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. rb - Wall Street Journal - December 31, 2004 WAVE OF DESTRUCTION On Asia's Coasts, Progress Destroys Natural Defenses By ANDREW BROWNE Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL 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 coast. "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 says. "It's a very clear point: Coral reefs save lives," he says.
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