According to Friends of the Earth, the amount of devastation from late December’s Indian Ocean tsunami was significantly lower in those coastal areas protected by natural barriers such as mangrove forests and coral reefs. So-called “coastal greenbelts” in India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka helped mitigate damage and saved thousands of human lives. The organization says that the protection of such natural buffers serves as the only long-term solution to defending coastal populations against future tidal waves and other threats.
“What we have seen in the tsunami crisis is that the areas that were protected naturally suffered less than those that were more exposed,” says Meena Raman, chairperson of Friends of the Earth. In some of the hardest hit areas, especially throughout coastal Thailand, hotels, shrimp farms, highways, housing and commercial developments have supplanted mangrove forests and coral reefs, which could have served as natural buffers, Raman adds.
Meanwhile, Edward Barbier, a University of Wyoming professor who has studied resource problems in developing countries for more than 20 years, points out that explosive economic development since the 1960s has depleted half of Thailand’s coastal mangrove forests, which provide a double layer of protection against pounding surf, let alone tsunamis. “Even nature’s ecosystem could not have prevented the tsunami,” concedes Barbier. “With an event that huge you have to expect great loss, but the question is, could some of it have been reduced?”