Tsunami, mangroves and market economy: No lessons learnt - Article by Devinder Sharma
In the midst of all the technological prowess that the world boasts of, nature still has its own ways of making us realise that we are not on the right track,
16 Mar 2011

The terrible earthquake and the disastrous sweep of the tsunami has left a trail of suffering in Japan. As our hearts go out to the Japanese, and to the impacted people, every natural disaster should provide us an opportunity to access where we have gone wrong. we need to set our house in order, and we need to redesign our policies and approaches in a sustainable manner.

Here is an article that the author had written when tsunami had struck India. This article was published in numerous publications and web portals across the globe. This analysis remains valid even today. Please have a look at the article below, and surely you will find it so topical and relevant.

As the first news reports of the devastation caused by the tsunami killer waves began to pour in, a newsreader on Aaj Tak’s Headline Today television channel asked his correspondent reporting from the scene of destruction in Tamilnadu in south India - “Any idea about how much is the loss to business? Can you find that out because that would be more important for our business leaders?”.

Little did the newscaster realise or even know that the tsunami disaster, which eventually turned out to be a catastrophe, was more or less the outcome of faulty business and economics. Since the 1980s, the Asian sea-coast region has been plundered by the large industrialised shrimp firms that brought environmentally-unfriendly aquaculture to its sea shores. Shrimp cultivation, rising to over 8 billion tonnes a year in the year 2000, had already played havoc with the fragile eco-systems. The 'rape-and-run' industry, as the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) once termed it, was largely funded by the World Bank. Nearly 72 per cent of the shrimp farming is confined to Asia.

Shrimp farms are abandoned every 2-5 years, leaving behind toxic waste and destroyed ecosystems. The whole cycle is then repeated in another pristine coastal area.

The expansion of shrimp farming was at the cost of tropical mangrove forests - amongst the world’s most important ecosystems. Each acre of mangrove forest destroyed results in an estimated 676 pounds loss in marine harvest. Mangrove swamps have been nature’s protection for the coastal regions from the large waves, weathering the impact of cyclones, and serving as a nursery for three-fourth of the commercial fish species that spend part of their life cycle in the swamps. Mangroves in any case were one of the world's most threatened habitats but instead of replanting the mangrove swamps, faulty economic policies only hastened its disappearance.

Ecologists tell us that mangroves provide double protection – the first layer of red mangroves with their flexible branches and tangled roots hanging in the coastal waters absorb the first shock waves. The second layer of tall black mangroves than operates like a wall withstanding much of the sea’s fury. Mangroves in addition absorb more carbon dioxide per unit area than ocean phytoplankton, a critical factor in global warming.

Shrimp farming has continued its destructive spree, eating away more than half of the world's mangroves. Since the 1960's, for instance, aquaculture and industrial development in Thailand resulted in a loss of over 65,000 hectares of mangroves. In Indonesia, Java lost 70 per cent of its mangroves, Sulawesi 49 per cent and Sumatra 36 per cent. So much so that at the time the tsunami struck in all its fury, logging companies were busy axing mangroves in the Aceh province of Indonesia for exports to Malaysia and Singapore.

In India, mangrove cover has been reduced to less than a third of its original in the past three decades. Between 1963 and 1977, India destroyed nearly 50 per cent of its mangroves. Local communities were forcibly evicted to make way for the shrimp farms. In Andhra Pradesh, more than 50,000 people were forcibly removed and millions displaced throughout the country to make room for the aquaculture farms. Whatever remained of the mangroves was cut down by the hotel industry, virtually aided and abetted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Industries.

Five-star hotels, golf courses, industries, and mansions sprung up all along disregarding the concern being expressed by environmentalists. These two ministries worked overtime to dilute the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms thereby allowing the hotels to even take over the 500 meter buffer that was supposed to be maintained along the beach. In an era of market economy that was reflected through a misplaced Shining India slogan, bureaucrats are in league with the industrialists and big business interests.

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