By Vera Coelho
What would you do if your community was hit by a tsunami? When confronted with disaster, human responses vary: despair, anger, disbelief, sorrow. Planting trees might not be the first thing that comes to mind.
After a tsunami hit the north coast of the Indonesian island of Flores in 1992, killing around 2,500 people, Mr. Victor Emmanuel (locally known as Babah Akong) decided that he was not going to simply stand by and wait for another calamity. Realising how exposed his community was to natural hazards such as tsunamis, he decided to take matters into his own hands. And so for the last 20 years Mr. Emmanuel has been planting mangrove trees.
Mangrove forests are true wonders of the natural world. Tall mangrove trees emerge from the salty or brackish water, where other trees would not survive. They harbour a diversity of wildlife, from rare insects to endangered primates, and they provide humans with vast resources – such as fish, timber, fibres and fuelwood.
In recent years mangroves have also started to be appreciated for their protective functions. Coastal areas with large tracts of intact or well preserved mangrove forests have proved to be effective in buffering the destructive forces of tsunamis and storm surges – the natural barrier posed by the mangroves reduces the power of the waves. Moreover, mangroves also help avoid “slow” disasters. For instance, they minimise the intrusion of salt water inland, and they can help reduce coastal erosion.
Avoiding disaster is far better than responding to one – as Mr. Emmanuel so well understood. Since the 1992 tsunami, he has contributed to restoring 60 hectares of mangrove ecosystems through his planting efforts. He has also raised the awareness of the villagers and their children regarding the importance of mangrove ecosystems. Babah Akong’s outstanding work has earned him the Kalpataru Environmental Award, which he received from the President of Indonesia in 2009. He has become a true local hero, attracting people from afar who wish to learn from his initiative.
At Wetlands International we have also learnt from Babah Akong’s example. Therefore, we have joined forces with humanitarian organisations CARE, Cordaid, Red Cross Netherlands and the Red Cross Climate Centre on a five year programme which will bring together humanitarian and ecosystem-based approaches to disaster risk reduction. The programme also implements measures aimed at responding to the impacts of climate change.
Babah Akong with his Kalpataru Award (Photo by Marie Jose Vervest)
“The common aim of this ‘Partners for Resilience
’ programme is to empower local communities to increase their resilience, among others by maintaining and restoring their natural environment so that they avoid or at least minimise the loss of human life and livelihoods in an extreme event”, says Nyoman Suryadiputra, Director of Wetlands International’s Indonesia Programme. “We also work with governments and policy makers in a large-scale effort to achieve truly integrated risk reduction”.
Wetlands International team members advise local communities, governments and policy makers on measures that can be taken to reduce disaster risk – for instance, planting bamboo to protect a hillside village from strong winds, planting trees with strong roots to prevent soil erosion and landslides, or (re)planting mangroves on coastal areas. Our team also supports local leaders such as Mr. Emmanuel and helps them spread their message, raising awareness among the communities and helping them to come up with plans to take their own steps towards enhanced resilience. So that next time we can jointly avoid disaster – rather than respond to it.
Partners for Resilience team visit to the island of Flores (Photo by Nyoman Suryadiputra)
Also read more about our further work on mangroves for coastal resilience
, which includes exploring options for hybrid-engineering, reducing the impacts from large scale aquaculture and restoring mangroves in 3 continents.
Communications and Advocacy Officer