THE ASIAN TSUNAMI
Let Nature's defences be
The lesson from the tsunami disaster is as clear as it can be. The Coastal Regulation Zone needs to be further strengthened, says PANKAJ SEKHSARIA, looking at the situation in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
The coastal protection wall in Wandoor in the Andamans.
THE accompanying picture was taken in 1998, and in many ways depicts the entire story I want to tell. You will notice that this picture shows many things: a rather rocky coast exposed at low tide, small patches of mangroves in the background and number of uprooted trees and tree stumps too. Fore-grounding all of this and standing out rather starkly is the ongoing construction of a coastal protection wall that borders the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park in Wandoor, located roughly 20 kilometres west of Port Blair.
It would be stating the obvious that this area looked different a few years earlier, but often it is the most obvious that we miss out completely. Once, there was good standing forest on the landward side of the wall; there were dense patches of mangroves where only occasional ones are seen today and the rocky coast was, in fact, a good sandy beach that was used by sea turtles for nesting.
Over the years the sand got mined away to construct concrete buildings in various parts of Port Blair; the mangroves got cut, mainly for fuel; and parts of the coastal forests and coral reefs too were destroyed. Put together, it was the collective destruction of all the defence mechanisms that nature has provided against the force and power of the sea. It shows, in a microcosm, what has happened along the entire length of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for the last few decades. It is the same story from Great Nicobar, the island closest to the epicentre of the recent massive earthquake, to Diglipur at the northern end in the Andamans, which was hit during the last major earthquake in the islands that occurred in September 2002: beaches mined away and mangroves and coral reefs destroyed in the name of development and progress.
If natural walls have been destroyed, the sea is bound to start moving in. And when the sea starts to move, all that can be done is to put up concrete walls that will try to stop the sea. This is exactly what the picture shows us and the biggest irony is that this wall is being built using sand mined from another beach further down the coast.
It's a vicious cycle like none other!
And that's not all. Many of the constructions in these islands built using this sand have been badly affected by the earthquake shocks. Many are reported to have even collapsed. By comparison, timber buildings in Port Blair, some of them a 100 years old, have escaped virtually unscathed. This is a lesson we've all been taught even in schools. If, however, one would have seen the proliferation of multi-storied concrete constructions in these seismically active islands in the last few years, it would seem planners in Port Blair never got these lessons. It's come the hard way now, but hopefully it's been learnt.
These will be critical as the islands will soon be moving into the reconstruction and rehabilitation mode. This might be the golden opportunity for the sand mining, construction and builder lobby to make a fast killing. This is what will have to be guarded against strongly. Equally important is to keep in mind the value of the provisions of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification. Innumerable buildings in these islands, including many government ones, have been constructed in violation of the CRZ. In the last couple of years, there were regular complaints from the construction, hotel and tourism lobby that the CRZ was obstructing the development of infrastructure and the tourism industry here. They wanted it relaxed so that buildings could come up even closer to the coastline. The lesson from the present disaster, then, is as clear as it can be: the CRZ needs to be further strengthened, not relaxed.
The need to stop destruction
Dr. Sarang Kulkarni, one of India's leading coral reef scientists has worked in the marine national park in Wandoor for over six years. He was, in fact, witness to the drama and the destruction that occurred here when the tsunami struck. "An important function of fringing (coral) reefs along the wave-swept shores," he explains, "is preventing coastal erosion and storm damage. This is particularly important for the regions with low-lying coastal plains, where fringing and barrier reefs protect coast from the ravages of tropical storms and tidal waves." The same, he says, is true for mangroves and beaches too.
One interesting fall out of the disaster of December 26, was an announcement made five days later by the Chennai Port Trust (CnPT). In an effort to protect the port in the future, the CnPT announced plans to construct a 10 km long artificial beach from left of the Cooum river to the fishing harbour in North Chennai. The feasibility of this is not yet known, and neither can this option be even considered for every other place. What should be immediately stopped is the destruction of the various natural features along the coast that already play the role of protector.
While, clearly, the beaches, mangroves and coral reefs would not have "stopped" the powerful and huge waves that hit the coast, they would have significantly reduced the impact of the waves and the destruction that resulted. Hundreds, if not thousands of lives could have been saved. Thousands of families would have been saved their tears, their sorrow and the grief they are experiencing this very moment.
It's certainly not asking for too much. It's the least that can be done.
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