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Are We Safe From Tsunamis?

March 1, 2010

Our coastal villages are disasters waiting to happen.

With the Philippines’ coast line is 36,289 kilometers long,  they are woefully exposed to the repeat of the tsunami that ravaged Indonesia’s Bandar Aceh in 2004.

Our archipelago sits right smack in the Pacific Ring of Fire where tectonic plates are in constant flux and volcanoes are most active.

The devastation wrought in Aceh could very well be a Philippine coastal region.

As the ground images and satellite photos  show, a massive earthquake-triggered tsunami will leave nothing standing.

Close to 170,00 lives were lost here.

But can humanity just lie and wait?


Vital, life saving and disaster-mitigating lessons can be and must learned.
Here’s what researchers who studied tsunami effects in Aceh, and India learned:

A study conducted after the 26th of December 2004 tsunami in 18 coastal hamlets along the south-east coast of India reiterates the importance of coastal mangrove vegetations and location characteristics of human inhabitation to protect lives and wealth from the fury of tsunami. The tsunami caused human death and loss of wealth and these decreased with the area of coastal vegetation, distance and elevation of human inhabitation from the sea. Human inhabitation should be encouraged more than 1 km from the shoreline in elevated places, behind dense mangroves and or other coastal vegetation. Some plant species, suitable to grow in between human inhabitation and the sea for coastal protection, are suggested.

Mitigating tsunami damage with mangroves

Mangroves forests are coastal ecosystems typically serve as homes for fish, crustaceans, sponges, and other sea creatures. With complex, intertwined root systems, they also prevent coastal erosion, function as a crude water filter, and serve as a natural barrier for strong currents. In normal waves, a mangrove forest can absorb 70-90% of the force of a wave. While no studies measuring how much of the impact of a tsunami-like event have been made, some rough data has been culled.

Research comparing coastal Thai towns showed remarkable differences in the amount of casualties suffered as a result of the tsunami. While the ferocity of the waves hitting the towns wasn’t reported, the difference is worth noting anyway: in a settlement with a dense mangrove forest protecting it, two people died. In a similar town with no mangrove forest, 6,000 people died.

Not surprisingly, many coastal villages are eager to plant mangrove forests to protect them in the event of another tsunami. In many cases, these are the same villages that cut down their mangroves to build prawn farms and coastal resorts. It’s not really feasible to re-plant these mangrove forests in many cases, because theses villages now rely on their prawns and coastal resorts for economic survival.

Coral reefs also helped mitigate the effect of the tsunami in many places, and though many reefs were badly damaged, authorities are looking into coastal management systems. Like mangroves, coral reefs have also been the victim of modernization: dynamite fishing damaged large swaths of the reef before the tsunami did, lessening its protective effects when the waves hit the coast.

The areas hardest hit by the tsunami are obviously still recovering. There are some troubling trends, however. In many cases, the tsunami damaged or destroyed most of the fishing vessels that villagers used. Repair and construction efforts thus far have done a remarkable job rebuilding these fleets. Unfortunately, they’ve done too good a job. In one community, there are now more fishing boats than there were before the disaster, which is troubling because fish stocks were already largely depleted before the tsunami, and they have not recovered. The over-fishing that was occurring before the disaster is likely to continue now with even greater force.

We know the dangers only too well:

(The red squares mark the areas were our coral reefs are in abundance but are under threat)

1.    Our coastal waters are continually over fished, both by local fishing companies and foreign fishing fleets poaching our waters;

2.    Blast fishing destroys our coral reefs which are not only natural treasures but are protective barriers to rampaging waves;

3.    Our environmental protection entities and disaster management offices, national and local, are woefully ill-prepared and lack the needed political will.

Humbly proposed: a multi-partisan initiative for a comprehensive coastal protection and tsunami-mitigation system.


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