Mangroves would have protected villagers

Geoffrey Lean
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:56

Tens of thousands of people died in the Cyclone Nargis disaster because vital mangrove forests had been cut down, destroying the land's protection against the sea.

Far more people were killed by a 12ft wave which stormed ashore during the violent storm than by its 120mph winds, the Burmese government admits. "It swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages," said the minister for relief and resettlement, Maung Maung Swe. "They did not have anywhere to flee."

But the wave could only be so devastating because the thick mangrove forests had been almost entirely destroyed; intact, they would have absorbed much of the power of the sea. Eighty-three per cent of the mangroves of the Irrawaddy delta, the area worst hit by the cyclone, have been cleared since 1924, first to grow rice, and more recently by people desperate for fuel.

Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, blamed "encroachment into mangrove forests, which used to serve as a buffer between the rising tide, between big waves and residential areas".

It was the same during the 206 Boxing Day tsunami when areas with intact mangroves suffered much less. Only two people died in one Sri Lanka village where they remained, compared with 6,000 in an unprotected one nearby.

Many countries around the Indian Ocean have replanted mangroves. And in Orissa, India, where 900,000 people were hit by a massive flood last year, villagers have been building other defences. In one project, a village has built an embankment to protect it and its land. Another village has constructed a 15ft mound for its people and their livestock to ascend if the waters start to rise again.

Geetanjali, 35, who lost her 12-year-old daughter in the flood, said: "I feel much safer and more confident that, next time, my family will survive."

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