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When the Tsunamis Struck, Mangroves and Reefs Saved Lives
Emily Gertz, 6 Jan 05

reef_nasa_landsat.jpgWhen the tsunamis struck around the Indian Ocean rim, mangroves and coral reefs saved lives.

According to ChannelNewsAsia,

"Places that had healthy coral reefs and intact mangroves were far less badly hit than places where the reefs had been damaged and the mangroves ripped out and replaced by beachfront hotels and prawn farms," said Simon Cripps, director of the Global Marine Programme at the environment group WWF Internationational.

... He compared the outcome of the December 26 tsunami in the Maldives, the low-lying archipelago which emphasises good coral management in its policy of upmarket tourism; and the Thai resort of Phuket, where mangroves and a coastline belt have been replaced by aquaculture and a hotel strip.


Both places were swamped and suffered severe economic damage. In the Maldives, just over 100 people have been counted as dead and missing in a populace of 270,000; in Phuket, where there is a roughly similar size of population at peak season, the toll is nearly 1,000."

Thailand's isolated neighbour, Myanmar, where much of the mangrove remains intact, was notably spared the scale of devastation which struck the Thai coast, WWF's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific, Dermot O'Gorman, told AFP, according to US satellite images and eyewitness accounts.

[Possibly, this answers Ethan's questions about the tsunami's impacts on Myanmar.] has reported that in Tamil Nadu, on the southeast coast of India, "areas in Pichavaram and Muthupet with dense mangroves suffered fewer human casualties and less damage to property compared to areas without mangroves."

"The ring of coral in crystal waters around the Surin Island chain off Thailand's west coast forms a sturdy defense against the sea," wrote Andrew Browne in the Wall Street Journal on December 31. "So when the tsunami struck on Sunday it punched a few holes in the reef, but the structure mostly held firm."

More: "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 waves exploded against the coral."

As for devastation of the reefs and mangroves themselves, understandably this has taken a back seat to helping the living, and finding the dead. But early reports, such as these noted in the Times of India, suggest that the damage is "severe and lasting:"

Eleven days into the sudden disaster, [India's] Union Environment Ministry met on Wednesday evening with officials and scientists from ten institutes and organisations to decide on a strategy on what they could do to repair damage which would impact lives.

Teams aren't rushing out anywhere but the scientists called in for the two-hour meeting are already working in some of the tsunami-hit areas like Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

"The preliminary information is that there is significant damage," said environment secretary Prodipto Ghosh.

The devastation is extensive, most so in the Andaman and Nicobar islands which bore the brunt of the death waves.

As they're able, reef specialists are starting to send info to the excellent ReefBase. Notes on severe but localized damage to reefs off of Phuket and the Phi Phi islands came in from Thailand, while researcher in Kenya reported, "We felt the rapid surging and receding tides on the afternoon of the 26th, but these were not strong enough to uproot or damage corals..."

Science in the region may be set back severely: "...the damages to NARA (the National Fisheries and Aquatic Research Agency of Sri Lanka) have been estimated at over USD 50 million. This includes the loss of their research vessel. As you can understand it is a significant blow so any assistance to this institution would be both needed and appreciated."

The United Nations announced that it intends to devote about US $1 million to study environmental damage to the region.

And last week, commenting on my post about Restoring Mangroves, Faisal Parish of the Malaysia-based non-profit Global Environment Centre wrote that GEC "is starting to undertake an assessment of the linkage of mangroves and Tsunami damage linked to a larger programme on wetlands and climate change."

Words in a conference room, or in the news (or on a blog), aren't action on the ground. But from my perspective--living in a country so rich, but where environmental news reporting has nearly become a sham, and a cohesive, forward-thinking national environmental policy is something on the order of a hallucination--it's head-spinning and inspiring to see environment, economics, public health and a better future definitively linked together like this across the board of mainstream reporting.

And from GEC to ReefBase, Mangrove Action Project to FOE Indonesia, and more, there are folks with the local, social, economic and ecological cred already networking and ready to act.

Fewer people died near healthy, intact mangroves and coral reefs. Hard to argue with that.

(Image: Southeastern India-northern Sri Lanka, from Millennium Coral Reefs: Landsat Archive, NASA)

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Emily, you've heard of this guy, right? He's located on Florida's Indian River Lagoon (near Vero Beach), which has some active projects going on. The big problem there is brazilian pepper, an invasive species that was originally introduced by a railroad magnate.

There's also the Manzanar Project in Eritrea, which is kind of interesting, notably because it's run by a guy named Gordon Sato who used to be interned at, well, Manzanar.

(sorry if I'm giving anything away)

Posted by: praktike on 6 Jan 05

The article that you quote is a perfect example of the scare tactics of some environmental organizations. The rush to judgement and lack of scientific thoroughness is appalling.

The very first line of the ChannelNewAsia story says, "Long-term environmental lessons must be drawn from Asia's tsunami disaster".

I find it interesting that Mr Cripps has figured out these long-tem lessons in only ten days. He must be an extremely brilliant man and his superpowers must also include long range vision since was able to make his conclusion from Geneva. He didn't even have to view the destroyed communities to draw his conclusion.

Also, for some reason, he concludes that the environmental damage is worse in Thailand because more people died. Huh??

A recent BBC article draws a totally different conclusion from our "expert" Mr. Cripps. So, maybe reef management makes no difference whatsover.

"Although none of the islands extends more than 1.8m (6ft) above sea level, the Maldives was spared much of the destructive impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami because of the shallow waters along its coastline.

With no land mass for the swell of water to build up against - as it did in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka - the waves did not reach more than 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) in height."

How about if we wait a few months or more for real scientists to study the impacts and causes of the tsunami's destruction before jumping to any conclusions?

Posted by: Joseph Deely on 8 Jan 05

There is a Christian Science Monitor article on how mangroves attenuated the impacts of the tsunami

A natural, low-tech solution to tsunamis: mangroves

"Mangroves form a natural barrier between villages and the roiling sea, and could offer a reliable backup to any new international effort to coordinate warnings and draw up evacuation procedures.

"For thousands of years, mangrove forests have provided a natural buffer against cyclones and other storms that often hit the shores of southern India," says V. Selvum, project director of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Madras (Chennai).

Mr. Selvum says that 172 families were saved from the tsunami in the fishing village of Thirunal Thoppu in India's Tamil Nadu state only because the mangroves are thriving and dense there. He also mentions three other Tamil Nadu villages where damage had been minimized by the aquatic trees."

Posted by: Garry Peterson on 11 Jan 05

FYI - Links to Mangrove Action Project and Reefbase are not working

Posted by: Ron Mader on 12 Jan 05

Looks like ReefBase is down for maintenance; I'll try to keep an eye on it. The MAP link should work now. Thanks.

Thanks for the constructive comments and links, above.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 12 Jan 05



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