Newswise — Some of the devastation caused by the powerful tsunami Dec. 26 could have been prevented if not for the loss of nature's own protective coastal vegetation and natural barriers, says a University of Wyoming professor.
Protective reefs, sand dunes and mangroves along coastlines have steadily been removed over the last 20-25 years as the region's countries have tried to develop their economies, says Edward Barbier, a professor in the UW College of Business Department of Economics and Finance.
Barbier has studied resource problems in developing countries for more than 20 years, has centered his research on mangroves, mainly in Thailand.
Mangroves are trees and shrubs that thrive in tropical tidal zones. They provide a double layer of protection against the pounding surf along coastlines, he says.
But as Thailand's economy developed, since the 1960s the mangrove forests along the Gulf of Thailand and the Indian Ocean have been reduced in half, Barbier says. They have been replaced mainly by shrimp farms, hotels, growing cities and other coastal developments.
Barbier and Suthawan Satirathai, wife of Thailand's foreign minister, along with economists and ecologists, recently wrote a book, "Shrimp Expansion and Mangrove Loss in Thailand," a two-year study of Thailand's disappearing mangrove ecosystems. They note that many other Asian countries also have experienced widespread mangrove losses.
"However, we need to be cautious in attributing the recent tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean to the widespread coastal degradation that is occurring in the region," Barbier says. "Even nature's ecosystem could not have prevented the tsunami. With an event that huge you have to expect great loss, but the question is, could some of it have been reduced?
"Ecologists and others studying coastal systems have said if there had been more protection from natural barriers, such as mangroves, coral reefs and other systems, these barriers could have reduced some of the losses," he says.
Local communities often depend upon mangroves for collecting shellfish and other fish that live in that type of system, and also for collecting wood products for construction, fuel, and other purposes, Barbier says.
"Also, mangroves are natural breeding and nursery habitat for coastal and marine fisheries," he says. "Removal of mangroves directly hurts the fishing industry along coastlines."
He adds that the livelihoods of many communities are affected when natural protection is removed in commercial development projects. He says wealthy investors often benefit the most from commercial developments, such as large-scale shrimp farming or hotels, but local residents tend to share much less in these benefits.