06 January 2005

Fears for India's archipelago after tsunamis

Port Blair - Cartographers began studying whether the tsunami has redrawn India's southern archipelago - breaking, tilting or even sinking the islands - as anthropologists focused on the fate of the region's indigenous tribes on Wednesday.

The surveyors were looking at the land boundaries of the archipelago, which comprise 500-plus tropical islands across 8 300 square kilometres in the southern reaches of the Bay of Bengal.

"They will find out whether whole land masses have tilted, or shifted, or split. Our researchers are going to make long studies at control points all along the area," India's Surveyor-General P Nag said in Port Blair, the capital of this Indian territory.

The tsunami that smashed Asian and African coastlines on December 26 has severely damaged parts of the archipelago, with some islands breaking up, land masses tilting and underwater coral reefs emerging above the sea. Indira Point, the farthest tip of the Indian territory, may have just completely disappeared, say army surveyors and survivors.

Also on Wednesday, government anthropologists, including experts from the Anthropological Survey of India, set out by ship to remote islands where five indigenous tribes live.

Anthropologists say only about 400 to 1 000 members are still alive from the five primitive tribes of the Great Andamanese, Onges, Jarawas, Sentinelese and Shompens, who originated in Africa and migrated to India through Indonesia tens of thousands of years ago.

On Tuesday, the captain of a private airline flying into Port Blair said on the public address system: "I have been flying for a decade over the Sentinel Island, on your right, and let me tell you, it looks very different now after the tsunami. The island has changed."

Sentinel island is home to the Sentinelese tribe, the most aggressive of the five primitive ethnic groups in the region. They are among the world's most ancient communities, with DNA studies by some scientists saying they have been around for about 70 000 years.

On Tuesday, Coast Guard Commander Anil Thapliyal said that after an aerial tour of the region, he saw that the coral reefs of Sentinel islands were above sea level. He also saw that the land mass of Trinkat island was split into three, and Tarasa island into two.

Nag said the researchers would spend up to 24 hours at a single control point - concrete structures that serve as mapmaker landmarks - and calculate the latitude, longitude and height of each location to compare the figures with previous ones. They eventually will be assisted by national hydrography ships, and a preliminary report will be ready this month, he said.

Survivors have also come into Port Blair with accounts of land sinking in many areas, sending large swathes of the coastline under water.

"The hill near my house split open into two, and people are still taking shelter in the gap between the rocks," said K Masen Rao, a 65-year-old mason from Hut Bay island.

"There have been great changes in the coastline, especially in the Nicobar group of islands," said Samir Acharya, a leading environmentalist of the Andamans. "But what we are getting so far are panic accounts. We will have to wait for the surveyor-general's scientific report."


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