[OPE-L] WAVE OF DESTRUCTIONOn Asia's Coasts,Progress Destroys Natural Defenses

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Fri Dec 31 2004 - 13:07:39 EST

I am wondering whether Michael Watts who orginated the kind of
ecological materialism at work in Mike Davis' Late Victorian
Holocausts has yet written about this specific 'natural' disaster. I
sent a piece by Watts on the Nigerian state a while back.

Wall Street Journal -  December 31, 2004

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

"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 brackish 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

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

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