Living on the edge

Coastal South Asia is fragile and vulnerable to climate change impacts. Yet, governments are setting up industries, ports and promoting tourism in the region. It’s time to adopt the middle path of development and learn from each other’s experience

By Srestha Banerjee, Sugandh Juneja
Published: Wednesday 15 January 2014

Living on the edge


It’s a double whammy for the residents of Ernavur Kuppam. People in this village, located on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu, are traditional fishers. Lately, they say, the coast has been bereft of fish, forcing them to venture deep into the sea. To aggravate their plight, groundwater is turning undrinkable. The residents who barely make their subsistence now buy drinking water.

“The government’s Ennore thermal power plant discharges warm wastewater into the sea behind our village. This has affected our fish catch,” says Desingo, a resident. At the other end of the village is the storehouse of Indian Potash Limited. “During high tide, seawater enters the storehouse and chemicals leach into the groundwater and soil,” says Akumugam, a resident. Ernavur Kuppam residents had apprised the Thiruvallur district authorities of the situation, but to no avail. This comes as no surprise.

Thiruvallur is the fastest growing industrial hub of the country. The district is home to 11 industrial estates and more than 27,200 small- and medium-scale industrial units. Between 2007 and 2011, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has granted clearance to 10 thermal power plants and five steel plants in this coastal district. Recently, it has removed an industrial estate, Manali, from the list of critically polluted areas and lifted the two-year-moratorium on allowing new industries.

Similar stories are being reported from across the coasts of South Asia. The region is developing like never before. Numerous urban centres, commercial and industrial hubs and tourist spots dot the 11,000 kilometre-long coastline along the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. India, the giant South Asian country, has 202 ports, 27 thermal power plants and hundreds of fishing harbours along its coast. Another 76 ports and 59 thermal power plants are in the pipeline.

The region is also one of the biggest ecological treasure troves—the Sundarbans delta is the world’s largest continuous stretch of mangroves. This, along with the coral reefs of the Maldives and Sri Lanka, and the mangroves of Pakistan, supports thousands of fish species and other flora and fauna. About 400 million people across coastal South Asia depend on these natural resources for a living. For instance, 70 per cent people in coastal Bangladesh depend on fishing and agriculture. The coral reefs off Sri Lanka and the Maldives generate scope for tourism, which is the mainstay of the countries’ economies. But what makes these coasts economically attractive also proves to be a threat.

Consider this. Down south of Colombo is the oldest tourist attraction of Sri Lanka—Hikkaduwa. The region is known for coral reefs, declared a marine sanctuary in 1979. Today, glass-bottomed boats ply in the area to show tourists these corals. The boats graze against the corals, damaging the reef. Most boats use kerosene oil as fuel. Oil spill and fumes lead to coral deaths. A marine survey in 1999-2000 shows only seven per cent of the corals are alive. “The wildlife department is supposed to keep a tab on the boats visiting the reefs, but it does not,” says E Goonawardene, president of Hikkaduwa hotel association. Worse, the government plans to open pristine islands in Kalpitiya peninsula to tourism. The government has set a target of attracting 2.5 million tourists—one-tenth of the country’s population—by 2016. Analysts say such aggressive promotion of tourism will do more harm than good to the island nation.

Coastal South Asia is low-lying and vulnerable to climate change impacts like cyclones and rise in sea levels. The impacts are already visible. Bhola, an island in Bangladesh, has lost half its landmass—300,000 hectares—in four decades. People who long thrived on fishing, coastal agriculture and mangroves are now migrating to inland areas. The changing pattern of migration is evident across the South Asian coasts (see ‘Decreasing population’).

Are the countries following the right development path? Should they sit together and think about their coasts? Sugandh Juneja travels to coastal regions of India and Sri Lanka, and Srestha Banerjee to Bangladesh to analyse what ails South Asian coast.

Coast under siege


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