Services remember tsunami tragedy

Saturday, December 27, 2008

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Southeast Asia's tsunami-ravaged coral reefs have bounced back with surprising speed, according to a study released Friday, four years after the deadly waves hit.

The findings came as communities across the Indian Ocean remembered the disaster that struck Dec. 26, 2004 with prayers, songs and tears. About 230,000 people were killed in a dozen countries when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered the tsunami.

Surveys of coral reefs after the tsunami showed that up to one-third were damaged and experts predicted it would take a decade for them to fully recover.

Thousands gathered Friday to celebrate the progress but to also remember the dead and reflect on a tragedy that turned their lives upside down.

"I don't think people will ever forget the tsunami. It changed a lot of people's lives," said Alisara Na-Takuatung, a local Phuket radio disc jockey who took part in a ceremony on Thailand's Patong beach attended by 200 people.

About 50 Buddhist monks prayed while school children played traditional Thai instruments.

"I know people who lost their husbands, their kids. Those people won't forget about the tsunami," she said. "They will see it as a lesson. You think about what you can do for others."

Ibrahim Musa, a 42-year-old civil servant who joined thousands in a prayer service in the hard-hit Aceh province of Indonesia, said it feels like yesterday that his family was taken by the sea.

"Even after four years, I cannot forget how I lost hold of my wife and baby," he said. "I have tried in vain to look for them for three years. Now I have no choice but to accept their departure as destiny."

In India, where thousands also perished, interfaith prayers and a moment of silence were held. The Sri Lankan government declared two minutes of silence for the 35,000 people killed there as well as other victims of natural disasters.

The healing trend embraced by those devastated by the tsunami has extended to the reefs with communities responding to calls to protect them from illegal fishing, pollution and coastal development.

Campbell said citizens have been particularly responsive in Aceh where fishermen have stopped using illegal techniques like dynamite and villagers have transplanted corals into areas that were hardest hit.

"The recovery, which is in part due to improved management and the direct assistance of local people, gives enormous hope that coral reefs in this remote region can return to their previous condition and provide local communities with the resources they need to prosper," Campbell said.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a reef expert from the University of Queensland in Australia who did not take part in the study, said the findings were not surprising since corals typically will recover if not affected by fishing and coastal development.

"The mechanical damage from the tsunami left a whole bunch of shattered corals on the bottom of the sea," Hoegh-Guldberg said.

"Left alone, these things can quickly grow back into what looks like a coral reef in a short time," he said. "We are seeing similar things around the southern Great Barrier Reef where reefs that experience major catastrophe can bounce back quite quickly."

John Bruno, a reef expert from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agreed saying it shows coral reefs are able to recover after severe disturbances.

"There has been so much bad news about coral decline lately, and the threats to corals seem to increase every year. It is important to recognize that these invaluable ecosystems are not lost," he said in an e-mail interview. "We just have to implement some common sense policies locally and substantially reduce emissions of greenhouse gases at a global scale."

Associated Press Writer Fachrurradize Gade contributed to this report from Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

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