Clean-up operation damages crucial defences

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The Independent Online

Clean-up and recovery after the tsunami is weakening vital defences against future disasters, top international experts warn.

Rubble from smashed buildings is being dumped in the sea, where it damages coral reefs. Mangrove forests are being felled for reconstruction, says the leading international conservation body, the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

Days after the tsunami, The Independent on Sunday exclusively reported that areas around the Indian Ocean that had preserved these natural defences were largely spared from the catastrophe, while those that had destroyed them had been devastated.

Satellite surveys have since confirmed this once controversial observation.

The United Nations, which, at the time, was reluctant to endorse it, last week issued two reports establishing that the damage was greatest in areas where mangroves had been removed.

Dr Klaus Töpfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said the tsunami has taught the world "some hard, shocking and important lessons".

He went on: "We learned in graphic and historic detail that the ecosystems - such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses - 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."

Governments around the ocean, from Indonesia to Sri Lanka, have announced plans to replant mangrove forests.

Lucy Emerton, the IUCN's co-ordinator on the tsunami, said: "In all my working life I have never seen such a willingness to take on board environmental issues."

Nevertheless, she added, mangroves have been cleared in most of the stricken countries to provide settlements for people made homeless by the disaster.