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Tsunami destruction offers chance for nature-friendly reconstruction – UN report

Tsunami destruction offers chance for nature-friendly reconstruction – UN report

The environmental devastation wrought by December’s Indian Ocean tsunami offers an opportunity to rebuild in a way that preserves natural resources for the benefit of the local communities who were hardest hit by the disaster, according to a new United Nations report released today.

“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,” UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said. “This makes sense not only in respect to tsunamis but also with respect to storm surges, floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events.”

UNEP’s Asian Tsunami Interim Report called for urgent vulnerability mapping to pinpoint coastal sites where homes, hotels, factories and other infrastructure should be banned or restricted, adding that the tourism industry, a vital revenue source for many of the affected countries’ economies, should take a lead in locating hotels and resorts in less wave- and flood-prone areas.

The tsunami killed more than 200,000 people, left up to 5 million in need of basic services and caused billions of dollars of damage.

Other measures that countries might consider is the establishment of a network of safe haven towers, it noted.

Bangladesh, a highly flood-prone nation that was not affected by the tsunami, has developed community-based concrete towers, stocked with provisions such as emergency water and food supplies, where people can seek refuge.

Among the buildings that did survive were mosques, possibly because they generally have large open ground floors that allowed the waves to pass through.

“Considerations should be given to ensuring that, for elevations below 10 metres above sea level, all public buildings are constructed with this open ‘flow-through’ ground floor design. There appears to be no readily available best practice building code for tsunamis, so one may need to be developed,” the study said.

“The report indicates that the environment was both a victim of the tsunami but also that it often played its part in reducing the impact,” Mr. Toepfer noted. “Where healthy and relatively intact features like coral reefs, mangroves and coastal vegetation were in place there is evidence that the damage was reduced. There are innumerable reasons to maintain healthy habitats like coral reefs. They are nurseries for fish and magnets for tourists. Now we have another reason to conserve them.”

The report, based on surveys by UNEP teams in the field working with other UN agencies, governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), was released at UNEP’s 23rd Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, where some 100 environment ministers have gathered for their annual talks.

In a related development the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned against a harmful build-up of excessive fishing capacity in rehabilitating countries hit by the tsunami. Excessive capacity was a serious problem in some coastal fisheries prior to the disaster, according to FAO's Fisheries Department.

Restored fishing capacity should generally not exceed the levels that existed prior to the disaster – and in some places capacity should even be reduced, it added.