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UN Agency Begins Eco-Assessment of Tsunami Damage

The end-of-the-year-tsunami struck Asian coastlines with a deadly one-two punch. The first blow came as a powerful wave that tore up coral reefs on its way to shore. The second blow pulled everything from shore out to sea -- from human remains, coastal debris and building materials to silt and sludge.

The United Nations Environment Program has begun an assessment of the disaster's impact on the region's coastal ecosystems - and on public health. One major problem involves the destruction of local drinking water systems. "We know that there is a lot of seawater contamination well inside the coastline," says UNEP spokesman Eric Falt. "We know that wells and irrigation systems have been polluted by seawater and that this is going to have an impact on agriculture. So obviously this is a question of the direct livelihood of the population concerned."

Mr. Falt also expresses concern over damage to several major industrial sites. "We know there [are] a lot of them," he says. "They are chemical storage sites, electrical facilities and oil refineries. There are port facilities also. And we are focusing a large part of our remote sensing and technical capabilities there to better assist the governments, but also industry."

UNEP plans to assess the condition of coral reefs, mangroves and forested coastlines. These ecosystems serve as natural buffers against coastal erosion and extreme weather, and they are also valuable nurseries for fish. A survey by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network published before the tsunami found that one third of the coral reefs in the region were already threatened with extinction. They had been endangered by destructive fishing practices, poor management of coastal development and unrestrained tourism.

UNEP officials are trying to assess how much damage the tsunami did, using satellite-based sensing tools to collect data on coastal conditions. "We are also developing a danger zone or vulnerability maps for the region," says spokesman Eric Falt, "so that when the redevelopment process takes place, those who have to make decisions can better understand where the highest risks are and in some cases to proceed differently than in the past."

One of the world's leading conservation groups, the World Wildlife Fund, is working alongside UNEP to respond to the tsunami. WWF field offices are reporting extensive damage to coastal resources, wetlands, estuaries and critical coastal habitats. "At this point in time we don't have a complete assessment on wildlife," says WWF Vice President Bill Eichbaum. "That will take a long time to get completed. But, it appears that there are certain species that were affected, most importantly that we are aware of at this time, sea turtles because many sea turtles were nesting at the time that this took place and they have been severely affected."

The conservation group is calling on governments and coastal managers to employ sustainable practices as they rebuild. "There is the story of one hotel in Thailand far back from the coast [that] didn't even allow beach chair or umbrella development on the sandy beach because of their desire to protect those beaches for turtles," says Mr. Eichbaum. "There was less harm to the residents that were in that hotel. We think that proper planning and reconstruction in the future can mitigate a lot of the effects of future storms, and not ones as big as this tsunami. This is a region affected by monsoons and cyclones, and there is more immediate reason to do this."

Tsunami recovery was also on the agenda of the Sustainable Development for Small Island Developing States at a recent meeting (January 10-14) in Mauritius. The forum was organized before the tsunami disaster. UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- used the meeting to announce plans for a global strategy to develop a Tsunami Early Warning System including one for the Indian Ocean.