Tsunami Shattered Countries Learn Green Values the Hard Way

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, June 21, 2005 (ENS) - The Indonesian environmental ministry and the United Nations environmental agency opened a three day tsunami reconstruction meeting here today to work towards ensuring that good environmental practices are integrated into recovery plans for devastated Aceh province. National and international nongovernmental organizations are participating in the meeting.

In April, Indonesian officials endorsed a set of WWF recommendations for environmentally sustainable reconstruction of Aceh, hardest hit of all areas in the 11 countries affected by the December 26, 2004 tsunami. The devastating walls of water were the result of an undersea earthquake near the coast of the Indonesia island of Sumatra where Aceh is located.

Covering issues from coastal zone management to strengthening local institutions, the WWF guidelines focus on the use of responsibly sourced building materials, especially timber.

The Governor of Aceh Azwar Abubakar has declared that Aceh will be designated as a Green Province with 40 percent of its area to be protected, so that the need to obtain timber for reconstruction does not destroy remaining forest areas.

Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said today that by holding the conference, "We are bringing international solidarity on Aceh to a real and meaningful implementation of sustainable development here."


The giant waves crashed ashore devastating the Indonesian province of Aceh. (Photo by Agus Muldya courtesy Jakarta Independent Media Center)
"It is therefore vital that during the re-construction of shattered coastlines and settlements, the environment is taken into account along with the economic and social factors," Witoelar said.

He emphasized that a healthy environment is also vital to achieving development goals and a more stable, healthy and prosperous world.

"The tsunami in the Indian Ocean taught the world some hard, shocking but important lessons which we ignore at our peril,” said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer.

“We learnt in graphic and horrific detail that the ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangroves and sea grasses which we have so casually destroyed are not a luxury," Toepfer said. "They are life savers capable of defending our homes, our loved ones and our livelihoods from some of nature’s more aggressive acts."

In Sri Lanka, more than 15,000 wells were rendered unusable by and more than 492,000 tons of rubble were left by walls of water that crashed onto most of the island's coastline. But in areas with healthy coral reefs and mangroves, the tsunami's impacts were reduced.

These findings are contained in a UNEP assessment report issued Friday in Colombo. The assessment concentrated on gathering large amounts of site-specific data, working with teams from the country’s main universities.

The tsunami afffected about 85 percent of the island nation's coastline. For the UNEP assessment, detailed physical and ecological descriptions were made of more than 800 sites at one kilometer intervals, supporting the preparation of a digital atlas of tsunami damage in Sri Lanka.

More than 750 sites were inspected for contamination by toxic wastes, sewage and sea salt. The report identified hot spots requiring urgent cleanup.

The detailed reports, the atlas and site inspection studies and analyses provide the only comprehensive, scientific assessment of environmental issues raised by the tsunami in Sri Lanka. The data will support future environmental remediation work.

Meanwhile, Sir Lanka's Minister of Science and Technology Tissa Vitarana, MD, says the aid funding pledged to assist tsunami victims is not helping his country.

"Very little of it is reaching us," he told ENS at the Asia Pacific All Hazards Workshop June 10 in Honolulu.

Presented by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the workshop was aimed at developing tsunami and disaster resilience through new partnerships and technologies.

"The donors have the money and they come to us asking that we put together a proposal for them to fund," said Dr. Vitarana. "But we don't have the expertise to write such a proposal. We need donor funded experts to help us draft proposals," he said.

Dr. Vitarana said Sri Lanka would have been better prepared for the earthquake-triggered tsunami if the country had a network of earthquake detection instruments. But even writing a grant proposal to fund such a network is a challenge for the country today, he said.

Sri Lanka

Tsunami devastation in Sri Lanka (Photo courtesy UNDP)
"Before we make a proposal for funding to build a seismographic network, we need experts to specify what kind of instruments to buy, where to place them and how to collect and use the data," Vitarana said. "So we are in a Catch-22 situation."

He hopes that the work of former U.S. President Bill Clinton acting as the UN secretary-general's envoy to ensure that donors not only pledge but disburse the money needed for recovery and reconstruction, and that it actually reaches the communities who need it most, will help Sri Lanka.

"I met Bill Clinton at a dinner in Colombo hosted by our President," Vitarana said. "He seems like a genuine person who really wants to help. Maybe if he knows what our problems are, he can bridge the gaps."

Immediately after the Indian Ocean tsunami, UNEP created a task force to respond to urgent requests for technical assistance from affected countries, including Sri Lanka and the Maldives, an island nation southwest of Sri Lanka on the equator.

In the Maldives, the assessment found that the world-famous resorts in good condition and mostly open for business, but the country’s 69 inhabited islands face environmental devastation.

The tsunami generated 290,000 cubic meters of waste, and asbestos from crushed roofing material is mixed into the debris.

Coastal zones were eroded and food crops destroyed. Groundwater supplies were contaminated by seawater and sewage from disrupted septic systems. In water samples, the assessment team found levels of biological contamination of groundwater too high to measure.

The UNEP assessment found that tsunami impacts were greatest in the Maldives where villages or cultivated fields met the sea with little or no coastal protection. Where natural coastal forests and vegetation were left untouched, soil erosion and building destruction were not so severe.

"The tsunami has brought home most traumatically our dependence on the environment,” said Abdullahi Majeed, deputy minister in the Maldives Ministry of Environment and Construction.

s “I earnestly hope that this major disaster is not a precursor of what is to follow in Maldives with the projected rise in ocean levels," he said. "We are working closely with international partners to ensure that reconstruction is conducted in an environmentally sound manner."