SINGAPORE (AFP) — The destruction of mangrove forests that served as a buffer from the sea is partly to blame for the massive death toll from a cyclone in Myanmar, the head of the ASEAN regional bloc said Tuesday.
More than 15,000 people have died after the cyclone swept through the Irrawaddy river delta over the weekend and pounded Myanmar's main city of Yangon, the country's state media reported.
"Why the impact is so severe is because of the increase of the population," said Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which military-ruled Myanmar belongs.
This has led to an "encroachment into the mangrove forests which used to serve as buffer between the rising tide, between big waves and storms and the residential area," he said in a speech in Singapore.
"All those lands have been destroyed. Human beings are now direct victims of such natural forces."
Surin was giving a keynote address at the launch of a new centre at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies to focus on non-traditional security threats. These include climate change, degradation of the environment, and diseases such as bird flu.
The official New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the devastated town of Bogalay, in the heart of the Irrawaddy river delta where the storm swept ashore, had suffered most of the losses.
The Irrawaddy is one of the most heavily silted rivers in the world because of deforestation and intensive agriculture activities along its banks, the ASEAN Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation said on its website.
It said land outside the reserved forests has been converted for agricultural use and mangrove forests within the reserve "are now disappearing at a rapid rate."
The centre cited a study which said that if the rate of destruction between 1977 and 1986 was maintained, all mangrove forest would disappear in 50 years.
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