Fragile Systems Face New Threat, The Australian, 12/24/05
By Amanda Hodge
Article Source: The Australian
A naturally sculpted environment could have been the best defence against the tsunami that ripped into Indian Ocean coastlines last December.
Instead, already damaged coasts and undersea perimeters were victims too. The huge tremors changed the landscape of some Indonesian and Indian islands, lifting reefs out of the water, eroding beaches and submerging coconut groves.
It scarred or tipped over many coral reefs.
Much of the debris scattered by the wave - some of it tainted by oil, asbestos and other toxic substances - still lies across towns and waterways in Sri Lanka and Indonesia and many of the 1100 islands of the Maldives.
Yet the greatest damage to the region's more sensitive environmental habitats had already been wrought long before the tsunami came.
Decades of blast and cyanide fishing, unfettered logging and coral-sand mining has depleted fish species, denuded forests and destroyed fragile reef systems. One quarter of the mangroves in Asia have been destroyed by human activity.
It was in areas where the first line of defence had already been denuded that the tsunami hit hardest. Where coastal dune systems, reefs and mangroves remained intact, the damage was far less.
Now there are concerns that overfishing and illegal logging will intensify.
In February, the UN Environment Fund warned that all reconstruction efforts must consider the need to protect and sustain the environment, to protect the livelihoods of the worst-affected populations and mitigate the impacts of further disasters.
"Particular attention needs to be paid to improved management of coastal fisheries including control of fish-blasting, destructive fishing gear, cyanide fishing and physical destruction of coral reefs," the UNEF said.
Australian coral reef expert Clive Wilkinson fears that advice may not be heeded. Wilkinson, who issues a global report on the state of the world's reefs every two years, has also been in charge of assessing the damage and subsequent recovery of Asia's reefs over the past year.
The scientist says most regions got off reasonably lightly, with the exception of areas around the Nicobar and Andaman Islands closest to the earthquake and Simeulue Island off Banda Aceh, where coral reefs were lifted straight out of the water.
Wilkinson, co-ordinator at the International Marine Project Activities Centre in Townsville, which works for international agencies, expects a marked increase in destructive fishing methods in poor countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka as people whose livelihoods have been destroyed turn to the sea for survival.
"They're going to be back bombfishing unless the Government steps in and the international community tries to find alternative livelihoods for these people," he says.
The huge international relief effort is also having unintended consequences. Aid money has equipped fishermen in heavily hit areas such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India's Andamans, who might previously have used simple canoes, with powerful, motorised fibreglass boats and brand new filament nets that sit on the seabed and trap all fish.
"That means they can go farther and catch more," Wilkinson says. "A major concern now is the fishing capacity could end up at a higher level than it was before the tsunami, [ant it] wasn't sustainable even then.
"In some places like the Andaman Islands, they have reopened national parks and forestry preserves for logging."
Green group World Wide Fund for Nature last week warned that rebuilding Aceh with timber cut from Indonesia's already depleted forests would cause further tragedy.
The tsunami claimed more than 170,000 lives in Aceh and deprived 600,000 people of their livelihoods.
The Indonesian Government has estimated that about 200,000 permanent homes are needed, requiring at least 860,000cum of sawn timber in the next five years. But WWF global tsunami response co-ordinator Ralph Ashton says taking local timber and leaving denuded forest slopes will only cause more of the flash flooding and landslides that have forced thousands of Acehnese to flee their homes in the past two years.