Tsunami destroys lands’ fertility
Sun., Jan. 23, 2005
LAMTUI, Indonesia – The Dec. 26 tsunami that swept away homes and lives also left behind a poisonous legacy for farmers: Salt.
Rice and many other plants won’t grow in the soil that was fouled by briny waters.
“The sea water acted like a herbicide on crops,” said Jean-Michel Arnoult, a consultant flown in to assist the relief effort in Indonesia at the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations agency that helps farmers and fishermen.
“The big question is to what extent and how long the salinity will affect the potential for crop production,” he said. “Six months? One year? Two years? 10 years? Who knows?”
It’s a key issue facing aid agencies as they begin to focus on the reconstruction phase of the relief effort. Enabling fishermen, who lost their nets and boats, and farmers to earn a living again would empower them to rebuild their lives. But that won’t be possible for farmers as long as their fields remain infertile.
If it rains heavily during the ongoing rainy season, some experts think the salt could be washed out of the less-damaged fields in time for the next planting season in the spring.
Ali Basyah, a 52-year-old rice farmer, isn’t holding his breath. He’s not a soil scientist, but he’s walked the devastated paddies in his village of Lamtui on the hard-hit west coast of Aceh province. He imagines it will be two years before his fields come back.
“We had just planted our rice,” he said, standing across the road from the village fields, transformed by the tsunami from a sea of wispy green rice stalks into a bleak landscape of caked mud and debris.
“This is our food,” the subsistence farmer said. “It’s what we eat.”
Indonesians typically eat rice at every meal, including breakfast. Refugees like Basyah are surviving on handouts from aid agencies. They get enough rice, they say, to stretch out for two meals a day.
While the west coast of Aceh is rice country, the east coast was home to a booming shrimp farming industry. Now, the dug-out pools of brackish water are filled with dirt and sand washed in by the tsunami. Huge quantities of mud will have to be removed to reestablish the farms.
How long the rehabilitation work will take is difficult to say, but U.N. experts fear it could be five years before the worst hit rice fields have fully recovered. The experts’ back-of-the-envelope estimate of the income loss from lost rice production: $79 million over the next five years.
Clearing rice field drainage systems clogged with debris, sand and mud is a high priority, said Shin Imai, an Indonesia-based official with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Otherwise, the rainwater will be trapped and won’t carry away the salt.
Another option may be to use irrigation systems – which may need repairs after the earthquake and tsunami – to flush the sand out the fields Arnoult said.
In the meantime, the rains are a mixed blessing, hampering relief efforts and making life miserable for the many refugees living in tent cities.
Ultimately, the rain may cleanse the soil. Perhaps it’s nature’s way of restoring order. But no one knows nature’s timetable.
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