Receding coastlines a threat to environment and livelihood


Remember the first, lazy walk you had with your loved one along the beach? For most, it is a beautiful experience that they would be eager to repeat.

Beaches and coasts are indeed amazing wonders of nature. Apart from being picturesque, the fact that they support diverse wildlife makes them all the more significant as natural resources.

The picture however, is not too rosy on the beach front. Times are a-changing and India’s 7,500 kilometers of coastline is under serious threat from man-made erosion.

The Pondicherry coastline

“The problem lies all over the world but it is very serious in India. All the beaches get sediments from land. It is the large scale constructions close to the coast that cause maximum damage,” says Commander John Jacob Puttur, retired naval officer, hydrographer and author of the book, ‘The Untold Story of a Coast’.

“The Chennai Port is constantly eroding. The north of Chennai Port is constantly eroding in the East Coast. In the West Coast, the roads are chief impediment to sediment supply to the coast. Beach is a constantly moving sediment zone and it needs to be preserved that way,” adds Puttur.

Recently, a 15-minute public service film, titled, ‘India’s Disappearing Beaches – a Wake-Up Call’ was released on YouTube. The film depicts the alarming spread of man-made erosion along India’s coasts.

Using Puducherry as a case study, the film shows how erosion is triggered by certain kinds of construction projects that interfere with natural patterns of sand movement along the coast. It emphasizes the importance of the right mitigation measures to be put in place at the very start of a project. This way, a lot of erosion that would otherwise take place can be avoided.

A case in point: Puducherry

Puducherry lost its attractive sea front because of not implementing the right mitigation measures, such as a ‘sand by pass system’ and ‘beach nourishment’, after it built a harbour in 1986. The film shows how indiscriminate building of seawalls along Puducherry’s coast has pushed sea erosion into Tamil Nadu. Calling for immediate action, the video depicts how erosion will affect the entire Indian coastline in the near future.

To substantiate the fact, studies done in the recent past have suggested that as much as 40% of India’s coastline is already subject to erosion.

Essentially, sand on the seashore keeps moving due to the waves and ocean currents. In a natural, undisturbed beach, the sand that is removed by waves and currents also gets naturally replenished with sand brought by other waves and ocean currents.

Natural and undisturbed beaches are therefore said to be in a state of equilibrium or balance in which the sand that is naturally removed is also naturally replenished.

Things however change with the construction of a structure on the seashore.

When a structure is built on the seashore or when a navigational channel is artificially dug with dredgers on the seabed, like in the case of harbours, the natural movement of sand is disturbed. This man-made interference and disturbance results in erosion of the coast.

“This can be compared to water flowing in a river. If a dam is built across a river, there will be less water downstream. The downstream reaches of the river are starved of water. Similarly, on the coast, a man-made structure or action that causes blockage of sand cause the beaches to starve of sand and there is a ‘drought’ of sand on those beaches which result in erosion,” says Aurofilio Schiavina from PondyCAN, the NGO in Puducherry, for whom the film was made. He has been actively working on the issue of coastal erosion for a long time.

Pondy Citizens’ Action Network – PondyCAN – is a not-for-profit organization committed to preserve and enhance the natural, social, cultural and spiritual environment. It has been studying and documenting coastal erosion along the Puducherry-Tamil Nadu coastline for many years.

PondyCAN’s recent study indicates about 75% of erosion is caused by man-made factors. There are erosion hot spots, like north of Chennai, where the erosion is 100% man-made. In the Chennai district, 90% of the coast is eroded.

Another erosion hotspot is the Kerala coast. About 65% of the coast has eroded or is eroding. There are other eroding beaches too – Vizag, Puri and Gopalpur beaches in Orissa, Goa and Karnataka.

“I felt that if I, as an environmentalist, could be so ignorant about this subject, it is quite likely that most other people are too. That’s exactly how the idea of this short film came about. While most of us have eyes trained on terrestrial ecosystem, sandy beaches quietly disappearing under our noses are not made a note of. It was with the idea to make PondyCAN’s findings widely available, I decided to make a short audio-visual which could be shared online and shown to policymakers, stakeholders and the general public,” says Shekar Dattatri, award winning conservation filmmaker.

The social consequences

By losing the beach space, the traditional fisher folk lose the space for lading their fish catch, parking their boats, mending nets, selling and drying fish etc. this directly impacts their livelihood.

Most of the traditional fishers are independent, working for themselves. With them losing their livelihood, they become dependent on others. “One fisherman had confided that though he continued to earn as much, he has lost his independence by working now as a coolie in a trawl boat,” reveals Aurofilio.

The loss of the beach directly impacts the fisherfolk – they lose homes as a result.

There is yet another problem. Though not openly spoken about, the fisher folk defecate on the beach. Losing the beach space means losing their loos too. The worst hit in this are the women who have even lesser options during the daylight hours.

In coastal villages, burial or cremation grounds are located close to the beach as it is a no-man’s land. In an instance, the beach got eroded and the burial ground disappeared with it. A few months later, a member from that Muslim village died and they did not know where to bury the body. The only available option was the neighbouring Hindu village burial ground but when they took the body there, a communal fight broke out.

There are festivals during which the Gods are taken to the beach for a bath in the sea. Loss of beach adversely affects traditional cultural practices too.

“Our rocky beaches deserve attention, it is not that they are safe. Rocky beaches could have high marine biodiversity too,” says Bengaluru-based ecologist M B Krishna.

The solution

There is no simple answer. The logical approach is to avoid disturbing the natural movement of sand along the coast. If that is not possible to be done, mitigating the impacts is the next step.

For instance, if a port has to be built, then the sand that will get blocked by this port needs to be dredged and dumped on the side of the port where the erosion is likely to take place. Only through this can the natural balance of the sand get restored and be maintained. Called sand by-passing, this method was designed and built in the Puducherry and Vizag harbours. Unfortunately, the sand by-passing does not get implemented because it costs more money to run. A direct consequence of that is beaches start eroding.

“To add to man-made erosion is the natural climate change. So the erosion process which would have otherwise taken 20 years to happen would now be hastened to two days flat,” warns Commander Puttur.

The process of beach nourishment, nourishing beaches with suitable sand sourced from nearby areas instead of building seawells, is increasingly being adopted all over the world, especially in developed countries where they have understood the values of beaches and the negative impacts of seawalls and other structures.

“There cannot be a blanket approach to this critical problem. The sediment traffic from land to sea driven by flowing rain water needs to be understood at each place and a solution tailor-made to cater to the specific beach. The logic is simple, cut the sediment supply, the beach will erode. Restore it and the beach will get a fresh lease of life,” says Commander Puttur.

The stakeholders have one common vision – people understand the grave issue and act NOW.


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