MAC: Mines and Communities

Coastal Follies

Published by MAC on 2004-07-15

Coastal follies

By Ashish Kothari and Manju Menon

Over 40% of India's mangroves have been destroyed. Coral reefs have been damaged in the Gulfs of Kutch and Mannar, and the Andamans. In Great Nicobar, 21 beaches have been lost to sand mining. Post-tsunami, we've got to rebuild our natural coastal defences

In the wake of the colossal post-tsunami human tragedy unfolding in South and South-east Asia , the immediate needs of relief and rehabilitation are paramount. Such events however also require us to start working towards more long-term responses. The recurring question is: are there ways to minimise human casualties in the face of such disasters?

Indeed, by intelligently using nature's own defences, can we buffer ourselves against the powerful forces generated by nature?

Most so-called 'natural' disasters today have a major element of human folly. Floods annually cause havoc, not because nature itself is cruel, but because we have encroached on floodplains, destroyed forests that act as sponges, and interfered with natural watercourses. Droughts become killer famines because people no longer have access to emergency food from forests and wetlands, or to traditional crops that could grow even in conditions of rainfall failure.

Earthquakes kill many people quite unnecessarily because of inappropriately built homes that come down like a pack of cards. Nothing could have completely prevented the damage the tsunami caused. However, if India 's natural coastal and marine defences had been intact, the destruction is likely to have been far less. Tropical coastlines are characterised by several natu ral buffers. Coral reefs grow like underwater rainforests, forming a protective shield around the shore, and mangrove forests form a sturdy barrier between the sea and the land. Sand dunes, cliffs, and littoral forests serve as further buffers. In many areas, lagoons and estuaries also act as shock-absorbers. With all these intact, the force of the sea is significantly reduced. When a supercyclone hit the Orissa coast some years ago, observers reported that areas with intact mangroves suffered significantly less than those where such vegetation had been destroyed. Some reports point to the same conclusion from the tsunami-affected areas.

Reportedly, communities living along the Pichavaram and Muthupet region in Tamil Nadu were protected against the tsunami's impact by intact mangroves. In Alappuzha and Kollam in Kerala, where the impact should have been less due to distance, it was actually greater due to illegal sand mining. On Sri Lanka 's eastern coast, much less damage was seen in Yala National Park 's intact ecosystems, than in the human-altered coastal stretches and tourist resorts. Human folly along the coast Unfortunately, far from protecting the natural ecosystems that protect us, we have dealt recklessly with our coasts and seas.

The Government of India estimates that over 40% of India 's mangroves have already been destroyed. Extensive coral reef damage has taken place in the Gulfs of Kutch and Mannar, and parts of Andaman and Nicobar Islands . Till recently corals were actually mined for industrial use and road-building! Beaches across India have been mined for sand, leaving the coast vulnerable to even normal wave action. In Great Nicobar, 21 beaches have been lost to sand mining between 1981 and 2000. Sensitive coastal stretches have been used for tourist resorts, urban growth and mushrooming settlements.

Reclamation of the sea by ports, harbours, roads, and industries, has greatly increased the coast's vulnerability. Communities too have been pushed into more vulnerable positions. And then there is pollution: in 1998, scientists R Sengupta and S Z Qasim estimated that every year we threw into the sea 1.3 billion tonnes of domestic sewage, 1,000 million tonnes of industrial effluents, 105 million tonnes of solid wastes and garbage, 2.6 million tonnes of chemical fertilisers, and 20,600 tonnes of pesticides! Is it any wonder that our seas are dying, and with them, the natural defences that India once abounded in?

Protection of the coast's protectors?

In 1991, the Government of India notified the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification. This revolutionary legislation attempted to regulate development along the coasts, and was applauded by environmentalists, wildlife activists, and traditional fisherfolk. Unfortunately, the CRZ notification has been undermined by the government itself, by turning a blind eye to violations, or giving permission for destructive activities. Worse, the central government has repeatedly diluted the provisions of the CRZ many as a dozen times (see box)! States have been tardy in finalising Coastal Zone Management Plans and setting up Coastal Zone Management Authorities. Only one state ( Goa) committee has an NGO member. It is not a major surprise that CRZ norms are observed more in the breach.

Weakening coastal regulations Over the last decade, the central government has repeatedly amended the CRZ notification, each time diluting the original intent of the notification. These include:

In July 2004, the MoEF set up a high-powered committee to review the CRZ notification. Environmentalists worry whether, given MoEF's past record, such a review would lead to further dilution. Post-tsunami, however, we hope that the committee will recommend a roll-back of all the past dilutions, strengthen the norms for the protection of coastal ecosystems, set up stringent standards for coastal use, and recommend transparent and participatory ways to implement the notification.

What lies ahead?

We are now faced with the task of rebuilding our ravaged coastline and the lives and livelihoods of affected families. A well-thought-out reconstruction plan is vital, with a key focus on rebuilding natural coastal defences, and ecologically friendly settlements. Here are the elements: Revive coral reefs, regenerate mangroves, restore beaches and sand dunes, and prevent pollution. Through this, generate considerable livelihoods for coastal communities. Bring all remaining natural ecosystems under conservation laws, without alienating the communities that have traditionally lived there.

Strengthen the CRZ, allow only environmentally sensitive development in fragile areas. Listen to traditional fisherfolk's demands to prohibit industrial trawling and commercial shrimp-farming. Prepare a comprehensive disaster management plan for each area, with community participation.

Listen also to the animals. Systematic observations of aquatic and land animals could provide as good a warning as sophisticated sensors sunk into the sea. Scientists have repeatedly recorded pre-earthquake patterns of abnormal behaviour in wildlife. On December 4, 2004, scientist Arunachalam Kumar sent out an email about the mass beaching and death of whales in Australia, and predicted that a major quake was likely to hit someplace on earth soon. Three weeks later, it did. Strange behaviour in fish and dolphins was reported in Indonesia just before the quake. Again, can we learn from nature? If we don't take such long-term measures now, we will simply be doing what we are so good at: not learning from our mistakes, and regretting this the next time a tragedy comes our way.

(The authors work with Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, Pune/Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, January 2005
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