Comment - January 2005

The terrible tsunami visited on the luckless inhabitants of the coastal regions around the north-east Indian Ocean has generated vast media attention and a good deal of emotional reaction. Electronic media and communications have managed to mobilize a relief effort unthinkable 50 years ago and all those involved should be congratulated.

But in the long term, can anything be done to avert similar tragedies? A warning system, as exists for the countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, would have been of no use to those in Aceh, Indonesia, who were far too close to the epicentre of the originating earthquake to have been able to have received much warning, let alone been able to react. Much the same could apply to other nearby countries, such as Thailand.

As covered in our special report on page 5, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has called for effective reconstruction and rehabilitation of the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean to mitigate social and ecological vulnerability. Measures advocated by WWF include conservation of coastal ecosystems such as reefs and mangrove swamps to buffer the impacts of tsunamis and storm waves, and the strict enforcement of land and coastal-use planning and policies, including natural disaster risk assessments.

This seems very sensible until you try to apply this in practice. Then you come up against the inevitable economic implications. Nearly all these countries rely on tourism as their first, second or third principal source of foreign exchange, needed to pay for the ever-increasing price of oil and other raw materials. Tourism demands beaches, hotels and other infrastructure. These are incompatible with mangrove swamps, and the increased activity generated by tourism helps erode coral reefs.

The sea is a mighty, and fairly unstoppable force of nature. The land area humans occupy covers a minority of the earth's surface. Global warming, if it continues, will reduce this area. The very existence of many communities on the planet is in imminent danger.

It is with good reason that the World Water Council has called for water in emergency situations to be put high on the agenda at the 4th World Water Forum in 2006 in Mexico. We are going to have to live with an increasing number of incidents like the Indian Ocean tsunami - we cannot stop them.

However, after the relief effort comes the longer-term plan. We have the technology to make constructions withstand hurricanes and earthquakes (to a limited extent). Water is a great force, and it is for engineers and architects to build with this in mind.

Robin Wiseman, Acting Editor

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