Coastal areas where natural vegetation had been removed suffered the greatest damage from the Indian Ocean tsunami, according to two reports released today by the United Nations environmental agency on the environmental impact of the December 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and the Maldives respectively.
The assessments by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) found that the damage was greatest where villages or cultivated fields abutted the sea with little or no coastal protection. By contrast, where natural coastal forests and vegetation were left untouched, UNEP found a reduction in soil erosion and building destruction.
Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of UNEP, said: "The tsunami in the Indian Ocean taught the world some hard, shocking but important lessons which we ignore at our peril. We learnt in graphic and horrific detail that the ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses which we have so casually destroyed are not a luxury. They are life savers capable of defending our homes, our loved ones and our livelihoods from some of nature's more aggressive acts.
"It is, therefore vital that during the reconstruction of shattered coastlines and settlements, the environment is taken into account along with the economic and social factors," he added.
In the Maldives, the UNEP report found huge accumulations of debris, often containing asbestos from roofing materials, along with contaminated groundwater and eroded coastal zones. The country's coral reefs experienced only minor damage.
The report on Sri Lanka also found large generations of rubble and more than 15,000 unusable wells. It said that alien invasive species, such as prickly pears and salt-tolerant mesquite, were making inroads into important national parks where the waves had penetrated inland.