Solomons quake lifts island up by 3m, exposes reef

By Kathy Marks

The earthquake that triggered last week's tsunami in the Solomons lifted an entire island up by 3metres, exposing coral reefs that are now becoming bleached and dying.

The pristine underwater reefs of Ranongga Island, in the western Solomons, used to attract divers from all over the world. But the quake has permanently changed the island's geography, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter, who said the shoreline now extends out to sea by another 70m in places.

An 8.0 magnitude earthquake shook this pocket of the South Pacific last Monday, setting off tidal waves that destroyed houses in low-lying areas. Between 30 to 40 people were killed, according to varying estimates by government and international agencies.

The aid effort has been slow, hampered by bureaucracy and the remoteness of some of the islands affected. Rescue workers have yet to reach isolated Ranongga, but the AFP correspondent, who chartered a boat, reported that its fringing reefs have been transformed into a barren moonscape.

The stench of rotting fish stranded on the reefs when the ocean receded is said to be over-powering. The coral, once colourful and vibrant, has dried out, and is now brittle, crunching underfoot.

Locals are still struggling to digest the enormity of the changes wrought on their mountainous island, 32km long by 8km wide. On the east coast, most of the harbour at Pienuna has reportedly vanished, leaving behind only a narrow inlet lined by newly exposed jagged reefs.

One villager, Harison Gago, told AFP that Ranongga had been almost split in half by the earthquake, with cracks up to 50cm wide appearing. Further north, at Niu Barae, a fisherman, Hendrik Kegala, reported that the ocean floor had been rent by a massive chasm. Exploring with a snorkel, he had followed it for at least 500m, running parallel to the coast.

On the beach at Niu Barae, the quake has revealed a sunken vessel, which locals believe is a Japanese patrol boat from the Second World War. The Solomons were the scene of fierce fighting between Allied and Japanese forces.

The coral reefs of the western Solomons, including Ranongga's, were ranked among the best in the world, according to Danny Kennedy, a dive operator based on Ghizo, the main island. Now reefs all over the disaster zone are dying, because the violent movements of the earth disturbed the fragile ecosystem.

Mr Kennedy said the most beautiful corals were also the most delicate, and they had suffered the worst destruction. He predicted that the tourism industry could be seriously affected. "Diving is huge here, it employs so many local people," he told AFP.

"The fear is that people are going to come here and see the reefs are damaged, then tell people not to come back for a few years until they are recovered." The fish that swam among the coral were also the islanders' main source of protein. "The whole food chain has been disrupted," said Jackie Thomas, acting manager for Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the Solomons. "Villagers will have to travel further to find the same food and nutrition they've relied on."

Ms Thomas said the reefs around Ranongga were a protected marine environment, and the locals had worked with WWF in recent years to manage them sustainably. "Now it's another marine environment that has been destroyed," she said. "Who knows if the coral reefs will recover and the fish will come back?"

An estimated 7,000 people were made homeless by the disaster, and many remain in the forested hills above their ruined villages, afraid to return to lower ground. Aid agencies fear that the death toll may rise because of disease spreading through squalid refugee camps.

The International Red Cross is delivering latrines and water purifiers, along with food, shelter and medical supplies. Boats and helicopters are being used to reach remote islands.

Some refugees descended from the hills yesterday to celebrate Easter. About 100 worshippers said prayers for the dead and sang traditional hymns in a simple Anglican church outside the main town of Gizo. The town's Roman Catholic church was levelled, so the congregation gathered in the garden instead.

- INDEPENDENT

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