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Sink or Swim

    Sink or Swim   

In the wake of natural calamities like tsunamis and hurricanes how can humans learn to build sustainable coastal communities

Most of us are well aware of facts like — “more than 70 per cent of the earth's surface is ocean,” or “the earth is a water planet.” Sadly though, as we drive through city traffic the oceans seem remote and irrelevant in the context of our daily lives.

Sixty per cent of humans live within 60 km of the coast. Some of us holiday on the coast; many more earn their livelihood from it.

But few can articulate the importance of the ocean to our well-being and survival as a species. People have a strong attraction to the sea, but they are also strangely disconnected from it.

The December 26, 2004, earthquakes in South Asia sent towering waves across the region and destroyed hundreds of villages and miles after miles of coastline.

Rebuilding the shattered lives and homes of the victims needs a sensitive and ecologically literate response from government officials, coastal planners, architects and engineers.

Architects and engineers have a clear role in building shelters and repairing infrastructure. But do landscape architects have a role to play too?

    Coastal Ecosystems: an integrated whole  

Geographically, coastal ecosystem is defined as the landmark areas of all coastal watersheds, the tail-end portions of river drainage basins and the seaward areas up to the outer limit of land-based activities. It has also been described as one comprising estuaries and coastal waters and lands located where flowing surface water systems meet the sea, and tides mix freshwater of rivers with saline seawater.

It, therefore, includes coastlines and the adjacent lands along with saline, brackish and freshwater areas. The coast is, basically, the interface between land and sea. Beaches and inter-tidal areas are the spheres where transition from land to sea and vice versa takes place. The first life forms evolved in the sea and migrated to land through these interface areas. Land and water species interact as integrated ecological units.

Shore lands, sand dunes, offshore and barrier islands, mud banks, headlands, coastal wetlands (also referred to as lagoons, salt marshes or tidelands) and freshwater wetlands within estuarine drainage areas are included in the coastal ecosystem. These inter-related cological features are crucial to coastal fish and wildlife and their habitat. A fragile structured ecosystem, the coastline has to maintain its equilibrium in the face of a very powerful force like the sea.



The ecological and landscape destruction in South Asia is immense and landscape architects have a critical responsibility in post-disaster recovery. The coastal landscape is the very basis for the livelihood of local communities. So restoration of shorelines, coastal forests and agricultural production is imperative to the long-term recovery and sustainability of the region.

With entire villages and urban districts wiped away, and dense forests and productive fields stripped bare, landscape architects have a huge responsibility in bringing their knowledge in environmental planning and community design.

But as most landscape architects design parks and open spaces in the urban context, the challenge in restoring vast areas of environment, local economy and communities in post-disaster rebuilding will be great.

What needs to be kept in mind is the intricate connection between culture, ecology and economy in the local communities. This connection can only be restored through an integrated approach that brings together local environmental knowledge, cultural practices, social capital and outside resources. The December 2004 tsunami and last year's Hurricane Katrina in the USA have reminded us of our responsibility towards respecting natural systems and forces.

And India needs ecologically literate landscape architects, civil engineers and environmental engineers to protect and preserve our fragile coasts. We can learn a lot from traditional communities and their knowledge of living with the sea.

    Crazy Violations!   

The tsunami has forced the government to re-evaluate the CRZ rules and its implications for India’s 5,680 kilometrelong coastline.

India is probably the only country in the world that has legislation in place to protect the entire coastline of the country. And it is not only the actual coastline that is protected but also the land between the high tide line (HTL) and the low tide line (LTL) as well as the land extending to 500 meters from the highest HTL.

Briefly, the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification stipulates that the coastal zone should be divided into four categories: CRZ I is defined as

  1. areas that are ecologically sensitive and important such as national parks/marine parks, sanctuaries, reserve forests, wildlife habitats, mangroves, corals/coral reefs, areas close to breeding and spawning grounds of fish and other marine life, areas of outstanding natural beauty, historical/heritage areas, areas rich in genetic diversity, areas likely to be inundated due to rise in sea level consequent upon global warming and such other areas as may be declared by the central government or the concerned authorities at the state/ union territory level from time to time;

  1. area between the low tide line and the high tide line.

It is now clear that violations of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) played a major role in the loss of human lives and property. Any reconstruction and rehabilatation shall have to take care of both the ecological and peoples livelihood needs.


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Sink or Swim