Bay watch!

  • 29/09/1998

Bay watch! A SATELLITE picture of the Earth, taken at night, would show a steady stream of light along the world's coastlines. Half the world's population - about 3.2 billion people - live and work within 200 kilometres of the coasts, which account for 10 per cent of the Earth's land area. Besides functioning as effective barriers against wind, waves and tides, the coasts are also home to some of the world's richest biodiversity. Coastal Waters of the World: Trends, Threats, and Strategies examines the challenge of protecting these crucial ecosystems.

Coastal areas are under tremendous population and development The pressures the world over and are getting ecologically degraded at a fast pace. Hinrichsen, one of the most widely travelled and recognised writers of international environmental issues, has put together an exhaustive collection of facts, figures and experiences from 13 regions around the world, including South Asia.

The author uses population and environment projections to warn about future conflicts and crises at the coasts. He notes: "The world's coastlines are now on the frontline of a battle a battle that does not attract headlines or Pentagon-style budgets, but one whose outcome is important for the future of the human habitation on this planet." He puts forth a case for the planet, and its people, like the fisher folk who directly depend on it. However, this is not a loose campaign book. The work is packed with rich information and firm analysis.

The book lists specific threats to each of world's major coastlines. It talks of how shrimp and prawn farms replaced one-quarter of Thailand's mangroves in late 1980s; how wave erosion wipes out 285,000 sq. meters of land in Sri Lanka every year. It narrates the story of the 785,000 sq km toxic algae bloom that appeared in the waters between Denmark, Sweden and Norway in 1988 leading to oxygen depletion in the sea covering a 1,000 km coastline. It raises concern about millions of tonnes of mine tailings containing toxic metals that block navigation channels in the waters of Papua New Guinea. It is a global book with regional details.

The strength of the book lies in the exhaustive research that has been undertaken. The author meticulously notes the stresses each coast faces. It gives figures of wastes dumped into the river Ganga in India, the count of coliform (a type of bacteria found in human excreta, an indicator of biological pollution) in the water in Varanasi town and the total sewage - a whopping 50 million cubic meters a year - carried into the coastal waters by the 14 major rivers in India.

The book is multi-disciplinary. Be it difficulties encountered in handling the coral reefs of the Maldives or running latrines for slum-dwellers in Calcutta, Hinrichsen handles the problem with ease. His arguments are crystal-clear. His writing style is lucid and appealing to the uninitiated as well as the expert. It gives an introduction to the subject as well as a global overview that can serve as a reference.

The picture that emerges from the information is rather grim. By 2025, when coastal lands (within 200 km from the coastline) are expected to contain 75 per cent of the world's population, the conflict among various groups and interests is going to be greater. As leading environmentalist Mostafa Tolba, noted in a recent interview, the points of conflict over water resources are increasing, Hinrichsen argues that even access to water bodies will be a bone of contention for instance - the ongoing conflict between traditional fisherfolk and the industrial fishing fleet in India.

As can be expected from any comprehensive work that covers the world in 276 pages, Coastal Waters of the World leaves out a lot. If you want details of how aquaculture has spread diseases along the coastal waters in India in recent years, you may be disappointed. And the relevance of India's Coastal Regulation Zone that restricts construction along the coast is altogether missing. The book is an overview and a very good one.

Obviously, no study can be stopped at a global level, especially a study of an ecosystem crucial to human kind. Microlevel reportage and research work, which may be available aplenty, can not give a good picture either. Considering the clashes along India's 8000 km coastline between industrial fishing operators and traditional fishers, between builders and environmentalists, and between state governments and the Union environment ministry - there is an urgent need for a similar book about India. Any takers?

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