Fri, 24 Jan 2003

Seven islands drowned in Riau

Haidir Anwar Tanjung The Jakarta Post Pekanbaru, Riau

Indonesia is now seven islands smaller thanks to environmental destruction.

The islands in the province of Riau have been eroded away and swamped by sea water due to irreparable damage caused to the island's protective coral reefs and mangrove forests over the past 13 years, an environmental watchdog said Thursday.

One of the former islands was Nipah Island, which served as a reference point marking Indonesia's maritime borders with Singapore and Malaysia, Payung Island, Pelampung Island and Sinaboy Island, Indonesian Forestry Study Institution (LPHI) director Andreas Hery Kahuripan said. The remaining islands had not been named.

Analysts have called for Nipah Island, just 15 minutes from Singapore, to be reclaimed as its disappearance could force Indonesia to redefine its maritime borders with Malaysia and Singapore.

Andreas said the loss highlighted the severe environmental degradation in Indonesia.

LPHI data shows that between 1982 until 1993 alone, the area of mangrove forests fell by more than 50 percent, down to 2.49 million hectares.

"Mangrove forests serve as protection against erosion caused by the ocean stream, waves and wind," he told The Jakarta Post.

The forests and coral reefs serve as habitats for a rich variety of flora and fauna. Various species of birds, fish, shellfish and shrimps depend on the mangroves and coral reefs to survive.

Behind the rapid deforestation were logging and fishery activities, and the development of industrial estates, Andreas said.

Coral reefs are also under serious threat. Quoting from a report by the Coral Reef Rehabilitation and Management Project (COREMAP), Andreas said that only 6.5 percent of Indonesia's coral reefs were in good condition.

Fishermen using explosives, cyanide and the exploitation of coral reefs for building materials has led to this condition, he said.

"It turns out that the destruction of coral reefs is worst in Indonesia's west."

The Malacca Straits is one of the world's busiest straits, serving as a ship passage between East Asia and Europe.

However the northern part of Sumatra, where Riau is located, bears the environmental brunt of the busy ship traffic.

Andreas said that oil tankers often sank in the Malacca Straits, releasing large amounts of oil.

One of the biggest accidents was the sinking of the Showa Maru tanker and the release of one million barrels of diesel fuel into the ocean in 1975. In the same year, the Isugawa Maru tanker and the Silver Palace collided, spilling more oil.

The ocean stream carries the oil toward the mangroves forests where it sticks to the trees, eventually killing them, he said.