April 1, 2005

Group: Tsunami Salt Damage Not As Severe

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) -- The contamination of soil by salt water - a potentially serious effect from December's devastating Indian Ocean tsunami - has been less severe than originally expected, agricultural experts said Thursday.

Surveys show salt deposited in more than two-thirds of the agricultural land affected by the Dec. 26 tsunami has been leached out already, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in a statement.

This means the land will be ready when the planting season begins in April and May.

Land flooded with salt water usually becomes unsuitable for most types of cultivation, and scientists initially feared the tsunami would cause extensive, long-term problems.

However, surveys found that of the total of 116,000 acres of agricultural land damaged by tsunami waves in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, India and Thailand, about 94,000 acres, or 81 percent, can be used for cultivation this year, said Daniel Renault, FAO coordinator for agriculture in tsunami-affected countries.

"Fortunately, due to the humid conditions in most of the Indian Ocean countries, salt-polluted arable land has been cleaned by rainfall and irrigation," Renault was quoted saying.

Some 22,000 acres, mainly in the worst-hit Indonesian province of Aceh, "have been lost to the sea or can no longer be used for farming," he said, noting that Aceh has a total of 741,000 acres of rice fields.

Still, hundreds of thousands of farmers have had their work disrupted by the tsunami, the FAO said.

Renault warned that other problems still threatened farmers' livelihoods.

"Many fields have been covered by soil sediment and trash and have been damaged by massive soil erosion," he said. "In addition, there is a shortage of labor for cleaning and cultivating fields. Many farmers also lack capital and tools to resume production."

The survey results were presented at a FAO-sponsored workshop on helping farmers in tsunami-hit nations recover. Experts from India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand as well as international organizations attended the workshop.

More than 174,000 perished in the disaster, and tens of thousands remain missing.