South Asian Coasts Reeling Under Pressure

News feature published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper, 23 January 2014

South Asia Coastal Management Convention in Pondicherry - L to R Chandra Bhushan, Aurofilio Schiavina, Sunita Narain, Tahir Qureshi, Anil Premaratne

South Asia Coastal Management Convention in Pondicherry – L to R Chandra Bhushan, Aurofilio Schiavina, Sunita Narain, Tahir Qureshi, Anil Premaratne

South Asian Coasts Reeling Under Pressure

By Nalaka Gunawardene in Pondicherry, India

As economic development gathers pace in South Asia, its coastal regions are coming under pressure as never before. More ports, power plants and tourist resorts are jostling with fishermen and farmers.

Balancing livelihoods, economic growth and environmental conservation is the only way to avoid a major resource crisis, acknowledged participants at the South Asia Convention on Coastal Management held in Pondicherry, India, from 19 to 21 January 2014.

Over 70 senior government officials, researchers, civil society activists and journalists from Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka came together for this event, organised by Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Pondicherry-based citizen group, PondyCAN.

They reported how a disproportionately high share of South Asia’s industrialisation, urbanisation and tourism development is concentrated along its combined 11,240 km of coastline. In total, coastal areas support livelihoods of some 400 million South Asians through fisheries, tourism and other activities.

In many parts of the region, high population density exists alongside sensitive ecosystems – such as mangroves and coral reefs and river estuaries. This intensifies the challenge of managing coastal resources. Climate change impacts, already felt as extreme weather events, add to these pressures.

Participants discussed strategies for regulating coastal development, protecting coastal habitats and coping with climate change.

They agreed on the urgent need for improving scientific understanding of coastal regions, which begins with clearly defining, demarcating and mapping such areas. Evidence based policy making and effective regulation depend on such a knowledge base, currently lacking or inadequate.

“There is a need to strengthen regulatory systems, build capacity and do more research to better manage coastal challenges in South Asia,” said Sunita Narain, Director General of CSE.

In CSE’s view, she said, the most important intervention is to strengthen existing institutions to get them to deliver with greater transparency and accountability.

She added: “We need to balance conservation with benefits to local communities. We also need partnerships between conservation, development and livelihoods without which coastal resource management is not possible in a region like South Asia”.

Ibrahim Naeem, Director of the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre, located in the Maldives, explained the value of integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) in balancing competing interests.

Only such an approach can reconcile the many pressures faced by South Asia’s maritime countries including poverty, depleting resources, increasing hazards and large scale enterprises seeking quick profits from the coastal resources.

“We need to make sure these plans incorporate climate change to make them more meaningful to countries like ours,” he added.

Large scale infrastructure development projects are adding to other pressures. India – which already has 202 commercial ports and 27 thermal power plants on its coastline – is planning another 76 ports and 59 power plants. Over 70% of Sri Lanka’s tourist hotels are located in the coastal zone, with more coming up. The scramble for the coast is increasing in other countries, too.

Meanwhile, over two thirds of the world’s ship breaking takes place on open beaches in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan with little regard for worker health or environmental pollution. It is a highly hazardous industry with lucrative returns for operators.

Participants agreed on the need for the South Asian countries to share experiences and approaches and to learn from each other.

“It is important for South Asian countries to learn from each other’s successes and failures,” said Dr Anil Premaratne, Director General of Sri Lanka’s Coast Conservation Department.

Premaratne pointed out that laws and regulations are just one strategy for better managing coastal areas. Other strategies include awareness raising and public education, and the involvement of local communities in resource management and benefit sharing.

Participants also stressed the need for placing all scientific information and maps in the public domain. Right now, these are often trapped in state agencies or research institutes, with no easy access to researchers or other citizens.

Probir Banerjee, President PondyCAN, stressed that the “worst affected are the people living at the margins and the objective has to be to enhance livelihoods, and not compromise them.”

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Making of ‘The Greenbelt Reports’ recalled in ‘The Green Pen’

The process of producing and distributing TVE Asia Pacific’s educational TV series, The Greenbelt Reports, is showcased in a new book on environmental journalism in South Asia, just published by Sage, a globally operating company that specialises in bringing out academic and professional books.

The book, titled The Green Pen: Environmental Journalism in India and South Asia, is edited by two senior Indian journalists, both good friends – Keya Acharya of Bangalore, and Frederick Noronha based in Goa. (In 2007, Fred and I co-edited Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.)

Arranged in 10 sections, the book brings together contributions from three dozen journalists, broadcasters and film makers in South Asia. It opens with a foreword by Darryl D’Monte, one time editor of The Times of India and Chair, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI).

I co-wrote the chapter titled ‘Dispatches from the Frontline: Making of The Greenbelt Reports’ with my colleague Manori Wijesekera, TVEAP’s Regional Programme Manager. I was researcher and script writer of the 12-part, 4-country series that we made in 2006, in which Manori was series producer. The series looked at the environmental lessons of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The title reflects the lingering print bias in media related discussions: in our case, the content we produced was disseminated on broadcast television, narrowcast DVD and online. We wielded cameras rather than pens, but are still very glad to share our experience in this book.

Keya Acharya (left) and Fred Noronha

The publisher’s blurb says: “This collection of essays by some of the most prominent environmental journalists in Indian and South Asia gives deep insights into their profession and its need and relevance in society. It looks at this ‘specialisation’ of journalism both in the past and the present. Underlying almost all the essays is the changing nature of media in the region and the dilemmas facing environmental journalists. The varied background of the writers ensures the showcasing of a wide range of realities and experiences from the field. Contributions include essays by Darryl D’Monte, the late Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, among others.”

“This is the first book of its kind on environmental journalism, which would be an excellent resource to aid the future evolution of the enterprise in the region. Apart from essays from India, there are contributions from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives. The book will interest a wide readership, any informed reader, besides journalists and environmentalists.”

It’s an honour to be part of a book which features the work of respected seniors like Anil, Darryl and Sunita – all of who have influenced my own career and I’m privileged to count among my friends (alas, Anil is no longer with us). In fact, I have either met, worked with or am friends with more than half the three dozen contributing authors of this book.

Who says South Asia is large?

More in TVEAP news story: The Greenbelt Reports featured in new book on environmental journalism in South Asia