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A tsunami for West Africa?

Scientists in Nigeria have discounted warnings that the West African coastline risks a tsunami but stress the need to plan for other extreme events, according to the Science and Development Network.

Yevgeny Dolginov, a professor of geological studies at the Russian University for People’s Friendship, told the Pravda news agency that African countries including Cameroon, Gabon and Nigeria were at risk. ”I feel it is necessary to warn the embassies of the countries located around the equator about the possibilities of massive earthquakes in the near future,” Dolginov told Pravda.

Olusola Dublin-Green, assistant director of the Nigerian Institute of Oceanography and Marine Research says, however, that the risk of a tsunami striking Nigeria is remote.

She points out that the Atlantic Ocean is not geologically active. ”We do not expect tsunamis in Nigeria or in the West African sub-region either now or in the immediate future,” agrees Ernest Afiesimama, head of environmental and climate predictions at the Nigeria Meteorological Agency.

”The only area where we could probably think of a natural disaster is in the western boundary with Cameroon, where there is an active volcanic region.” Afiesimama says the Nigerian government must invest in early warning systems to face this threat. Other scientists say that despite the risk of a tsunami being remote, Nigeria’s coast is at risk from extreme weather.

Much of the land along Nigeria’s extensive coastline is below sea level, and the coastal cities of Lagos and Port Harcout have experienced seasonal flooding in recent years.

”Flooding similar to what happened in Asia is possible in coastal Nigeria,” says Wilson Mangi, of the Nigerian Meteorological Agency. ”Especially around August when you have very strong surface winds.”

Reports from South and South-East Asia that the tsunami caused more damage in areas where mangrove forests had been cleared could have relevance for Nigeria. Pollution linked to the oil industry in the Niger Delta has apparently devastated the region’s mangrove forests. Another threat to the mangroves is the expansion of the export shrimp industry.

The multi-national oil company Shell and the US Agency for International Development have entered into a partnership to build a large shrimp farming project on Nigeria’s coast, but environmentalists are concerned it could lead to more mangroves being cut down.

”The recent tsunami nightmare is a vivid warning to Nigeria against any intensification of coastal zone development without complementary understanding of related oceanographic processes,” says Ako Amadi, a marine ecologist.

In East Africa to launch the United Nations Conference on Small Islands in Mauritius, Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN’s Environmental Programme (Unep) stressed the urgency of early warning systems, adding that the cost would be high ”but not as high as the suffering of the people affected and the economies of the nations concerned”.

According to Unep spokesperson Eric Falt, speaking in Nairobi, Kenya, the UN body has yet to come up with a clear picture of the tsunami’s environmental impacts but will soon be using geographic information systems and other remote sensing techniques to assess the extent of the damage.

He said that mangrove forests and coral reefs were important natural barriers to the tsunamis but that most of them have been destroyed in the small island states due to increased human activity.

Dense mangrove forests growing along the coasts of tropical and sub-tropical countries can help reduce the devastating impact of tsunamis and coastal storms by absorbing some of the waves’ energy, say scientists.

When the tsunami struck India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu on 26 December, for example, areas in Pichavaram and Muthupet with dense mangroves suffered fewer human casualties and less damage to property compared to areas without mangroves.

But the scientists also warn that the unique coastal tropical forests are among the most threatened habitats in the world. This is due to population growth and unsustainable economic development including deliberate land reclamation for urban and industrial development, widespread shrimp farming, and chemical pollution.

”We have observed that mangroves often served as a barrier to the fury of water,” says M. S. Swaminathan, so-called father of India’s ‘green revolution’, and head of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF)in Chennai, India.

MSSRF scientists found, for example, that in October 1999, mangrove forests reduced the impact of a ‘super-cyclone’ that struck Orissa on India’s east coast, killing at least 10 000 people and making 7,5-million homeless.

More than 15 years ago, MSSRF launched a programme to restore India’s vanishing mangrove forests. One success story is the Joint Mangrove Management project, supported by the India-Canada Environment Facility with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency.

Implemented in six mangrove areas along the east coast of southern India between 1996 and 2003, the project helped restore 1 447 hectares of degraded mangrove forest.

The foundation adopted a three-pronged strategy. The first goal was to conserve and regenerate mangroves along India’s east coast.

The second involved genetic modification: identifying and transferring salt tolerance genes from mangroves species to crops like rice and mustard growing in coastal areas.

Thirdly, the foundation has been raising awareness among local communities about impending storms and about safe fishing zones and days. Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union (IUCN), has also voiced concern about rapidly disappearing mangrove forests that offer protection against events like tsunamis.

McNeely told the Agence France Press news agency that over the past several decades, many mangroves have been cleared to grow shrimp ponds by outsiders granted concessions from governments to set up shrimp farms, who lacked the long-term knowledge of why the forests should have been saved.

According to the US-based Earth Island Institute’s Mangrove Action Project, mangrove forests once covered three-quarters of the coastlines of tropical and sub-tropical countries, but only half of that area remains intact today.

The Mangrove Action Project says vast tracts of mangroves have been cleared to make way for shrimp farms in developing countries, and that national governments have been unable to adequately regulate the industry.

Multilateral agencies are also supporting shrimp farming projects without paying attention to social and ecological security, says the organisation. Shrimp farming alone caused a loss of 65 000 hectares of mangroves in Thailand, according to a 2002 paper by V. P. Upadhyay and colleagues in the journal Current Science.

In Indonesia, Java has lost 70% of its mangrove area, Sulawesi 49%, Sumatra 36%. Globally the rate of decline in mangrove forest cover is 2-8% each year, said the paper.

In India, large stretches of mangrove forest have been severely degraded in almost all areas where they are found. As well as acting as a barrier against tsunamis, cyclones and hurricanes, mangrove forests provide society with a range of other ecological services.

These include preventing coastal erosion, protecting coral reefs from silting up, and providing a source of timber, food and traditional medicines In addition, an editorial in the influential journal Nature argues that the tsunami teaches the world that science should be shared.

This editorial argues that the way events unfolded, and their tragic consequences, show the disparity in how science is applied in different parts of the world. It points out the irony that the very same tools of communication that could have saved lives instead brought news of widespread death.

There are two lessons to be learnt.

International bodies set up to provide early warnings of natural disasters must no longer be neglected and underfunded. Also, people in rich countries need to ask their governments to ”pay modest respect to the value of human life” — particularly when deciding research priorities.

Scientists have a role to play in this, says the article. Earth scientists should follow the example of biomedical researchers in

developed nations who have put time, effort and funding into studying diseases that affect mostly poorer nations.

”It is clear, with the benefit of hindsight, that the arcane international bodies that manage tsunami protection have been neglected and underfunded for many years,” says the editorial. ”Most of them have focused on the Pacific Ocean, and occasional attempts to widen their brief to the Indian Ocean have been rebuffed.”

A master plan prepared in 1999 by ITSU, one of the international organizations that plans for the monitoring of tsunamis, stated: ‘Tsunami hazards exist on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, in the eastern Indian Ocean, and in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Black Seas. Efforts to establish warning centers in those areas should be encouraged.’

”An important reason for the previous confinement of monitoring systems to the Pacific has been the occurrence of two tsunamis in the Pacific quite recently, in 1960 and 1964. The last tsunami produced by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean is thought to have occurred back in 1833.”

”However, the most important differentiating factor has been the readiness of ‘Pacific rim’ nations such as Japan, Australia and the United States to support a cheap but potentially effective system for monitoring and for educating the public about an infrequent risk. India, Indonesia and the other nations on the Indian Ocean’s rim are relatively poor countries with needs that seemed more pressing than that of planning against the remote — but nonetheless inevitable — prospect of a tsunami.”

Meanwhile, public health officials in countries hit by last month’s tsunami are rapidly burying victims in mass graves to prevent disease outbreaks. But this is an unnecessary practice according to a report released last year. The report, produced by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in September 2004, says mass burial following natural disasters should be avoided.

It says it is a myth that human corpses pose a higher risk of diseases such as cholera, because most harmful bacteria and viruses die soon after human death as the body temperature falls.

According to [email protected], mass burials also reduce the likelihood of identifying victims — who should be buried instead in a way that allows later exhumation and a dignified funeral. It recommends that each body is carefully recorded, tagged and put into an individual body bag. SciDev.Net

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