|Tuesday, 11 January 2005|
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Heed UN chief's unity call
Sri Lankans could take heart from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's rallying call to the world community to unceasingly help the victims of the tsunami disaster. Equally elevating is his wish that Sri Lankans would work in a spirit of unity and friendship to re-build Sri Lanka.
There is no denying that, as suggested by the UN chief, the oneness that is thus achieved in the re-building process should be used by all stakeholders in the peace process to forge ahead towards a durable solution to our conflict.
It is our wish that these noble sentiments of the UN Secretary General would be heeded by our body-politic. As pointed out by President Kumaratunga, this great tragedy which has been visited upon us is a profoundly humbling experience.
That is, the communities of the country are being compelled to recognize their common humanity by the forces of Nature.
Some would react to this observation by saying that this is stating the obvious, but the simple truth is that this country has been bedevilled by bigotry and chauvinism.
Now, in the wake of the tragedy, everyone in this land is bound to recognize that no one community or social group is superior to the other. Nature has become a great leveller in that the country suffers as one man.
The stage could be said to be set for a united, country-wide, nation re-building effort. If we fail as a people to seize this historic opportunity to work together for the good of all - including working out a peaceful solution to our conflict - it is difficult to see the country improving its lot.
The world community too is duty-bound to heed the UN chief's call for a sustained effort at succouring the tsunami-affected countries. While immediate humanitarian assistance is the need of the hour, such assistance should not cease once we are no longer considered "hot news" by the international media.
While a complete debt write-off for countries such as Sri Lanka would be ideal, the creditors of the tsunami - affected should at least consider a re-scheduling of our foreign debts.
Accordingly, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar's call for "debt forgiveness" on the part of the powerful few should be seriously considered.
Sri Lanka, for its part, should convince the donor community that the assistance and relief rushed to it is meaningfully spent and not misused or embezzled. Accordingly, effective law enforcement and the exaction of accountability from all involved in the aid-distribution process, would acquire priority status in the days ahead.
An environmental disaster
Now that the world is coming to grips with the reconstruction effort after the tsunami disaster, an opportunity has arisen to study the overall damage, apart from the human toll itself. Environmental experts are now studying the affected coasts in the tsunami-hit countries to assess the damage caused to the environment.
The scale of the tsunami's environmental damage is readily apparent: the coastline has changed almost beyond recognition. But experts point out that the huge waves alone should not be blamed.
"What has made this a disaster is that people have started to occupy part of the landscape that they should not have occupied," says Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of the Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN).
The beach-dwelling poor and fisherfolk bore the brunt of the disaster. Illegal settlements that lined the beaches were the first to be swept away.
The residents had eliminated some of the natural defences against tsunamis, such as reefs and mangroves, in their quest to find additional living space and start commercial ventures such as shrimp farms. Coral reefs act as a natural breakwater and mangroves are a natural shock absorber.
In fact, parts of India and Myanmar, where coral reefs and mangroves remained intact, escaped the full fury of the waves unlike the 'developed' coastlines of Thailand and Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan Government has imposed a rule whereby no new development shall take place within 300 metres from the beach. This should be strictly enforced. No one should be allowed to destroy the natural vegetation on the beaches.
The damage to the marine environment is equally devastating. The debris that flowed into the sea from land smashed coral reefs. The natural environment of many marine organisms underwent a radical change in a just a few hours.
Toxic materials would have entered the sea at many points, further affecting marine life. The amount of silt, sand and organic matter mixed with the water would also smother them. On land, wells and freshwater streams have been contaminated with seawater, posing more problems.
The United Nations Environment Programme has earmarked one million dollars to address immediate environmental needs in the tsunami-hit regions.
Assessing the environment damage alone will take months. Nevertheless, drawing up concrete plans to protect the coastal environment from further damage is a priority. It must be preserved in all its glory for posterity.
Produced by Lake House