea level rise due to global warming. One is to conserve and regenerate coastal mangroves along the eastern coast of the country, and the second is transfer of salt-tolerant genes from the mangroves to selected crops grown in the coastal regions.

It is now found that wherever the mangroves have been regenerated, especially in the Orissa coast, the damage due to tsunami is minimal," he said.

The Hindu : Front Page : 'Mangroves can act as shield against tsunami'

A map showing the overlap between mangrove swamps and major shrimp/prawn fisheries and aquaculture sites on the eastern edge of the area affected by the tsunami

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