Citing ongoing problems with debris and demolition waste, officials from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) are concerned about environmental problems caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami a year ago continuing to plague the region. While the December 2004 tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in 12 countries and left millions of homes and businesses in ruin, officials are now most worried about the killer wave’s environmental aftermath. “In the long term, unsafe disposal of waste will cause further environmental damage,” says UNEP’s Pasi Rinne.
The tsunami reduced some coastal communities to piles of bricks, tin and wood mixed with car and boat parts, construction materials, ocean mud and dead bodies. Various pollutants have been leaked and redeposited everywhere the tsunami struck, making clean-up, let along rebuilding, a hazardous proposition. Even in many of those areas where clean-up efforts have gotten underway, unregulated dumpsites proliferate and raw sewage is often pumped directly out to sea, leading to longer term contamination issues.
But while clean-up officials lament the tsunami’s wrath, others counter that the damage done by rampant human development throughout the hardest-hit countries over many decades has done far more long-term environmental damage than the tsunami, great as its impact has been. “The media get terribly excited about storms, tsunamis and oil spills where in fact the slow, chronic stuff is more damaging — overfishing, sediment flows and development,” says Clive Wilkinson, who is preparing a report on tsunami damage to ocean reefs for the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Along these lines, Wilkinson and others fear that the rebuilding following the tsunami may cause more environmental damage than the crushing wave itself.