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Agriculture and fisheries after the tsunami

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Jonatan A. Lassa and Goh Tian, Singapore | Opinion | Tue, December 30 2014, 10:28 AM

Great progress has been achieved in rebuilding the lives of farmers in Aceh 10 years after the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami. The hardest hit province is also a fertile learning ground for governments and organizations to develop necessary plans for agricultural restoration after a big disaster.

Numerous NGOs stepped in to help the recovery process and a total of US$7 billion in aid was generated for the affected countries. A decade later, have the farmers regained their livelihoods and has Aceh re-established its position as a rice-surplus province? What lessons can be learnt after the disaster in the agricultural and fisheries sector?

On Dec. 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami swept through coastal regions in Southeast Asia, flattening villages and causing massive loss of life. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported that the tsunami affected significant agricultural land, destroyed irrigation canals, affected 92,000 farms, displaced 60,000 farmers and robbed 330,000 people of their livelihoods in fishing and agriculture in the province.

The tsunami littered the paddy fields with debris and sediments, destroyed irrigation infrastructure and washed the soil of organic matter. Flooding also resulted in an increase in soil salinity.

Because of its proximity to the quake’s epicenter, land levels in Aceh were altered by 1-2 meters.

The change in land structure reduced the effectiveness of irrigation canals and caused some coastal agricultural areas to be permanently inundated. Overnight, Aceh was transformed from a rice-surplus province to a rice-deficit province.

Government sources show that follow-up tsunamis had flooded 30,000 to 50,000 hectares (ha) of irrigated rice fields concentrated in top production areas, namely East Aceh, North Aceh, West Aceh, Greater Aceh, Pidie and Bireuen.

This equaled 120-200 thousands tons of paddy. The total paddy accumulated losses were estimated at 360,000 to 500,000 tons during 2004-2006, nearly the entire annual consumption of rice of the province.

Statistical data suggest that marine and fisheries production fell from about 134,000 tons subsequently to 102,500 tons in 2004 and 81,100 tons in 2005 (or year-on-year subsequent losses of 31 percent and 26 percent in 2004 and 2005).

Salinity was a major roadblock for crop production after the tsunamis. The silting of irrigation channels prevented the use of irrigation for flushing out salt from agricultural lands. Farmers planted seeds in soil with high salinity and used saline groundwater to irrigate their fields due to a lack of knowledge of salinity conditions.

Some studies reported that the first harvest in 2005 was disappointing; only 10 percent of the rice crop in affected regions was harvested. Salinity caused yields to be reduced by 50 percent and in some areas no grain was formed in rice plants.

The loss of organic matter in the soil also reduced yields. Low amounts of minerals such as calcium reduced crop growth. Such nutrient deficiencies can be replenished by mixing manure or compost in the soil.

The presence of heavy metals also made the soil less fertile. Furthermore, the restoration process was largely focused on the construction of houses and roads. Paddy fields were left to the rain to flush the salt out of the soil.

Local manpower was also diverted to construction projects instead of farming. The process to rebuild the livelihoods of farmers was slow and dependency on food aid grew.

Yet overtime, soil conditions improved with rainfall and irrigation. The Asian Development Bank spent $20 million on rebuilding infrastructure for 50,000 ha of paddy fields. By the end of 2007, 70 percent of affected rice fields in West Aceh regained their normal yield.

The introduction of new irrigation infrastructure and training of farmers also helped to increase yields in some areas above the pre-tsunami period.

There have been criticisms against the post-disaster response from both international aid and national governments, including that the lack of coordination among groups or between the NGOs and the government prevented coordination in the rehabilitation of farmlands.

The pooling of resources and technical expertise could have helped in research into salt-tolerant rice varieties, identification of new weeds and pests as well as methods to replenish lost organic matter in soils.

Aid groups could work with the government to roll out plans for the large-scale adoption of tools to monitor salinity levels, the rapid construction of irrigation canals and distribution of seeds.

Other criticism included the fact that the large amount of food and monetary aid after the disaster reduced incentives for farmers to return to their fields quickly. Poor infrastructure and poor harvests further demotivated farmers from returning to their fields.

However, there have been some success stories. The most recent data suggests that in 2010 to 2013, Aceh’s agriculture returned to its normal rate. Since 2011, the total area being harvested and total production improved significantly to the level far above pre-2004.

Part of the progress is particularly due to a higher paddy yield that has increased from around 4.2 ton per ha in the first half of the 2000s to 4.6 tons per ha since 2011. In most of the rice production centers, things are back to normal, with some notable land expansions. Only a few fractions of damaged rice land cannot be fully recovered.

In marine and fisheries there have been positive developments. Households with brackish water ponds in Aceh have also continued to increase from 12,500 households in 2002/2003 to 24,800 in 2013.

The number of households with fresh water ponds almost tripled from almost 5,000 in 2004 to about 14,600 in 2012. The total number of households with fish farms in their paddy has gradually recovered from the 2004 loss and increased during 2007-2009; however it may naturally go back to the pre-tsunami period if local and national governments fail to reinvest in the sector.

However, the complete story of recovery in marine and fisheries is one of inconsistent progress. Cage and floating cage nets that had been significantly developed soon after the tsunamis during 2007-2010, have been reduced by 60 to 70 percent in the last two years.

Furthermore, at least 1,500 fishing ships were either damaged or not functioning — from 9,250 vessels in 2009 to 8,200 in the last two years. Only the number of motorboats increased marginally very recently.

There has been a significant increase in marine culture practices where prior to 2004, there was almost no data on such practices.

In 2010 and 2011, it grew to almost 533. However, this has been associated with the legacy of post-tsunami aid. Recently, marine culture was practiced in only 176 households in Lhokseumawe, Singkil and Simelue island.

The data above suggests the shift to marine culture and larger fishing scales may not be sustainable if the incentives partly created by tsunami aid during 2005-2009 are entirely depleted.

Both national and local governments should find ways to ensure continuity of growth in the sectors.

Both authors are researchers in non-traditional security studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.