When Worlds Collide #97: Living on the Edge – South Asia’s Coastal Scramble

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 14 February 2014

Coastal challenges of South Asia - courtesy Down to Earth Magazine, CSE

Coastal challenges of South Asia – courtesy Down to Earth Magazine, CSE

Many different worlds collide on the coast – both literally and metaphorically.

Coasts are where land meets the sea. A precise coastline cannot be fixed because tides and wave action keep it dynamic. Hence the term ‘coastal zone’ for the wider interactive area where natural and human actions take place.

Coasts are also where survival and livelihood pursuits co-exist – and often compete – with recreational activity. Throw in important ecosystems such as mangroves and coral reefs, and key infrastructure like ports and power plants, and collisions are almost inevitable.

Reconciling commercial interests with fair and equitable access to everyone is never easy. It is especially difficult in the crowded coasts of South Asia, home to hundreds of millions living in poverty.

Already, a disproportionately high share of South Asia’s industrialisation, urbanisation and tourism development is concentrated along its combined coastline of 11,240 km. These pressures are set to increase as human numbers and aspirations grow.

Meanwhile, climate change impacts like more intense cyclones and rising sea levels threaten incomes, jobs and even lives.

Yet the only way to avoid chaos and resource conflicts is to balance livelihoods, economic growth and environmental conservation, agreed participants at the recent South Asia Convention on Coastal Management held in Pondicherry, India.

Held on 19 to 21 January 2014, it brought together over 70 senior government officials, researchers, civil society activists and journalists from Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It was organised by Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Pondicherry-based citizen group, PondyCAN.

South Asia Coastal Management Convention in Pondicherry - final session

South Asia Coastal Management Convention in Pondicherry – final session

Lost Beach

Pondicherry, a compact union territory on India’s east coast overlooking the Bay of Bengal, typifies many of the region’s coastal tensions. Once known for its expansive sandy beaches, the city lost that natural asset in just over two decades. The reason: a harbour built in 1986, which blocked the natural movement of sand along the shoreline.

The loss is not just scenic or recreational. It deprived the city of a critical ecosystem that protected its land and recharged its groundwater. Entire fishing communities have lost their livelihood and, in some cases, homes.

“Only later did we realize that this disaster was man-made,” recalled

Probir Banerjee, President of PondyCAN. Today, a ‘monstrous rock wall’ buffers Pondicherians from the sea.

“Worst affected are the people living at the margins and our objective has to be to enhance livelihoods, and not compromise them,” Banerjee added.

In total, South Asia’s coastal areas support livelihoods of some 400 million who are variously engaged in fisheries, tourism or other trades – many are not even captured in the official economic statistics.

In India, the lack of reliable data hampers coastal management. CSE’s Director General Sunita Narain, who recently served on a high powered government committee on coastal matters, said there was not even a proper tally of the number of ports in India.

The central government knew only about the major ports and left the rest to the state governments. Nobody was keeping track of cumulative numbers, let alone the impacts.

CSE’s researchers dug up scattered information and found: India has 202 commercial ports and 27 thermal power plants in its coastal zone; another 76 ports and 59 power plants are planned. There is no reliable figure for coastal South Asia as a whole.

Bottomline: Livelihoods

“The bottomline in South Asia is that we have to balance livelihood needs of the poor with other types of economic development,” Narain said. “Very large numbers of South Asians live off the coast doing mostly water or land based work. We cannot edge them out for either protecting ecosystems or for high-end economic activity.”

In short, everyone needs to be accommodated, yet without overwhelming the resource base. The scramble for the coast needs regulation and management.

The need, says Narain, is for a systemic approach to regulation, and not a project-by-project approach as has been happening in most parts of South Asia.

How to take the big picture view in such an exercise? Coastal managers are already familiar with integrated coastal zone management (ICZM), a methodology to factor in and, hopefully, balance competing demands.

Ibrahim Naeem, Director of the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre, located in the Maldives, said that only such an approach can reconcile the many pressures faced by South Asia’s maritime countries.

Easier said than done! The pressures include poverty, depleting resources, increasing hazards and large scale enterprises seeking quick profits from tapping the coastal land, water and locations.

Sri Lanka has had a Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP) since the early 1980s. India introduced Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification in 1991 and revised it in 2011. Bangladesh formulated its Coastal Zone Policy in 2005. (Pakistan has no specific coastal regulations, while in the Maldives – whose total land is coastal – general laws apply.)

CSE’s fortnightly magazine Down to Earth recently analysed coastal zone regulations and management plans of Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, and found all having adequate provisions. But their implementation is fraught with problems. Often, too many state agencies have purview over coastal zones without properly coordinating among themselves.

“Much can be said on paper, but the challenge is to do it on the ground!

We in India like to clear development projects with a thousand conditions — but don’t have the capacity to monitor (compliance of) even one!” says Narain.

Without transparent and accountable governance, we cannot manage our coasts in a fair, equitable manner for all stakeholders.

Costal erosion in Sri Lanka - photo courtesy hazard.lk

Costal erosion in Sri Lanka – photo courtesy hazard.lk

Regulation Plus

Participants of the Pondicherry meeting highlighted the urgent need for improving scientific understanding of coastal regions with uptodate statistics and better resolution maps. Just as important is to ensure it is placed in the public domain.

In the end, regulation is only one tool, and perhaps we have focused too much on it in South Asia, argued Chandra Bhushan, CSE’s deputy Director General. “There are other tools – such as education, training, and properly involving local communities. We need a package of such tools to better manage our coastal areas.”

In his view, ICZM is not only for balancing users but also about learning how to do more with less. For example, do we keep building more ports and power plants dotting our coasts – or try to improve the efficiency of existing infrastructure and systems?

The meeting identified several priority action areas:

  • Clearer coastal policies and regulations that balance competing interests, i.e. livelihoods, economic development and environmental conservation.
  • Robust institutions at national and local levels, with good science informing decisions and where information is regularly shared with the public.
  • Local communities vested with the right to decide (including right to veto) coastal development activities in their areas.
  • Stricter law enforcement, along with adequate monitoring of compliance of approved projects.

A better managed coast will be more resilient to climate impacts that are slowly but steadily building up.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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