The tsunami & coastal development

North County Times column, Page 1, Dec. 31, 2004

Receding waters expose coastal conceit

Children around the Indian Ocean basin awoke Sunday to an amazing sight: The water was leaving the beach! In country after country, the same story emerges: Receding waters exposed the sea floor, stranding a flip-flopping carpet of sea life atop the mud, sand or coral. Curious humans young and old rushed to the water’s edge to inspect this amazing phenomenon.

Villagers in a tiny Indian village survey cars swept out to sea by the tsunami.

Villagers in a tiny Indian village survey cars swept out to sea by the tsunami. Photo by Durai Singham, an Indian friend.

Children especially delighted in a sudden game of peek-a-boo joined by the sea. But adults came, too, wielding cameras and mystified smiles. I imagine some fishermen must have welcomed a week’s worth of fish dropped on their doorstep.

Then they heard the sound, which many described as a freight train. Some noticed the rising wet mountain obscuring the horizon. Others fielded text messages warning them of a tsunami —- just in time, for them.

But for so many, the children especially, there was no outrunning the roaring wall of water that instantly engulfed them.

Krishnammal, an elderly Ghandian activist in Tamil Nadu, India, wrote me Tuesday: “Many children who were playing at the time of havoc in Nagapattinam coast were buried alive in the sand.”

It sounds like the kind of dark myth parents have been scaring children with for ages: a malevolent ocean luring children to their doom by engaging their sense of wonder. For someone who loves the ocean deeply, it’s an image I can’t shake.

Women wail over the bodies of dead children in Naggapattinam, India, after the tsunami.

Women wail over the bodies of dead children in Naggapattinam, India, after the tsunami. Photo by Durai Singham.

The news from South Asia this week has been unrelentingly tough to take. My graduate study earlier this year lured me to remote fishing villages on beaches and along river deltas in southwestern Thailand and southeastern India.

I was reporting on the mounting challenges making it difficult for these fishermen to make a living, feed their families and pass on their traditions. They spoke to me of water shortages, of decreasing soil quality, of competition from technology and globalization that forced them out of their wooden boats and into nearby factories or processing plants.

The fisherfolk I met early this year have been devastated by the tsunami. People barely scraping by have had their boats and nets destroyed, depriving them of their primary source of food and income. Mass starvation is rapidly descending; people are drinking sewage or saltwater.

In Chennai, a city of more than 6 million once known as Madras, friends let me crash in their cramped apartment in a coastal slum. Only saltwater flowed from their taps, their municipal water supplies already tainted by the sea last March. I haven’t heard from those friends; I can only imagine how hard it is for them to get bottled water now, as thousands of new throats scream for that same precious liquid.

Already, the fingers of blame are pointing, before most of the bodies are in the ground or in ash. You will hear much about how poorly the governments of South Asia prepared their people for such a disaster. I don’t doubt it’s true, especially when you compare their preparedness to our high-tech warning system in the Pacific.

But my research convinces me there is another responsible party for this tsunami disaster that won’t get much press at all: us. You. Me.

Driven by Western dollars, the coastlines of South Asia have been stripped of their most valuable protection against earthquake- and cyclone-driven waves: Mangrove forests. These beautiful swamps, literally anchored by the bell-bottomed mangrove trees that filter salt from brackish water, serve so many uses: key habitat for juvenile fish, shrimp and other wildlife; timber, paper, firewood, medicine and even clothing for people; and for all, protection from storm-driven surf.

Although partisans on all sides point fingers in other directions, my research dug up two big reasons for the loss of so precious a natural resource that can be traced back to you and me: tourist resorts and shrimp farms.

Development comes in many shapes and sizes, but millions of acres of mangrove forests have been lost to these twin forces, both driven by our dollar. We like cheap shrimp —- it’s the most popular seafood item in the United States —- so we have bankrolled a global food supply system that, in its early days, consumed mangrove forests as if they were served on a platter with cocktail sauce. We like to stay on idyllic beaches, so developers and government-backed land robbers have cut down mangroves to make way for beach bungalows.

I love the beach as much or more than the next guy, and I’ve developed an informed taste for shrimp. But I ask you to consider the hidden effects of our hunger for cheap shrimp, far-flung beaches and ocean views.

The image of the children frolicking on the exposed sand haunts me. We are all those children, all of us who love the beaches of the world. We have loved them too much, to our peril, because our numbers, our greed, our desire for white-water views have pushed us past where our ancestors knew was safe. We have built mansions upon sandbars, resort hotels atop low-lying atolls, nuclear reactors atop fragile coastal bluffs, cities where mangrove forests once stood.

I have witnessed this folly in every beat I have covered. Beware our false sense of security on the shores of this planet.

Before moving west, I worked as an editor for a small weekly newspaper covering Long Beach, N.Y., just east of Rockaway and New York City’s bustling beaches. I was constantly writing about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to shore up the eroding shoreline with rock jetties and dumped sand.

One interview, with one of the world’s foremost experts on hurricane damage, haunts me: He noted how New York Harbor’s natural and man-made geography were perfectly, albeit accidentally, designed to concentrate damage on the southern tip of Manhattan should a Category 3 hurricane ever bear down on the metropolis.

The stakes crystallized for me when I reviewed my city’s hurricane evacuation plans. I found photos of past destruction and photos depicting where water would rise should the Long Beach barrier island sustain more than a glancing blow from the many hurricanes that rumble up the Atlantic. It foretold disaster for the city I had come to love. It hasn’t happened yet —- may not in my lifetime —- but the odds get worse every year.

We saw those odds play out in Florida this summer, four successive hurricanes battering a peninsula dangling like an affront to the Atlantic. Flush with our sense of superiority over the seas, we have paved over the barrier islands of the East Coast which exist, geologically speaking, to protect the mainland by absorbing the direct blows of storm-driven surf. Instead, we have taken nature’s own protective armor and we’ve developed it into homes and communities that could become death traps in the event of hurricanes. Or tsunamis.

Geology is kinder to us here in Southern California. Most of our shoreline is geologically younger, sharp and strong and high against the Pacific.

But our castles still are built upon sand, sandstone cliffs to be precise. The low-lying lagoons and river deltas separating Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad and Oceanside are even more vulnerable. If sea levels rise, if storms increase in ferocity, if tsunamis race across the vast Pacific or rumble up from near-shore faults, we will live to regret our reckless, short-sighted development of the blurry border between land and sea. And some of us won’t be so lucky.


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