Restore reefs, help victims

As the world responds to the humanitarian crisis inflicted by the tsunami in south Asia, the international community should be considering the region’s long-term environmental needs.

The first response clearly must be to get drinking water, food and medical care to people who lost everything. The next mission should be to rebuild sewers and infrastructure. Hard on the heels of that effort comes the third issue of the environment.

Seldom have economic and environmental sustainability been so linked. In the 12 nations slammed by the deadly tidal wave – all of them developing countries – millions of people make their livelihoods from the sea or the land. They fish, farm or cater to tourists who come to see the spectacular natural setting. So unless the environment is restored, the affected countries can’t really get their people back to work. And if tsunami victims can’t work, they may face new disasters of poverty and political unrest.

Such grim scenarios aren’t inevitable. Left on its own, nature would eventually heal the tsunami’s damage. But people can’t wait centuries; they need to feed their families today.

Interestingly, one looming crisis that already has caught international attention – the damage to Asia’s coral reefs – offers an opportunity to help people by helping their environment. Often described as the oceans’ rain forests, coral reefs are abundant ecosystems supporting thousands of plant and animal species. Fishermen also rely on the reefs because the fish they seek live among the coral.

Unfortunately, humans have been destroying coral reefs worldwide at a prodigious rate, through pollution, climate change and use of dynamite to kill and catch fish. Already at risk, mile after mile of reefs were wiped out by the tsunami.

It’s not yet known how badly the tsunami harmed the Indian Ocean’s reefs; the United Nations set aside $1 million to assess damage. But early reports indicate that the huge reefs that protect Sri Lanka from even routine storms in the Indian Ocean may have been devastated; Sri Lanka also lost its marine biology lab. Specialists fear, too, that the magnificent reefs encircling the Maldives were seriously hit. Sumatra’s coast, near the quake’s epicentre, may have been devastated, while reefs on Indonesia’s east coast seem untouched. In Thailand, the damage is spotty.

On Friday, an umbrella group to which almost all global environmental groups belong, The International Union of Conservation for Nature, will host a meeting to discuss what various organizations can do to help in the tsunami zone. They should tie ecological concerns to the need to help the tsunami’s victims economically. They could start by coordinating a global effort to pay people in the disaster zone to restore coral reefs – after all, the people need jobs and Mother Nature needs a helping hand.

Rebuilding the reefs is even more essential than buying new fishing boats for tsunami victims: It doesn’t do a fisherman any good to have a boat if there are no fish, and there won’t be many fish (and not enough tourists) unless the reefs come back.

Left to natural conditions, the little animals that make reefs need centuries to rebuild their colonies, but humans can speed the process. In parts of the world, people have sunk old boats to build artificial reefs, providing habitat for fish and other creatures. The old boats also offer a stable base that coral can cling to and grow.