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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Friday, April 29, 2005

Rebuild Differently After Tsunami


NAIROBI, 22 February (UNEP) -- The destruction caused by the Asian tsunami to the environment offers an opportunity to rebuild in a manner that preserves natural resources for the benefit of the local communities who were hardest hit by the disaster, a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says.

Vulnerability mapping is urgently needed to pinpoint coastal sites where homes, hotels, factories and other infrastructure should be banned or restricted.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “The report underlines the importance of managing the reconstruction in an environmentally sensitive way. Buildings and other infrastructure need to be built in less vulnerable areas and to standards that will protect them and their inhabitants in the event of future tsunamis. This makes sense not only in respect to tsunamis but also with respect to storms surges, floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events.”

Sri Lanka, one of the countries hit by the giant wave of 26 December, has already decided to establish a “no-build zone” up to 200 metres from the mean high-tide line.

Lessons can also be learnt from the Pacific where tsunami events have been more commonplace.

“Hilo, Hawaii, after being damaged several times by tsunamis finally moved back all structures to a less risky elevation and converted the foreshore area into playing fields, parks and other non-essential infrastructure”, says the study, entitled “After the Tsunami - Rapid Environmental Assessment”.

It suggests that the tourism industry, a vital revenue-raising part of many of the affected countries’ economies, should take a lead in locating hotels and resorts in less wave- and flood-prone areas.

Other measures that countries might consider are the establishment of a network of safe-haven towers. Bangladesh, a highly flood-prone nation, has developed community-based concrete towers, stocked with provisions such as emergency water and food supplies, where people can seek refuge.

Among the buildings that did survive were mosques, possibly because they generally have large open ground floors that allowed the waves to pass through.

“Considerations should be given to ensuring that, for elevations below 10 metres above sea level, all public buildings are constructed with this open ‘flow-through’ ground floor design. There appears to be no readily available best practice building code for tsunamis, so one may need to be developed”, says the study.

The report, based on surveys by UNEP teams in the field working with other United Nations agencies, governments and non-governmental organizations, is being released at UNEP’s 23rd Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum where some 100 Environment Ministers have gathered for their annual talks.

“The report indicates that the environment was both a victim of the tsunami but also that it often played its part in reducing the impact. Where healthy and relatively intact features like coral reefs, mangroves and coastal vegetation were in place, there is evidence that the damage was reduced. There are innumerable reasons to maintain healthy habitats like coral reefs. They are nurseries for fish and magnets for tourists. Now we have another reason to conserve them”, said Mr. Toepfer.

“The report also makes it clear that handling the rubble and other wastes generated by the damage is a key issue for many of the countries concerned. It goes together with building the capacity of their environment ministries”, he added.

The Executive Director also emphasized that the report also supported the need for a regional early-warning system, not just for tsunamis but for a wide range of weather-related natural disasters.

The report was coordinated by UNEP’s Task Force based in Geneva and chaired by Pasi Rinne. It was prepared in collaboration with UNEP’s Regional Offices in Asia-Pacific and Africa, other United Nations bodies, governments and non-governmental organizations (including IUCN-the World Conservation Union and the World Wildlife Fund-WWF International). The report covers Indonesia, the Maldives, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Seychelles and Yemen.


Wastes: A key issue affecting many of the countries concerned is how to deal with the huge quantities of waste generated from collapsed buildings and damage to rubbish tips and dump sites.

It is estimated that in Banda Aceh alone, between 7 million and 10 million cubic metres of waste has been generated as a result of the tsunami.

In the Maldives solid wastes such as asbestos, fuel drums and large amounts of rubble have been pinpointed as a key issue along with health care, human and animal wastes and oil leaks from damaged generators.

“The disposal of rubble and waste materials (in Sri Lanka) is proving to be a huge issue because of the sheer volume and associated costs”, says the report, adding that the emergency efforts there have led to the haphazard disposal of rubble along roads, in open fields, drainage ditches, waterways and on beaches.

Managing post-tsunami waste is also ranked as a high priority by the Government of Thailand. In PhiPhiIslands alone, the total quantity of debris is estimated at up to 35,000 tonnes of which some 13,000 tonnes have so far been collected.

Somalia’s coastline has been used as a dumping ground for other countries nuclear and hazardous wastes for many years as a result of the long civil war and, thus, the inability of the authorities to police shipments or handle the wastes.

“The impact of the tsunami stirred up hazardous waste deposits on beaches around North Hobyo and Warsheik, south of Benadir. Contamination from the waste deposits has, thus, caused health and environmental problems to the surrounding local fishing communities”, says the report.

Many people in Somalia’s impacted areas are complaining of unusual health problems, including acute respiratory infections, mouth bleeds and skin conditions.

Water Supplies, Sanitation and Soil Fertility: In many of the affected areas groundwaters, bore holes and aquifers have been contaminated by salt water and bacteria as a result of sea water infiltration and damage to toilets, septic tanks and other sanitation systems.

In the affected areas of Indonesia, rural water systems have been badly affected with an estimated 60,000 wells and 15,000 hand pumps contaminated, damaged or destroyed.

All 28,000 hectares of coastal irrigation schemes in Aceh were severely impacted.

Up to 90 per cent of toilets on some badly affected islands in the Maldives may have been lost. Meanwhile, groundwaters in over 30 islands in the Maldives may have been contaminated by sewage, with tests indicating that many of these supplies now break international health limits.

Many people in the Maldives rely on community or individual rain water storage tanks for their drinking water supplies. According to the Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority, well over 90 per cent have been damaged.

In Somalia there is evidence that hazardous wastes from dump sites have contaminated groundwaters.

In the affected areas of Sri Lanka, all of the 62,000 water wells are now contaminated with salt water and in some cases sewage.

A survey of wells in the six tsunami-affected provinces of Thailand has found that in PhangaNgaProvince that nearly 190 out of 530 wells are unsafe due to sewage-related contamination.

Villagers on the south-east coast of Yemen report increased salinity of groundwater wells as a problem. The tsunami there penetrated up to 400 metres inland so it is likely that some wells have been affected and may be unsuitable for human consumption.

There is concern that the fertility of the soils will be affected in the short to medium term as a result of salt water contamination. Rice crops in the western islands of Indonesia were seen to be yellowing in the fields within three weeks of the disaster.

In Seychelles, soils around Victoria still have a high salt content which is double the amount most plants in the islands can tolerate.

In Sri Lanka, several thousands fruit and rice farms in areas such as Trincomalee and Batticola Districts, have been affected by salt contamination.

The agriculture sector in the Maldives was one of the worst hit. Sea water damaged an estimated 1,200 farms and small holder plots. Over 840,000 timber trees were also damaged on the inhabited islands.

Over 20,000 hectares were inundated by sea water in Thailand with an estimated 1,500 hectares of agricultural land severely impacted.

Corals Reefs, Mangroves and Wildlife: The impact of the tsunami varied enormously across and within affected countries.

In Aceh region, North Sumatra Provinces and the western islands of Indonesia an estimated 30 per cent of the nearly 100,000 hectares of coral reefs were damaged.

Damage resulted partly as a result of the impact and partly due to materials, ranging from vehicles and fuel tankers to silt and mud, being dragged into the ocean.

Nearly a third of the 50,000 hectares of pre-tsunami coastal forests of Aceh and North Sumatra are estimated to have bee damaged, too.

Damage to coral reefs in Seychelles was generally low, with the exception of the Saint Anne marine park where up to 27 per cent of a reef at one site was damaged.

Seychelles’s small but important stands of mangroves amounting to around 30 square kilometres were also impacted mainly as a result of smothering of their “breathing roots” by sand and silt.

Over 12 per cent of the coral reefs along Thailand’s affected Andaman coast have been “significantly impacted” with reefs in some areas so badly affected, such as those in the Mu Ko Surin National Park, that they may soon be closed to tourists.

Turtle projects in Thailand have also been hit hard. For example, the breeding and conservation centre at Tap Lamu Naval Base in PhangNgaProvince is in ruins and around 2,000 turtles have been lost.

There is also concern that large amounts of fishing gear may have been washed away and are now killing and harming marine life.

Research from Yemen indicates that in the Al Mahra Governorate alone, 500 fishing nets, 1,500 octopus traps and 8,000 lobster traps were lost to sea.

“However, the largest possible source of ghost nets is likely to come from losses in Sri Lanka and Indonesia where tens of thousands of nets may have been swept out to sea”, says the report.

Beach erosion and Coastal Vegetation: Some areas of Seychelles, including the Anse Kerlan beach in the north-west of Praslin, did, however, suffer high beach erosion with the rehabilitation costs ranging from $1.4 million to $500,000 depending on the type of measures to be employed.

It is estimated that in the Maldives more than “100 million square metres of beach on 130 islands was eroded by the tsunami’s force. Extensive erosion caused sediment to accumulate in the harbours of 44 islands, impacting an area of approximately 400,000 square metres”, says the report.

Beach erosion also appears to have affected parts of the Yemeni island of Socotra, according to very preliminary studies.

The tsunami affected 650 kilometres of the Somali coast which suggests that the impact was higher because of the huge clearance of coastal mangroves for firewood, building materials and charcoal markets in the Middle East.

Sri Lanka offers some of the best proof that intact coastal ecosystems, such as coral reefs and healthy sand dunes, help buffer aggressive waves.

Most of Yala and BundalaNational Parks were spared because, “vegetated coastal sand dunes completely stopped the tsunami, which was only able to enter where the dune line was broken by river outlets”, says the report.

Some of the severest damage to Sri Lanka’s coast was where mining and damage of coral reefs had been heavy in the past.


A string of recommendations are made including building the skills, knowledge and equipment base of the affected governments and local authorities.

More detailed studies, including long-term monitoring of the countries concerned and the main impacts sites, are needed.

For most, if not all, the countries, the immediate priorities appear to be the condition and rehabilitation of groundwater supplies; waste management, including safe disposal of rubble, construction materials and hazardous wastes; and restoring livelihoods in the agricultural and fisheries sector.

Apart from the consideration of “no-build” or restricted build zones in the coastal zones, governments and local communities should also consider restoring mangrove forests and traditional forms of fish and shrimp farming.

Simply reinstating intensive fish and shrimp aquaculture systems of the kind that have become economically popular in recent years may be a mistake, says the report.

Meanwhile, the recovery and rebuilding process offers a “clear opportunity” for sustainable energy generation based on wind, solar and tidal, it adds.

Community-based, emergency shelters possibly like those in Bangladesh should be considered.

The towers can be made “multi-purpose, such as for village meeting halls, but their primary purpose is to provide a safe haven within, say, a 100 metre radius. This is especially important in those villages where there is no high ground for quite some distance and on low-lying islands”, says the report.

The design of the towers should also be given serious consideration. The tsunami that occurred on 26 December 2004 levelled large numbers of traditionally built wooden homes.

Many other structures were swept away as the wave hit with the force of 1,000 tonnes.

Replanting coastal forests is another proposal. Forests not only take the sting out of aggressive waves and offer other benefits including incomes for local people. Trees are also ideal places where people can climb to avoid being washed away.

“Bangladesh has also planted thousands of trees along the coastal strips as many people have been saved in previous disasters by clinging to the tops of coconut trees”, adds the report.

Notes to Editors

UNEP’s “Asian Tsunami Interim Report” is available at www.unep.org.

For more information, please contact: Eric Falt, Spokesman/Director, UNEP Division of Communications and Public Information, on tel.: +254 20 623292, mobile: +254 733 652656, e-mail: eric.falt@unep.org; Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on tel.: +254 20 623084, mobile: +254 733 632755, e-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org; or Jim Sniffen, Information Officer, UN Environment Programme, New York, tel.: +1-212-963-8094/8210, e-mail: info@nyo.unep.org, Web: www.nyo.unep.org."

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