Tsunami report shows urgent need for better disaster management

Destruction caused by the Asian Tsunami now offers affected countries a chance to rebuild in a way that will preserve the environment, natural resources and offer protection from future disasters.

A report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) particularly urged the use of vulnerability mapping to pinpoint coastal sites where building should now be banned or restricted, as well as offering advise on techniques to minimise future impact on these areas.

“The report underlines the importance of managing the reconstruction in an environmentally sensitive way,” UNEP’s executive director, Klaus Toepfer explained. “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 for storm surges, floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events.”

UNEP confirmed that Sri Lanka, one of the hardest hit areas, had already decided to establish a “no build up zone” up to 200 metres from the mean high tide line, and added that lessons could also be learnt from the Pacific, where tsunamis are more commonplace and structures tend to be moved back to a less risky elevation, leaving the foreshore area open only for non-essential developments.

After the Tsunami: Rapid Environmental Assessment also advised that the tourism industry should take responsibility for ensuring hotel and resorts were now located in less wave and flood prone areas, as well as suggesting that affected countries looked to Bangladesh’s example of having flood-friendly buildings.

Notably, Bangladesh has a community-based network of flood-proof “safe haven” towers stocked with emergency supplies where victims can seek refuge.

Mosques were also identified as being some of the only buildings to have survived the tsunami, due to their large, open ground floors which allowed the wall of water simply to pass right through them.

“Considerations should be given to ensuring that, for all elevations below 10 metres above sea level, all public buildings are constructed with this open “flow-through” ground floor design,” UNEP stated in the report. “There does not appear to be a readily available best-practice building code for tsunamis, so one now needs to be developed.”

Key problems recognised by the UNEP report in affected areas included:

  • Dealing with the huge volume of waste materials, such as asbestos, fuel drums, human and animal waste products and rubble, as well as controlling their impact on health and the environment
  • Controlling the contamination of natural habitats, crops and water supplies by salt water, bacteria from sanitation systems and hazardous waste
  • Pollution threats posed by vehicles, fuel tanks, silt, mud and fishing gear that has been dragged out into the ocean, affecting coral reefs, mangroves and wildlife such as turtles, octopus and fish
  • Beach erosion, imposing huge rehabilitation costs to affected areas – in the Maldives alone, over 100 million square metres of beach was eroded by the tsunami’s force

    It was, however, noted that natural defence structures, such as sand dunes, coral reefs and highly vegetated coastal areas prevented the tsunami from causing such high levels of damage, and the worst devastation occurred in highly developed areas, or where activities such as mining had been heavy in the past (see related story).

    Building up the skills, knowledge and equipment base of affected governments and local authorities was seen to be vital by UNEP. Other recommendations, including long-term monitoring of the main impact sites, tree planting and the consideration of “no-build” zones, were also made.

    According to the report: “The immediate priorities appear to be the condition and rehabilitation of groundwater supplies, waste management, including the safe disposal of rubble, construction materials and hazardous wastes, and the restoration of livelihoods in the agricultural and fisheries sector.”

    Mr Toepfer said the study stressed the need for a regional early warning system, not just for tsunamis but also a wide range of weather related natural disasters.

    “The report indicates that the environment was both a victim of the tsunami but also that it played its part in reducing the impact,” he said. “There are innumerable reasons to maintain healthy habitats like coral reefs, and now we have another reason to conserve them.”

    By Jane Kettle

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