Cyclone Nargis – and the devastating tidal surge that followed – has highlighted the potential tragic consequences of pursuing rapid economic expansion while neglecting the environment.
In recent decades, farmers in Myanmar’s low-lying Ayeyarwady Delta cleared vast tracts of coastal mangrove forests to expand rice cultivation and - in the past eight years - to make way for export-oriented prawn farming.
However, according to specialists, the loss of these forests – and the protective cover they offered – probably exacerbated the cyclone’s toll.
Masakazu Kashio, a forest resources officer with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), hoped that in the wake of the disaster, Myanmar authorities would recognise the need to preserve and protect its remaining mangrove forest – and to rehabilitate much of the degraded cover.
“I really hope the Myanmar government will take this lesson very seriously, and take more proper action through the participatory approach – listen to people’s voices,” he told IRIN in Bangkok.
“They should establish a proper land-use plan and recognise they need to protect the vulnerable area from disaster from the sea or from flooding water,” he explained.
Most of the thousands of people who perished when Nargis slammed into the country on 2 and 3 May are believed to have drowned in the fierce 3.5m storm surge that swept nearly 40km inland.
The FAO said in a statement on 15 May that the mangrove forests could have cushioned the impact of the sea surge.
“Porous barriers such as coastal trees and forests cannot prevent inundation and inland flooding associated with storm surge,” the FAO said. But, “there is considerable potential for intact and dense coastal vegetation to reduce the impacts of waves and currents associated with the storm surge. Coastal forests can also act as windbreaks in reducing devastation in coastal communities resulting from cyclones.”
The FAO ran a mangrove forest rehabilitation project in the region for nearly a decade, until 2001. But Kashio said, “The pressure to open up more rice production was too strong.”
Meanwhile, Maria Osbeck, of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), in Bangkok, said any effort to protect or rehabilitate mangrove forests had to take into account the interests of the local population and the government for economic development.
Photo: International Federation
|Water is only receding slowly after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar on 2 May|
“It’s not enough to talk about the role of mangroves as a measure to mitigate the impact of natural hazards,” she said “It’s also about how you can ensure economic development, ensure food security and still have a functioning eco-system. It’s about trade-offs.”
In nearby Vietnam, for example, SEI is working with the government, private sector and coastal communities to develop a US$200 million plan to replant degraded mangrove forest in certain areas, without impinging on local livelihoods.
“You negotiate where you plant the mangroves, what species, and how many trees, and how they will be managed,” Osbeck said, adding that a well-rehabilitated mangrove forest - done in a natural way with a variety of species - can “contribute to the fish stock, which in the long run will contribute to the local economy”.
However, Kashio predicted that in the wake of the Myanmar disaster, many local people might simply opt to leave the area, making it easier to convert the area back to mangrove forest.
“People will naturally make a decision after the devastating disaster experience – they recognise this is not a safe place for bringing up their children for the longer term and in the future,” the FAO official said.
As of 16 May, the official death toll from Nargis stood at more than 43,000, with nearly 28,000 missing, while the Red Cross and UN believe the toll could top 100,000.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions