Vulnerability of Coastal Communities to Environmental Disaster

Sarah Coulthard

PhD student, University of Bath

25 January 2005

This illustrated talk, arranged in aid of the Tsunami Disaster Emergency Fund, dealt with the research in South India

being undertaken by the speaker.

The research is based upon the concept of ‘Integrated Coastal Management’ (ICM), which reflects the need to reconcile policies relating to peoples and resources. Concentration upon either one may disadvantage the other. For example, in order to preserve fish stocks, quotas may be imposed, but fishing industries may thus be devastated- as in the North Atlantic area. ICM involves securing information from as many sources as possible, involving local peoples and integrating both relevant sciences and governmental agencies, both national and local.

The speaker is studying the situation at Pullicat Lake, the second largest coastal lagoon in South India. It is shallow and regularly halves in area in the dry season, but local people fish mainly for prawns – women marketing and children net-repairing. The research involves water pollution problems, lagoon dynamics, fishery biology and local experience. Activity includes interviews, mapping, surveys and group meetings.

There are several local polluting industries, which have attracted Western firms who want to use poor regulations to avoid costs. The lagoon fishing is self-regulated through traditional practice, which enables the local ‘pattinaver’ caste members to have net sites, some non-traditional people to have limited fishing rights elsewhere and other tribal people with no rights to fend for themselves with their bare hands. The various local villages each have distinct practices, however, and there are considerable differences along the coast. While self-management normally secures order, recent influx of mainly displaced agricultural workers now threatens disharmony- around ten people are killed annually through conflicts.

The tsunami caused the local villagers to lose boats and nets, which removes livelihoods, but only twelve people were killed, largely because the sandbar, separating lagoon from sea, broke its impact. What the research has revealed, however, are the normal hazards of such coastal communities, which range from erosion, inadequate shelter, (illegal) beach settlement and the impact of cyclones to the constant vulnerability to the sea. In a recent U.N. report on people in vulnerable habitats, Kofi Annan stated –‘We can no longer afford, financially or socially, to rely only on the expectations of emergency relief when disaster strikes’. The speaker concluded that deterioration (such as rising sea level and more frequent and severe cyclones) arising from global warming is predicted anyway, but the recent tsunami shock may stimulate governments to take more interest in these matters.

Various aspects of the presentation were picked up in the following discussion, here itemised.

Pollution: Levels of pollution vary locally and some claims are suspect, but locals mainly eat lentils and rice (since fish is a rare luxury) while exports mainly come from fish farms.

Cyclones: The sandbar is regularly breached by cyclones. Villagers fear them, but they also refresh the lagoon and enhance fishing. When the sandbar closes, the lagoon dries out and fishing declines. ‘Black years’ occur in each decade, when the absence of fish causes absolute starvation.

Local conflict: The current migration of peoples to coasts around the world is estimated by the UN to be around 60%, but it predicts the figure to be 75% within thirty years. Alternatives to fishing would reduce local conflicts, but industrialists tend not to employ fishing folk and fishermen do not seek industrial work. The provision of equipment (such as nets) by government or non-governmental organisations to non-fishermen would stimulate conflict.

Possible local solutions: Local officials concentrate on infrastructure problems of schools, clean water, etc., but the speaker thinks that the traditional organisation, which normally effectively controls the local population, could sustain the community if incomers could be found alternative employment. Sustainability could be assured if innovations now being developed, such as selling local women’s handcrafts through the Body Shop chain, for example, could be extended.

Possible global solutions: If the drift to the coasts could be reversed through the development of alternative inland employment, the special problems of coasts could be relieved somewhat. The speaker thought that India was sufficiently well developed for that to be possible, but had reservations about post-tsunami Indonesia, particularly where political problems affect development.

Geoffrey Catchpole