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  • Tsunami's legacy includes airborne toxins


[NAIROBI] Regions hit by the 26 December 2004 tsunami have been seriously contaminated by saltwater, bacteria and even nuclear waste, says a report released last week by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

According to the report, groundwater in many of the affected areas has been contaminated by seawater infiltration and damage to toilets, septic tanks and sanitation systems.

It also says the tsunami stirred nuclear and other hazardous waste that had previously been illegally dumped along the coast of Somalia and that this waste is now affecting the health of local people.

The report contains the findings of UNEP's Asian Tsunami Task Force's rapid environmental assessment, the first attempt to determine the tsunami's environmental impact.

Releasing the report to 100 environment ministers at UNEP's 23rd Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, the agency's executive director, Klaus Toepfer, said that 60,000 wells and 15,000 hand pumps were contaminated, damaged or destroyed in Indonesia.

"All 28,000 hectares of coastal irrigation schemes in Aceh [Indonesia] were severely impacted," said Toepfer. "Ninety per cent of toilets on some badly affected islands in the Maldives may have been lost."

The report says that groundwater in as many as 30 of the Maldives islands has been contaminated by sewage, with tests indicating that many of these supplies now breach international safety standards.

Other contaminants in the Maldives' water supply since the tsunami include asbestos and oil, which has leaked from fuel drums and damaged generators.

In Somalia, said Toepfer, there is evidence that the tsunami caused nuclear and other hazardous waste to threaten the health of local communities.

Since the early 1980s, Somalia's coastline has been used as dumping ground for such waste produced by other countries. Somalia's long civil war and the inability of its authorities to police the coast, has allowed other nations to illegally dump uranium, radioactive waste, industrial chemicals and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury.

"Most of the waste was simply dumped on the beaches in containers and disposable leaking barrels which ranged from small to big tanks without regard to the health of the local population and any environmentally devastating impacts," says the report.

The tsunami stirred up waste dumped on Somali beaches around North Hobyo and Warshek, south of Benadir, according to UNEP. Wind carried toxic materials inland, leading to health problems in local villages.

Many people in the affected areas are complaining of unusual health problems including acute respiratory infections, bleeding mouths and skin conditions, says UNEP's report.

UNEP says it is urgent that infrastructure such as wells and sewage containment are repaired, and that hazardous wastes are removed. It suggests that these efforts use labour intensive work programmes to maximise benefits to the livelihoods of poor communities.

In the longer term, UNEP calls for regional warning systems, not only for tsunamis but also for other natural disasters. It proposes plans to identify vulnerable coastal areas where the building of homes, hotels, factories and other infrastructure should be banned or restricted.

Link to full UNEP report After the Tsunami: Rapid environmental assessment

Read more about tsunamis in SciDev.Net's Tsunami update.

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