- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

PORT BLAIR, India — Someday, perhaps, he will be able to rebuild his house, and take his family back to the island they fled. Maybe one day he will again have a coconut grove set along the shimmering blue waters of the Andaman Sea.

But everything changed for Lucas Robert when the tsunami swept through the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on Dec. 26, destroying his home, his farm, his village. And nearly everything changed for the islands themselves.

Land, sea, people, farmland, trees, fish, birds and coral reefs — everything will be different in some measure across the island chain, probably for generations.

According to the official count, the disaster left at least 1,492 islanders dead, 5,542 missing and some 55,000 others displaced. It wiped out scores of villages, altered the geography of entire islands, and created mountains of debris that could choke mangrove forests and destroy coral reefs.

Every change ripples across the Andamans, magnifying the tsunami’s effect as it spreads through the isolated, heavily forested islands and their far-flung tribal villages.

Witness the changes to Mr. Robert’s world: The tsunami washed in saltwater that devastated the soil that the coconut trees depended on — trees that have been a central part of life among indigenous people here for generations.

“God has given us very many things, but he has taken away a lot of them with this tsunami,” Mr. Robert said, speaking on a humid evening at the relief camp where he is staying in Port Blair, the archipelago’s only city. Behind him, a long line of homeless people waited in line for their meals, steel plates in hand.

“He has taken away a lot of the land from our islands, so many coconut farms that were our bread and butter, and so many wells that we relied on for water.”

Now, he fears, tribespeople will be further displaced. They have become far outnumbered in recent years by the arrival of tens of thousands of mainland Indians, who now dominate the islands’ businesses and government.

“The question will arise,” Mr. Robert said: “Who owns the island, them or us?”

It is not the only question on this archipelago of 500-plus islands, a place of picturesque beaches, dense forests and clear blue water spread across 3,200 square miles. More than 87 percent of the land is forested; 360,000 people live on the rest.

In these islands of famously relaxed people, survivors huddle in relief camps, leaving only to sift through the rubble of flattened villages. Little remains of the islanders’ thatch huts or wood-and-cement homes, or the concrete homes of the newcomers. Residents poke through water-warped school textbooks, broken chairs and mud-caked television sets, or watch as sniffer dogs lead police to the next body.

Since the tsunami, residents say, the water has risen substantially. Last week, seawater lapped over the main roads in Port Blair, once 50 yards inland, as dozens of fishermen watched nervously. The jetties where they once tied their boats are gone. So are their small motorized boats.

The Andamans — a treasure house of biodiversity, with hundreds of varieties of birds and trees, endangered turtles and coral reefs — are far from the world’s major tourist trails. The main work here remains fishing and farming, but fishermen have lost thousands of boats and nets, and farmers have lost thousands of acres of rice and other crops inundated by saltwater.

That flooding will rewrite life here.

“The change in salinity levels could change the composition of forests and affect agriculture, which will change the profile of fauna in the area. Some bird and fish species might die out, others might come in,” said Samir Acharya, the head of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology. “Wherever coral reefs are damaged, or freshwater ponds made saline or the land has emerged higher, it will affect fish, crabs and other marine resources on which Nicobarese diets are heavily dependent.”

Just how much reef damage has been done remains to be seen. Scientists have yet to begin a serious assessment, and fishermen have been unable to return to the seas. But some reefs were definitely destroyed, and others now rise out of the water, where they will die in the open air. The fishermen, keen observers of the reefs, are worried.

“If the coral reef dies, there will be no balance left in the sea,” said fisherman Jan Mohammad, 34, sitting in front of a closed tea shop. “The sea also has a system of living, like us.”

He describes a naturally balanced underwater ecosystem: tiny worms living in the reef eat bacteria. Small fish eat the worms, and are in turn eaten by the larger fish — the groupers, barracuda, snappers and sardines.

“So if there is no coral reef, there will be far fewer fish,” he said.

For the nascent tourism industry, damage to the reefs could be disastrous.

“Most foreign tourists want to go snorkeling or go out into the sea on glass-bottomed boats to watch coral reef fish, sea anemones, sharks and sea snakes,” said Mohammad Hussain, who runs a tourism business in Port Blair.

“Right now, my only customers are journalists, relief workers and government officials,” Mr. Hussain said. “All the hotels are full, but ironically with these people only. The people who love the Andamans, the tourists, are missing.”

Spend some time along the once-pristine beaches, many now littered with debris, or in the thick tropical forests, with dense canopies and near impassable undergrowth, and it’s easy to see why people love these islands.

The forests are home to birds like the redheaded Andaman black woodpecker, whose drumming on tree trunks can be heard for a mile, and the megapod, or “thermometer bird,” which warms its eggs with heat generated by decomposing leaves.

Here, the world’s largest crab, the “robber crab,” climbs trees and plucks coconuts with its strong claws. There are 14 types of bats and hundreds of elephants. Wild pigs, the favorite delicacy of the endangered tribes, abound.

John Lobo, the islands’ leading forestry expert, said it’s not yet clear how tree life will be affected. But he worries about the increased salt levels in the soil, and the sudden influx of millions of seeds alien to the islands, mostly swept in from Indonesia.

Then there are the people.

While most of the islands’ tiny tribes, some with fewer than 100 people, managed to escape the tsunami’s fury, it was different for the Nicobarese, the archipelago’s largest group with some 30,000 members. Many of their villages were destroyed, and their dwindling numbers further crushed. On Car Nicobar, the island where most Nicobarese live, 12 of their 15 villages were flattened.

Most transplanted mainland Indians live on higher ground, where they largely escaped the tsunami’s power. The tribespeople lived mostly on the coast, and now many live in distant relief camps.

Some may never return.

“The demographic balance between tribals and non-tribals will change further, in favor of non-tribals,” said Mr. Acharya of the ecology society.

Meanwhile, government cartographers are assessing the damage through aerial surveys of far-scattered islands.

Some changes are clear. The little island of Teresa, for instance, has become two separate land masses. Trinkat Island is sliced into three.

And India’s southernmost spot, Indira Point on Campbell Bay Island, has disappeared.

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