There Is a Need to Reimagine the Way We Think About Our Coastal Commons

A bird’s eye view of the Varkala shoreline, Kerala. Photo: Rahul Chakraborty/Unsplash

As the COVID-19 outbreak raged across Goa, the state with the highest positivity rate at that point, Cyclone Tauktae struck land and knocked down trees, destroyed people’s homes, uprooted electrical poles and damaged internet cables. Life in the village of Aldona where I live came to a standstill. Sixty hours without power, the internet, phone network and water supply – the more abstract concepts of global climate change and resilience became local, real and personal.

The Arabian sea, which has historically seen fewer cyclones as compared to the Bay of Bengal, is rapidly warming. In 2019, five out of the eight recorded cyclones in India were in Arabian Sea, an alarming statistic which was comparable only to that of 1902. Tauktae is the biggest cyclone to have hit the western coast in nearly three decades. It is the latest in the list of unusual and unpredictable weather events induced by rising sea temperatures in the Indian ocean region. The sea is also currently the fastest warming sea in the world. Climate scientists raised alarm over the peculiarities of Cyclone Tauktae, which had intensified quickly from depression to extremely severe cyclone in just a matter of two days and sustained its severity.

At a time when the west coast was reeling from the loss of life and property due to Cyclone Tauktae, India’s east coast was hit by Cyclone Yaas in the last week of May that left a trail of destruction in the coastal areas of West Bengal and Odisha.

Lives and livelihoods

India’s coastal regions are home to nearly 17 crore people. Coastal communities particularly in low lying areas are under constant risk of flooding and disruption caused due to the relative sea-level rise, unpredictable cyclone winds and rainfall. Between 1990 and 2016, India lost nearly 235 sq. km of land to coastal erosion, and displaced around 36 lakh Indians every year between 2008 and 2018 mostly as a result of floods and monsoon rains.

The cyclones in South Asia, due to the rapid warming of the Indian Ocean, impact nearly a third of the global population. While the repercussions of last year’s Cyclone Amphan in Bay of Bengal are still felt in many of its coastal regions and the community struggles to recover, they have been hit again by cyclone Yaas. Fishing communities bear the maximum brunt of these unpredictable cyclones.

As we marked World Oceans Day this year on June 8, with the theme ‘Life and Livelihoods’, it was important to usher in a new era of thinking that supports building a resilient future for the coastal communities and recognise their contribution to the sustainable management of India’s oceans. Furthermore, there is a need to stop the loss of coastal commons to rapid urbanisation leading to a loss of fishing livelihoods.

A new imagination

There is a fundamental flaw in the way coastal areas, particularly coastal cities, interact with the sea or the ocean. For centuries, the human approach has prioritised land and devalued the sea, and as a result, continues to lose sensitive marine ecosystems such as mangroves and marshlands in favour of land infrastructure projects that plan to keep water away from the land. There is a need to reimagine the way we think about the environment. Instead of creating dry land out of wetlands and positioning land against the sea, we need to embrace monsoons and wetness within the urban planning that will build resilient cities even in the face of shifting climates.

Human lives in coastal areas are better attuned to the sea, and there is a need to relook at the flawed outlook that divides land from the sea. While much of the focus of current generation of urban planners remains on green infrastructure, there is a clear need to include blue and green infrastructure parallelly, in order to address issues prevalent in coastal areas such as flooding.

Unfortunately, the country has taken several steps backwards with the dilution of laws that regulate India’s land use along the coastline. The Coastal Regulation Zone 2019 rules eased building restrictions in coastal cities and cleared the construction of airports in non-arable lands in rural coastal areas. The dominant socio-technical imaginaries of coastal regions – for example, Lakshadweep, Andaman and the Mumbai coastal road project – impose grand visions over the complex land-water ecology and the lives and livelihoods of local communities. These construction projects close to the coastline will not only threaten traditional coastal occupations, but also seriously dampen the preparedness for climate-change induced disasters.

Building resilience

In disaster situations, Indian agencies swiftly swing into action with rescue operations and evacuation missions. However, these attempts alone will be unlikely to provide a long term solution. In order to address these climate induced disasters and build resilience among the communities, there is a need to diversify livelihood opportunities of coastal communities. In the case of Panjim, Goa, industrial activities and infrastructure development near the coastline is hampering the fragile marine ecosystem and affecting fishing livelihoods of the local residents.

At a local level, there is a need to coordinate with local organisations and law enforcement agencies in curbing any encroachment, and introduce grassroots and policy measures for conservation and management of coastal commons. Robust institutional frameworks for climate resilient management for coastal areas are urgently needed.

Based on the global best practices, there is a need to create ecosystem-specific, and site-specific protocols that incorporate cutting edge technologies and traditional knowledge systems.

With rapid changes affecting coastal life, it is imperative to invest in building climate resilient systems. Resilience and adaptive capacity requires financial investments, technological interventions and multi-disciplinary knowledge. While global funds are available at the national level, dispersion to local bodies that prioritises needs at grassroots level for resilience building remains a big challenge. There is a need to understand the competing imaginaries and visions of the coastal commons and give a voice to traditionally marginalised actors.

Vikrom Mathur is director of Tandem Research, Goa, and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. He is the team leader of an Indo-Danish effort to set up India’s first urban living lab, Panjim Urban Living Lab (PULL), in Panjim, looking at issues around coastal commons and resilience.

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