Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Burma’s opportunity now: Rebuild for a safer future

Christian Science Monitor: When tropical cyclone Nargis slammed into southern Burma (Myanmar) on May 3 it left an enormous humanitarian crisis in its wake. But it also has presented the country with an opportunity to rebuild in its hard-hit Irrawaddy delta in ways that increase the region’s resilience in the face of future storms.

That’s the assessment of a range of specialists who have taken part in recovery efforts in areas as diverse as post-Katrina New Orleans and post-tsunami Thailand and Sri Lanka.…

…Several long-term approaches could provide added protection for the delta’s residents and set the stage for more sustainable use of the area’s resources, specialists say. The key is restoring the delta’s natural processes, beginning with efforts to regenerate the region’s mangroves.

“The mangroves are a keystone species,” Brosnan says. For humans, mangroves can act as a natural storm-surge barrier. And for the marine resources critical to the country’s food supply, they act as nurseries for roughly half the fish species the country relies upon for commercial and subsistence fishing. Belize may be a model. It has done a good job of protecting its mangrove forests, Brosnan notes.

Burma could further reduce future storm-surge risks by minimizing construction of new canals. It could be a tough call. Covering some 13,500 square miles, the Irrawaddy delta is nearly three times the size of the Mississippi River delta. In many areas, the canals and streams provide the only transportation routes.

In the long run, Brosnan and others say, it may be necessary to adopt what would amount to a crude type of zoning, encouraging people to rebuild in flood-protected settlements on high ground. In addition, geographer Colton cites efforts Bangladesh has made to elevate and strengthen new public schools in its vast delta. The schools can then be used as safe temporary shelters when a storm strikes. Over the past 20 to 30 years, such efforts have led to a marked drop in storm deaths. “Modest hurricane-resistant structures are one step that even a financially strapped government can take,” he says….

An uprooted tree in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, photo by a US State Department employee via Wikimedia Commons

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