Our beaches and coasts are littered; our seas and rivers have turned into reservoirs of effluents. Will this new year bring hope? Will we clean up our beaches and turn our waters pollution-free, thereby throwing a lifeline to many key marine species, wonders Divya Karnad
A familiar seaside scene is one where tourists and regulars alike dip their feet into the waves, children playing in the water and friends trying to douse each other with salt spray.
An increasingly familiar scene is one where these people have to cross an obstacle of garbage and industrial residue that is deposited along the high-tide line, in order to be able to reach the water front. A soon-to-be memorable scene will also include a variety of odours, from salty air to garbage, sewage and industrial waste. How do Indian coastal cities and areas capitalising on beach tourism put up with this incursion on their beaches?
Beaches are the final frontiers in coastal cities when it comes to free entertainment, one of the few remaining public spaces where entry is not restricted and not charged; discussions, picnics, exercise and other group activities can be carried out on a shoe-string budget.
In whose interest is it that these spaces are lost to pollution? The National Institute of Oceanography estimates that 50 million litres of industrial waste is allowed to discharge every year, untreated into the seas around India. This is equivalent to about 20 Olympic-size pools full of effluents.
Most of this is concentrated around areas of commercial production such as Chennai, Kochi, Mumbai, Vishakhapatnam and other coastal cities, as well as the coastal industrial belt in Gujarat. While the effects of diffusion may render the concentration of these pollutants minimal, they are not alone. Add another 164 Olympic-size pools full of untreated sewage, 14 of garbage and solid waste, two pools of fertiliser runoff, one of detergent residues and pesticides and so on, and the toxic mix becomes even more apparent.
The river meets the sea...
The concentration of pollution is highest where rivers empty into the sea. As our rivers have become de facto carriers of urban sewage, the waste is carried along and dumped into one of the most productive and ecologically important stretches of the sea, where fresh water meets the sea. River mouths attract sea turtles like the olive ridley by providing large sand banks for them to nest.
Dolphins like the Indo-Pacific humpback prefer to hunt for prey in river mouths as do a large number of wetland birds that congregate in shallow salty water. The nutrients brought by the river into the sea encourage the growth of plankton, which in turn feeds the insects, crustaceans and fish that all these larger birds and mammals depend upon. Apart from wildlife, these are also the areas that see high concentrations of fishing fleets. The fishing fleets that ply in these shallow coastal waters are blessed with abundant catches. These fish, crabs and prawns not only feed the hungry coastal cities, but move as far inland as Delhi and Bangalore.
Scientists from Behrampur University have studied the estuary of the Rushikulya river, a site where olive ridley turtles nest in millions. They find that commercial prawns harvested from this estuary show increased concentration of mercury in their edible parts, particularly during the monsoon. Such evidence also exists from oysters and mussels in the Hooghly river estuary and the Mumbai coast. Such bottom-dwelling prawns and shellfish are thought to absorb and concentrate heavy metal pollutants from the environment far more effectively than other species.
Once it has been absorbed into their tissues, these pollutants enter the food chain and concentrate at lethal levels in the tissues of carnivorous fish. Scientists at the National Institute of Oceanography have found that the highest concentrations of these metals occur in the tissues of the top carnivores, such as sharks. Heavy metals such as mercury can affect the human brain causing nervous system disorders. Since most of the seafood consumed in India is harvested from Indian waters, and much of the fish are carnivorous, top predators such as seerfish, sawfish and sharks, it is very important that we pay attention to the inputs being pumped into our oceans.
Poor implementation of laws
Indian environmental laws are some of the most strict in the world. Of course, as is the case with many Indian laws, they are not properly enforced. This presents the citizen with an opportunity to turn a blind eye, give up the cause as lost and not do anything. This is a perfectly logical solution provided that we are willing to prevent ourselves and our families from ever visiting beaches again, give up all seafood, not construct our houses and buildings using sand mined from coastal areas, give up toothpaste made from the shells of marine mollusks, cause the extinction of some wildlife such as coastal dolphins and sea turtles.
So the next time we see an advertisement for that beautiful beach cottage by well-known hotel groups, we can be sure to ignore it. We can also forget about watching the monsoon in God’s own country because all gods would have fled the place by the time we are done with it. Of course, if we do not have the money to splurge on a five-star hotel or a backwaters houseboat, we probably are not deserving of a clean, toxic-free, public space to meet or enjoy, in the first place.
Flawed waste disposal
Many coastal citizens are unconcerned about garbage and waste once it leaves their homes, but beachfront property can only remain attractive and lucrative if the beaches remain attractive and enjoyable. These citizens are quick to point out the glaring holes in the municipal waste disposal systems.
Cities like Chennai have no provision for sewage produced along the famed East Coast Road to be treated before it is disposed in the sea. Given the lack of alternatives, citizens who cannot afford to create private sewage treatment ponds in their homes are forced to dump it untreated. This poses a huge health hazard besides the environmental effects of excessive nutrient concentrations and eutrophication. Industries, on the other hand, typically choose the eco-unfriendly route to bump up their profits. Their claim is that cities do not have enough infrastructure to deal with the volume of liquid waste that is generated both from households and industries.
While the municipal corporations claim that cities like Mumbai have the capacity to process all the sewage generated, they admit that many of the pipes bypass the treatment plant with the result that over 800 million litres is let out untreated in Mumbai, daily. To paint a picture of the effects of the current trends of disposal in the century ahead, future generations will be unable to swim in our seas, having to wade through sludge instead.
The time is now to find alternatives and demand that our cities have the infrastructure to deal with their rapid pace of growth. City corporations and municipalities have to move beyond road-widening and flyover building and look at solutions that involve long term urban health.