Tsunami disaster highlights need for environmental protection

Posted: 24 January 2005

Beyond the horrific loss of human life, the devastating earthquake and tsunami has ravaged Indonesia's coastal environment, causing damage and loss to natural habitats and vital ecosystems.

A survivor surveys the devastation caused by the Asian Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo: Jarkata Independent Media Centre.
A survivor surveys the devastation caused by the Asian Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo: Jarkata Independent Media Centre.
A survivor surveys the devastation caused by the Asian Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia.© Jarkata Independent Media Centre.
According to a preliminary assessment of the disaster carried out by the Indonesian Government and the international donor community, the economic cost to the environment has been estimated at $675 million.

Commenting on the report, Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said, "these latest findings from just one of the affected countries show that there have been significant consequences for the environment and for the livelihoods of local people as a result of the tsunami. They underline how the environment can be both a victim and both a buffer against vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters."

He also added that "the recovery and reconstruction process underway must also invest in the environmental capital of natural resources, the forests, mangroves, and coral reefs that are nature's buffer to such disasters and their consequences."

Forest loss

Among critical coastal habitats in Aceh and North Sumatra, 25,000 hectares (ha) of mangroves, 30 per cent of 97,250 ha of previously existing coral reefs, and 20 per cent of 600 ha of seagrass beds have been damaged according to the assessment. The economic loss is valued at $118.2 million, $332.4 million, and $2.3 million respectively.

As a result of infiltration of saline water, sediment and sludge, it is estimated that 7.5 kilometres of river mouth is in need of rehabilitation, and hundreds of wells in the rural area need to be cleaned up.

Along the coastal strip, an estimated 48,925 ha of forest have been affected. It is estimated that 30 per cent of this area has been washed away. In addition, large areas - approximately 300 kilometres - of coastal land have been degraded or entirely lost.

Dangerous debris

The report also calls for the collection, processing and disposal of the huge amount of debris and waste caused by the tsunami, to be properly managed. If not, it warns, wastes may pose a risk to human health as well as the environment.

Local environmental management capacity - buildings, equipment, staff and records - have also been significantly affected by the disaster, and the report stresses the importance of early re-establishment of solid waste management and other essential services.

Three major industrial sites are confirmed to be damaged, including Pertamina (oil depot in Krueng/Banda Aceh), Pertamina (oil depot in Meulaboh), and Semen Andalas Indonesia (cement factory in Banda Aceh). Possible contamination caused by damage to these and other industrial installations are a matter of serious concern to human health and the environment, warn the authors of the assessment.

Crisis centre

Specific requests for help have so far come from Indonesia, which has asked UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to establish an environmental crisis centre, the Maldives, which has requested emergency waste management assistance and impact studies on coral reefs and livelihoods, and Sri Lanka and Thailand for environmental impact assessments.

Welcoming the good progress made at the World Conference on Disaster in Kobe, Japan this week, Mr Toepfer said it was now accepted that environmental issues must be fully integrated in disaster preparation and response.

"The central role of the environment in disaster reduction, whether in early warning systems, or as a factor in reducing risk and vulnerability has been intensively discussed and integrated into the plan of action coming out of Kobe. There is now wide acceptance that environmental degradation and depletion of natural buffers increases risks for, and impacts from, natural and man-made disasters," Toepfer said. "Now we need action, targets and a firm timetable of implementation."

Related link:

UN Environment Programme

From our website, see:

How the mangrove shield was lost