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Science & Space

Tsunamis leave environmental devastation

By Camille Feanny

This octopus was washed far inland during the tsunami.
This octopus was washed far inland by the tsunamis.
Environmental Issues

(CNN) -- Scientists from around the world have expressed grave concerns about the health of local ecosystems and their ability to sustain survivors of the tsunamis that struck parts of Asia and Africa last month.

"There are issues of water, land, fisheries, and they are all of concern right now," says Susie Ellis, vice president of Indonesia and Philippine programs for Conservation International. "Long-term, the damage to these areas is going to have significant socio-economic impact on the local livelihoods and the local fishermen in particular."

Despite efforts by local agencies and international relief organizations to help survivors, experts say there are critical, immediate ecological problems that are having a direct impact on human health.

Aid agencies such as CARE report that fresh water remains scarce across the region because reservoirs were either damaged during the earthquake that preceded the tsunamis, or were contaminated by ocean water, dead bodies and debris. Many survivors are at risk of dying from diseases unless they get access to clean water.

Wood to shelter millions of homeless survivors throughout Asia and to rebuild entire towns is in short supply because many coastal forests lay in ruin. Farmlands and rice paddies have been inundated with salty seawater, and it could be years before the soil can again sustain crops.

A recent statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, said indirect impacts to the natural environment includes "hazardous chemicals, oils, paints, Freons, cleansers," and other toxins that were washed out to sea as the water retreated.

The destruction to the fisheries, agricultural land, and beaches has devastated the economies of local communities dependent on natural resources and tourism. Those are top concerns for environmental experts as well.

"One of the most immediate impacts has to do with food security," says Ian Dutton, director of conservation measures at The Nature Conservancy. "Something like 53 percent of all of the protein for Indonesians comes from fish, and if those coral reefs are badly affected, the fish have no habitat to live in, and there is no food security there for the people,"

Bill Eichbaum with World Wildlife Fund's endangered species program agrees that the damage to fisheries and agriculture could be severe.

"The long-term damage is hard to speculate about at this point," Eichbaum says. "The environment is in trouble, there's no question."

Assessing the toll

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently announced that the tsunamis destroyed much of the fishing infrastructure in communities along the Indian Ocean. Coastal villages in the Maldives, Sumatra and other countries are all but obliterated as fishing vessels and equipment were washed out to sea.

Environmental groups told CNN that initial inspections show many coastal mangroves and sensitive coral reefs could be in trouble.

"Some reports I've received from colleagues in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and around the Sumatra area suggest that there's been extensive physical damage to the coral reefs, and some of the low-lying coastal areas including wetlands and beaches," Dutton says.

Healthy mangrove forests provide natural barriers that help minimize the effects of tidal waves and storms. Mangroves, along with coral reefs, are nursery areas for fish and shrimp vital to the health of marine ecosystems. Besides their ecological importance, Asia's coral reefs are also a top tourist attraction and shelter numerous fish species found nowhere else in the world.

Several endangered sea turtles were harmed by the tsunamis. Biologists report that many were found either dead or injured. Due to extensive damage to nesting areas, prospects for some species' survival are unknown.

Two rare Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in Thailand were washed about a half-mile inland into a lagoon. Although a female dolphin was freed, rescuers could not locate her calf.

Seeking higher ground

Terrestrial animals are also struggling. Preliminary reports from local wildlife officials throughout Asia indicate that many wild animals survived the tsunamis, but pets and domesticated animals like dogs, goats, cows and chickens were not as lucky.

The Humane Society International reported that many of the displaced animals are roaming streets in Thailand, Sri Lanka and other stricken countries. They are reportedly scavenging for food, surviving on the bodies of tsunami victims, both animal and human.

The dire conditions have caused some dogs to reportedly become more aggressive, and several have been rounded up by local foundations eager to protect the safety of the animals and people.

"We are conducting an initial assessment, and beginning to treat any injured animals there," says HSI Director Neil Trent. "Then we want to lay out a game plan to see how we can best help the local veterinary and agricultural community get back up and running again."

With $1 million already set aside to begin assessing the environmental aftermath of the tsunamis, U.N. officials estimate that rebuilding agriculture could take years and cost billions of dollars in international aid.

Aid organizations and local officials admit the human toll from the tsunamis may never be fully known, and a clear picture of their effects on the natural environment is a long way off.

Environment organizations and the international community have pledged to help restore both the people and their environment to health. Experts say that the restoration plan should embrace a mission to build an even stronger and more resilient ecosystem than before.

"We have to approach their environment as a triage-level medical condition," Eichbaum says. "You have to maintain what exists, plan for the most effective way to approach the rehabilitation process, then begin the steps to help the region to recover."

Gary Strieker contributed to this report

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