Wave's Environmental Toll:

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Wave's Environmental Toll:

Indian Ocean Tsunami

Newspaper article

By: Eric Bellman and Timothy Mapes

Date: January 17, 2005

Source: Bellman, Eric and Timothy Mapes. "Wave's Environmental Toll: Salt Water, Oil Poison a Lake And Threaten Rice Harvest; Rainforests Are Safe—For Now." Wall Street Journal January 17, 2005.

About the Author: Eric Bellman and Timothy Mapes are staff reporters for the Wall Street Journal. Bellman reported the story from Lake Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka, and Mapes reported from Banda Aceh, Indonesia.


On December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake on the seafloor near Sumatra produced one of the largest ever-recorded tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. The earthquake and its aftershocks set off a series of massive waves that affected at least twelve countries in Southeast Asia. The hardest hit included Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, and Thailand. The human toll from the event was enormous; it is estimated that at least 275,000 lost their lives in the disaster and that millions of people were displaced from their homes and villages, many of which were completely destroyed.

The impact of the wave and the subsequent flooding associated with the tsunami imposed significant material damage as well. The area of destruction varied from the high tide line to a kilometer inland from the shore. The destruction was unusual because places where the waves demolished everything were near to places that were remained undamaged.

The United Nations mobilized several rapid environmental impact studies in the wake of the tsunami. The major environmental concern was disposal of the enormous amount of debris that was generated from the destroyed buildings and other man-made structures as well as household items, automobiles, and trees that had been washed away by the waves. In addition, the massive forces of the waves redistributed tons of sand, clogging estuaries and rivers and destroying sanitations systems. The movement of sand also changed the contours of the coastlines in several places. Finally, saltwater intrusion into regions that are usually freshwater posed environmental risk to agriculture and contaminated sources of drinking water.

In the immediate wake of the disaster, environmental scientists were concerned about the health of the fragile coastal ecosystems. These include coral reefs and mangroves. Coral reefs are made up of small animals that produce rock-like colonies in shallow tropical waters. The reefs that form from the coral structures are home to a large diversity of fish, invertebrate and plant species. Mangroves are tropical trees that grow on the ocean's edge. Their root systems form intricate complexes that are home to many juvenile marine animals. In addition, mangroves play an important role in preventing coastal erosion.


Asia's killer tsunami was just a slow-moving, one-foot wave by the time it reached Tyrone Weerasooriya's lakeside hotel on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. But he is still struggling to understand the effects.

The hundreds of heron, cormorant and Siberian ducks that usually crowd Lake Hikkaduwa are gone, as are the four-foot-long monitor lizards that used to swim around Mr. Weerasooriya's nature resort. Fruit trees near the lake are dying. Rice has stopped growing in fields close to shore. Even the weather seems different: Clear blue skies, the norm this time of year, have turned into muggy days with fierce evening thunderstorms.

"It all changed the day of the tsunami," says Mr. Weerasooriya, who built the eight-room Nature Resort Hotel four years ago to introduce people to the lake's rich ecosystem. "Something is wrong."

Environmental experts aren't surprised. It is too early to say whether the effects are temporary or permanent, localized or widespread, but after coastal dwellers across South and Southeast Asia finally come to grips with the loss of loved ones and property, some also will have to deal with lasting environmental damage.

"It wasn't just a wave. It was a wave of debris, cars, et cetera, and wherever the water slowed down or was trapped it deposited that sediment," says Daniel Renault, a senior officer for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, who is based in Rome. "That will completely change [some] agricultural ecosystems."

Governments in affected countries are already trying to figure out precisely how the salt water, debris and destruction have altered their coastal ecosystems. India's Ministry of Environment and Forests is investigating how the tsunami changed the subcontinent's coastline and how much it has polluted the groundwater. Thailand and Indonesia are setting up environmental crisis centers.

The U.N. Environment Program, based in Geneva, is helping coordinate efforts across the region. It has pledged $1 million to kick off international environmental investigations and created a task force to study satellite photos and collect water and soil samples.

Damage surveys have just begun, but early reports suggest that some 40,000 hectares of rice land in Indonesia's Aceh province and 800 hectares of farm land in Thailand were damaged, says the FAO's Mr. Renault. (A hectare is 2.47 acres.) He says the damage in Sri Lanka seems to be concentrated around rivers and lagoons, like Lake Hikkaduwa, where salt water and pollution have been trapped.

Many parts of Asia are regularly hit by floods from monsoon rains or cyclones, but this disaster is different. Ecological experts say there are no records of environmental effects of previous tsunamis of this size. "We are trying to get information from people all over the world" to gauge the potential effects of the tsunami, says Mr. Renault. "We are facing something that has not been previously monitored."

In some areas, tons of salt water that rushed inland as far as three kilometers, or 1.86 miles, could permanently pollute the soil and the groundwater, poisoning plants and animals, experts say. Debris from thousands of wrecked buildings, as well as gasoline and oil from hundreds of cars, trucks and boats overturned by the waves, may also be contaminants. The giant waves moved mountains of sand, soil, rocks and coral, radically changing offshore habitats along the Indian Ocean's eastern rim.

"The waste and different kinds of debris are an issue, salinity is a matter [that affects] water resources, and industrial sites and waste depots need to be looked at" to insure there haven't been dangerous leaks, says Pasi Rinne, chairman of the UNEP task force.

Sri Lankans living on Lake Hikkaduwa's shores are trying to cope with the ecological breakdown and the impact on their livelihoods. K.G. Chandrikapadmini's village was barely touched by the tsunami. But the next morning, she was awakened by thumping noises on the roof of her simple home. The 30-year-old breadfruit trees in front of her house were dropping their spiny, green fruit—which her family depends on for their income—three months too early. "This has never happened before," she says pointing to hundreds of fallen fruit around her property.

Plantain, papaya and mango trees also are dying along the affected coast, unable to tolerate the salt water that flowed into lakes and rivers. G.K. Janaka, who farms a yellowing rice field near the lake, says he doesn't expect his land to yield a decent harvest for years. "Maybe we can find a seed that can survive in salty soil," he says hopefully.

Even mangrove forests, which should have no trouble with a little extra salt water, are struggling. The leaves of the mangroves that surround Mr. Weerasooriya's hotel are turning yellow and falling off. He thinks they have been affected by the film of gasoline and oil that still floats in the water more than two weeks after the disaster. "If they die, this will be a desert," says Mr. Weerasooriya, who has planted more than 400 mangrove trees around the lake. "The tourists come to see them, the birds nest in them, and the shrimp and crabs lay their eggs in them."

On the island of Sumatra, lush rainforests, home to endangered species including orangutans, wild elephants and the rare Sumatran tiger, as well as to coveted tropical hardwoods, suffered little damage in the tsunami. But the forests may not emerge unscathed when Indonesia begins rebuilding devastated Aceh province at the island's northern tip.

Two decades of heavy international demand for timber have kept the rainforests under pressure. Two of the largest pulp and paper plants in the world are on Sumatra, and hundreds of smaller sawmills, often operating without formal government approval, line the island's roads.

When the rebuilding effort is under way, the government and aid agencies will need to build at least 300,000 new homes for those displaced by the tsunami, according to WWF Indonesia, a local affiliate of the global environmental group. That will mean massive demand for wood.

"There's quite a strong likelihood that any tree left standing is going to get grabbed," says Moray McLeish, who manages a project in Indonesia run by the Nature Conservancy, which aims to curb illegal logging. He says 70% to 85% of all the timber cut down in Indonesia is harvested by people operating without government permits. "The danger is that people will go after the timber in the national parks," Mr. McLeish says. "Those are pretty much the only sources left in Sumatra."

Sand and debris, not the giant waves, scraped fragile young coral off reefs on Sri Lanka's coast. Near Hikkaduwa, reefs that usually attract hundreds of tourists this time of year are covered with sand, silt, sunken fishing boats and debris. Much, if not all, of the coral can come back, experts say. But as people rebuild the island's infrastructure, demand for lime—which in Sri Lanka is made by burning coral in kilns—will surge.

Thailand's reefs also suffered, especially around the tourist islet of Phi Phi, near Phuket, a site popular with divers. As much as 50% of the coral on two key reefs there has been degraded, according to the U.N. Development Programme, in Bangkok. Divers report finding deck chairs, suitcases, smashed television sets and other items that were swept out of hotels and onto the coral. A kitchen sink was found resting on a reef.

Environmentalists are pressing local officials to make some areas off-limits to divers for three years or more. "We have to come very quickly, or we might lose what we have saved," says Suwit Khunkitti, Thailand's Minister for Natural Resources and Environment.

Optimists say nature is resilient enough to bounce back quickly, and a few heavy rains may be enough to wash the salt and pollution out of the soil and water. Still, the hardest hit areas could take years to recover. "The natural systems will take some time to regenerate," says Manel Jayamanna, director general of Sri Lanka's Central Environmental Authority in Colombo. "All we can do is remove debris and not put further debris in the environment."

While he waits for nature to bounce back, Mr. Weerasooriya has developed his own theories about what is happening to his lake.

He figures birds have moved further inland because gasoline in the water has killed the bugs they like to eat. He even thinks he knows where the scavenger monitor lizards went.

"They went to the other side with the bodies," he says, pointing toward the ocean.


The Wall Street Journal article cited above is typical of reports in the wake of the 2005 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Most environmental experts expected that the environmental toll of the event would be devastating. In fact, studies following the event show that the environmental damage caused by the tsunami was severe but uneven. The major environmental result from the event is that the places that were already suffering from environmental damage were the places most affected by the tsunami. On the other hand, places that had healthy coastal ecosystems sustained substantially less human and environmental damage.

Healthy coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs, and vegetated sand dunes acted as buffers to the tsunami, protecting both structures as well as human life. For example, in the Yala and Bundala National parks in Sri Lanka, where sand dunes were completely vegetated, the tsunami had almost no environmental impact. Conversely, in places where the coral reefs had been mined, damage by the waves was most destructive.

Environmental predictions concerning the affects of saltwater intrusion on areas where freshwater usually occurs were generally correct. Some of the major problems following the event involved saltwater contamination of agricultural areas, freshwater wells, and septic systems. The United Nations Environmental Program estimated that 62,000 freshwater wells in Sri Lanka were contaminated by marine water.

As expected, debris was also a major environmental problem, but it was much more severe in places where environmental conditions were already threatened. Both inert debris and toxic debris were mixed together in the wake of the tsunami. Some harmful debris was burned, in particular debris containing asbestos, a known carcinogen. Somalia, which had a coastline that was already heavily polluted with toxic materials, was heavily impacted by the tsunami. Because the country suffered from civil war for years, the government was unable to properly dispose of nuclear and chemical wastes, which were simply deposited along the coast. The waves stirred up a collection of hazardous substances that caused human health concerns in the region.


Web sites

Benfield Hazard Research Center. "The Indian Ocean Tsunami and Its Implications." 〈http://www.benfieldhrc.org/tsunamis/indian_ocean_tsunami/indian_ocean_tsunami.htm〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit. "Indian Ocean Tsunami Disaster of December 2004." 〈http://www.benfieldhrc.org/disaster_studies/rea/indonesia_REA_tsunami_aceh.pdf〉 (accessed February 2005).

United Nations Atlas of the Oceans. "Impact of Tsunami on Ecosystems." 〈http://www.oceansatlas.org/servlet/CDSServlet?status=ND03MTY4NyY2PWVuJjMzP-SomMzc9a29z〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

United Nations Environmental Programme. "After the Tsunami: Rapid Environmental Assessment." 〈http://www.unep.org/tsunami/tsunami_rpt.asp〉 (accessed October 24, 2005).

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs. "Draft Field Report:Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment—Sri Lanka Tsunami." 〈http://www.benfieldhrc.org/disaster_studies/rea/SFieldReportSri_Lanka.pdf〉 (accessed February 1, 2005).