Press Releases June 2005 - Road Map for Sri Lanka’s Sustainable Reconstruction - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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Road Map for Sri Lanka’s Sustainable Reconstruction

Post-Tsunami Assessment launched by UNEP and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources

Colombo/Nairobi, 17 June 2005 - More than 15,000 wells have been made unusable and over 500 million kg of rubble generated in Sri Lanka as a result of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

In some areas including important national parks, the wave has encouraged the spread of alien invasive species such as prickly pears and salt-tolerant mesquite.

These are among the findings from a final report into the environmental impacts of the tsunami launched today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

The report confirms that in those areas with healthy coral reefs and mangroves, the impacts of the devastating events of December 2004 were significantly reduced.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “ The tsunami in the Indian Ocean taught the world some hard, shocking but important lessons which we ignore at our peril”.

“We learnt in graphic and horrific detail that the ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses which we have so casually destroyed are not a luxury. They are life savers capable of helping to defend our homes, our loved ones and our livelihoods from some of nature’s more aggressive acts,” he added.

“They are also instrumental, in less devastating times, of supplying communities with goods and services that underlie prosperity and help human-kind overcome poverty. So they have an important role in assisting us in realizing the Millennium Development Goals and delivering a more stable, healthy and prosperous world,” said Mr Toepfer.

“It is therefore vital, that during the re-construction of shattered coastlines and settlements, the environment is taken into account along with the economic and social factors,” he added.

“This would be among the lasting tributes, and a key mark of respect, that we pay to people and the families who fell victim to the events of December 2004. Be assured that UNEP stands ready to offer help now and in the future to those countries concerned”.

Immediately after the Indian Ocean tsunami, Mr Toepfer created a Task Force to respond to urgent requests for technical assistance from affected countries, including from Sri Lanka.

MENR and UNEP initiated a Rapid Environmental Assessment of the tsunami-affected areas culminating in today’s final report.

The assessment found that the tsunami seriously impacted Sri Lanka’s environment, wherever it penetrated inland. The extent of this varied greatly as the wave swept around the island, striking first and most furiously on the eastern coast and then curving around the southern and south-western coasts.

In the east, it swept inland for an average of 300 metres, but elsewhere the average penetration was around 100 m.

In some places, estuaries and flat-lands allowed the waves to reach up to 3 km inland, while in others, natural sand dunes stopped it just behind the beach. The overall result was a very varied picture of tsunami damage in Sri Lanka.

The assessment concentrated on gathering large amounts of site-specific data, working with teams from all the main universities in the country.

Detailed physical and ecological descriptions were made of over 800 sites at one-km intervals along almost the whole affected coast, supporting the preparation of a digital Atlas of Tsunami Damage in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, more than 750 sites were inspected for contamination by toxic wastes, sewage and sea-salt, and hot-spots requiring urgent clean-up were identified.

These detailed reports, the Atlas and site inspection studies and analyses together provide the only comprehensive, science-based assessment of environmental issues raised by the tsunami in Sri Lanka, supporting all future environmental remediation work.

The UNEP report concluded that well over 500 million kg of rubble were created by the tsunami, posing an enormous challenge to the solid waste management system.

Debris and marine sand, whether deposited by the tsunami or by subsequent clean-up operations, block drainage channels in many areas, creating a serious risk of water-logging and loss of agricultural land, as well as increased risk of mosquito-borne disease.

Salt water has rendered more than 15,000 wells unusable, greatly reducing drinking-water supplies. Over-pumping of wells in an attempt to clean out contaminated water has often encouraged salt intrusion, which has done more harm than good in many places.

Many coastal water bodies have been badly contaminated or have had their drainage blocked, causing them to become stagnant and dead. These need urgent restoration.

Where they still existed, after years of mining, blast-fishing and bleaching, intact coral reefs acted as buffers to the waves. On the shore, front-line mangroves were badly damaged, but deeper mangroves were left intact and absorbed the force of the tsunami.

In some places – including protected areas such as Yala National Park – the spread of alien invasive species such as prickly-pears (Opuntia) and salt-tolerant mesquite (Prosopis) has been encouraged by the tsunami.

Resettlement and reconstruction are now placing a huge burden on natural resources, especially through the location of new settlements in or near ecologically sensitive locations, and increased demand for sand and wood for reconstruction and firewood for brick-making.

These activities are thought to have the potential to cause more irreversible damage to Sri Lanka’s environment than did the tsunami itself.

Important lessons have been learned from all this by the people and government of Sri Lanka, including the need to consider the environmental consequences of each act of assistance and repair, from cleaning wells to dumping debris and moving settlements to less vulnerable locations.

A donor-government forum has echoed the need to address environmental concerns in the post-tsunami recovery and reconstruction strategy.

It is now agreed that the MENR will work closely with UNEP, the Central Environmental Authority, the Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation and other key stakeholders in remedying environmental damage and integrating environmental considerations into the country’s restoration programme.

Pasi Rinne, the Chairman of the UNEP Tsunami Task Force referred to the report and the listed interventions that require more than 300 million USD, and stated that “the government and other partners are committed to the environmental restoration, but international assistance is needed to meet the priority recovery needs. UNEP stands ready to offer help now and in the future to those countries concerned. In Sri Lanka, UNEP now aims to work with government to encourage and enable better coordination among decision makers, to establish a network of environmental helpdesks in the affected districts, to provide local training for disaster awareness and preparedness, and to build local and national capacity for environmental restoration and ecosystem management.”

UNEP would also like to thank the Government of Sweden for its generous support in helping to finance the report.

For More Information Please Contact Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, Office of the Executive Director, on Tel: +254 20 62 3084; Mobile: +254 733 632 755, E-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org

If there is no prompt response, please contact Elisabeth Waechter, UNEP Associate Information Officer, on Tel: 254 20 623088, Mobile: 254 720 173968, E-mail: elisabeth.waechter@unep.org

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