S e a s c a p e
It has stopped making newspaper headlines. The news readers on the television channels, too, now talk about it only in passing. But have you stopped thinking about it? I doubt it… A human being who can think and feel can never forget a calamity that took lakhs of lives at one sweep. Within minutes. Yes. I am talking about the tsunami, that has perhaps changed our vision of the sea beach forever. Blue waves breaking prettily on vast tracts of golden sands—a picture postcard scenario that suddenly turned into a ravaged disaster zone.
Enough to scare away the tourists…right? But the coasts are also the home of millions of people! Did you know that two out of every five persons across the world live along the coastline? And that the global coastal population will touch 11 million by 2008? Take the case of India. It has a 7,516 km-long coastline, outlining the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal. Besides this, 4,198 islands dot the Andaman and Nicobar archipelagoes. More than 25 per cent of the Indian people (almost 5 million of them!) live here.
These people have lived here for generations, and will continue to stay. Braving the risk of future tsunamis. Because their lives are directly linked with the sea and its resources—mangroves, sea weeds, algae, coral reefs, and shells. And the wildly varied marine fauna— from fish and turtles to dolphins and sharks. They make a living out of all of these. But then, the threat of typhoons, tsunamis, cyclones, hurricanes and storms has always haunted the sea coasts!
Mangrove: Shrub, ground fern in muddy tropical tidal waters. Absorbs carbon, provides habitat & shelter against tidal waves
Sea grass: Saline, submerged marine plant. Provides feed for fish and mammals.
Coral: Shallow marine habitat for anemone, fish. Acts as carbon sink.
Fisheries: 2200 fish species live in Indian waters.
Algae & marine flora: Primitive plants without stem, root, leaves. Have nutrients, vitamins, bioactive substances, and are renewable living resources.
Why would anyone want to settle down in such a disaster-prone area, you may wonder… Well, that is the story we have for you this time. About the fascinating balance that nature main-tains along the coastline—of natural barriers to resist such gigantic natural phenomenon, like the tsunami.
A tsunami or a cyclone (remember the devastating cyclone that struck Orissa in 1999?) turns into a natural disaster only when greedy, interfering human beings destroy these barriers and completely upset this unique system.
We will also tell you how coastal communities have lived in perfect harmony with marine biodiversity, in the past. And how it is still possible to live ‘safely and sustainably’ in the coasts. So read on.
Oceans of wealth
How rich is the Indian coastal zone? Let’s draw up a list of the five most productive marine ecologies of the world. India ranks among the first two or three! In fact, the Indo-Malayan belt, which spans our east coast, has been found to contain the world’s wealthiest marine biodiversity.
But first let us take stock of how marine environment has been managed till now, globally. It will help us to gauge the enormous bounty that is at stake here...
Exclusive Economic Zone Right to Exploit or Protect?
In 1982, the United Nations set up a worldwide ocean regime and came up with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This convention gives maritime nations— countries with coastlines—right to control ocean areas covering 200 nautical miles (300 km) from the shores. A nation which signs up and becomes partner to this treaty, enacts laws to assume charge of this part of the sea.
For example, India signed the treaty in November, 1994, and has gained control over 2.02 million sq km of sea area—equal to almost two thirds of its total land!! The area is now marked as India’s ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’.
Breeding shrimps: a ‘pricey’ meal
It has the right to ‘explore and exploit’ the biological resources within that region. Sounds rather scary, doesn’t it? As if the oceans are being put up in the market!
But wait…the UN Convention also holds the countries responsible for ‘protecting’ the marine environment. And India has taken pretty progressive steps to shoulder this responsibility. Actually, it began years before it signed the UN treaty. With the Indian Fisheries Act in 1897— which took care of issues like coastal pollution, erosion, ports and harbours.
Then in February, 1991, the Ministry of Environment and Forests came up with the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, specifically designed to make sure that the fragile and precious ocean ecosystem is not ravaged by commercial activities.
The mammoth monsters of Mumbai
What is the Coastal REgulation Zone?
The CRZ includes coastal stretches of seas, bays, estuaries, creeks, rivers and backwaters which are influenced by the ocean tides. And the notification says that there can be no commercial or construction activity up to 500 meters from the water at the maximum high tide along the coast. Pretty comprehensive, you would say…right? Wrong! Not because the notification is inadequate but because it has been amended again, again, and yet again by the Ministry…at least 17 times till 2004… to suit the requirement of various commercial users.
January 1997 – Permitted sand mining and ground water withdrawal in CRZ of Andaman and Nicobar (A & N)
Who felt the impact of this most?
The Killer Waves...
No, not the tsunami. I am talking about deadly man-made killers like aquaculture and sand mining that are destroying all living things along the coasts. Not at one go…slowly but surely. Let me tell you about the three most lethal ones.
Seen as a major foreign exchange earner, aquaculture became a rage in early 1990s. But the toll it takes on mangroves, forests and most of all on water along the coasts is too high.
Tourist resorts, industry, and ports
Men, Women, children and the sea
In India, over five million people are employed in traditional fishing activities. They net around 2.5 million tonnes annually, and earn over one and a half million US dollars in exports. This comes not just from fishing in the deep seas, but also from those who fish within 50 metres from the coast and also from deltas and estuaries.
Shell industry - Makes shell crafts, conches, shell ornaments and artifacts.
Fertiliser industry - Lime is an important nutrient for plants and is used to manufacture fertilisers.
Manufacturing caulking and glue
Pearl industry - Worldwide, pearls are worth a US$ 20 billion industry!
Seaweeds - Used to produce biomass fuel.
These are the warriors in the front ranks, who take the brunt of the raging waters—slowing down and soothing the waves before they strike the coasts. So the land is protected and the damage caused by the sea is not as devastating as on December 26, 2004! And we are killing them…
Can we have some Buffers Please?
Still not convinced? Need some solid proof? Here we go…
Champions of Cuddalore
Standing tall in Vietnam
Till the government decided to plant mangroves over an area of 12,000 hectares. It is now reaping the benefits. The typhoon that lashed over three of its northern provinces in October 2000, could not damage the wall. There is more. The mangrove reserve now provides additional livelihood for the 7,750 odd families which live here!
Bread and Butter Too...
Have you also figured out how important marine flora and fauna are for providing food and shelter for more than 25 per cent of our people? Mangroves and coral reefs act as carbon sinks and sustain the fish population; sea grass provides breeding grounds for aquatic creatures like fish and mammals and also feeds them. So everytime the CRZ is amended to make way for one more five-star resort or a port or a factory—the lives as well as the livelihoods of coastal communities are put under threat.
Is this fair? Think about it…