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Managing Extreme Natural Disasters in Coastal Areas by M S Swaminathan

This blog is from the series Science and Sustainable Food Security- Selected Papers of Prof. M S Swaminathan. This particular paper is written by P. C. Kesavan AND M. S. Swaminathan and published on Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

  • Extreme natural hazards, particularly the hydro-meteorological disasters, are emerging as a cause of major concern in the coastal regions of India and a few other developing countries.
  • These have become more frequent in the recent past, and are taking a heavy toll on life and livelihoods.
  • Low level of technology development in the rural areas together with social, economic and gender inequities enhance the vulnerability of the largely illiterate, unskilled, and resource-poor fishing, farming and landless labour communities.
  • Their resilience to bounce back to pre-disaster levels of normality is highly limited. For the planet Earth at crossroads, the imminent threat, however, is from a vicious spiral among environmental degradation, poverty and climate change-related natural disasters interacting in a mutually reinforcing manner.
  • These, in turn, retard sustainable development, and also wipe out any small gains made thereof.
  • To counter this unacceptable trend, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation has developed a biovillage paradigm and rural knowledge centres for ecotechnological and knowledge empowerment of the coastal communities at risk.
  • Frontier science and technologies blended with traditional knowledge and ecological prudence result in ecotechnologies with pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-women orientation.
  • The rural communities are given training and helped to develop capacity to adopt ecotechnologies for market-driven eco-enterprises. The modern information and communication-based rural knowledge centres largely operated by trained semi-literate young women provide time- and locale-specific information on weather, crop and animal husbandry, market trends and prices for local communities, healthcare, transport, education, etc. to the local communities.
  • The ecotechnologies and time- and locale-specific information content development are need-based and chosen in a ‘bottom-up’ manner.
  • The use of recombinant DNA technology for genetic shielding of agricultural crops for coastal regions against abiotic stress (induced by the water- and weather-related natural disasters), strengthens the foundations of sustainable agriculture undertaken by the resource-poor small farm families.

1. Perspectives on extreme natural disasters

  • Life on planet Earth is accustomed to encounters with natural disasters. An astro-physical event (i.e. impact of a meteorite on Earth) approximately 65 Myrago is said to have wiped out dinosaurs and many other species. However, such astro-physical hazards are very rare.
  • Geophysical hazards (i.e. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions) originate from within the Earth’s interior and are common. Powerful earthquakes resulting in vertical displacement of the tectonic plates at the bottom of the sea can produce destructive tsunami waves as happened on 26 December 2004 (Bilham 2005, Mishra & Rajasekhar 2005).
  • The hydro- meteorological hazards consist of tropical cyclones, landslides, floods and droughts.
  • In the 1990s, more than 90% of those killed in natural disasters lost their lives in hydro-meteorological events (mainly droughts, floods and wind storms, GEO-3). While earthquakes accounted for 30% of the estimated risk, they caused just 9% of all fatalities due to natural disasters.
  • In contrast, hunger caused by famines worldwide killed 42% of people in the affected regions, but accounted for just 4% of damage over the past decade (GEO-3; IFRC 2001).
  • Further, the number of geophysical disasters has remained fairly steady during the past two decades (1980s and 1990s), but the number of hydro-meteorological disasters has increased substantially (GEO-3).
  • Emerging events such as melting of ice in the Polar Regions and the Himalayas, rise in sea level and increasing intensity and frequency of floods, hurricanes and typhoons suggest that global warming is influencing climate change.
  • Experts at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of USA have recently announced that the floating cap of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean shrank during summer 2005 to its smallest size in a century (Revkin 2005).
  • Trenberth (2005) argues that higher sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and increased water vapour in the lower atmosphere-caused by global warming-are to blame for the past decade’s intense storms.
  • Recently, there were newspaper reports associating the hurricanes ‘Katrina’ and ‘Rita’ in August and September 2005, respectively, which devastated New Orleans and neighbouring towns in Texas, USA, with global warming. Emanuel (2005) reports that global warming may lead to an upward trend in tropical destructive potential. He also points out that with an ever increasing coastal population, a substantial increase may occur in hurricane-related losses in the twenty-first century. Growing anthropogenic pressures are exacerbating the risks.
  • A scientific consensus on the potential impact of climate change is yet to emerge, although there is agreement that anthropogenic factors are influencing global climate systems.
  • Against this background, the declaration by Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society, UK, that ‘the world leaders can no longer use uncertainty about aspects of climate change as an excuse for not taking urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions’ is quite significant. It is indeed becoming increasingly clear that human-associated climate change is real. The Anniversary Address (2004) by the President of the Royal Society dealt in part with climate change (Sunday Herald, London, 19 June 2005).

The majority of natural disasters affect poor nations and the poor in all nations the most, since their coping capacity is limited. Climate change directly affects sensitive sectors like agriculture, forestry and fishery and thereby the livelihoods of millions of coastal communities (Sinha & Swaminathan 1991;Swaminathan 1996). The adverse impacts of climate change, in the form of

declining rainfall alternating with heavy downpours causing floods, and long dry spells leading to droughts, severely threaten livelihoods, economy and food security.

To add to this, poor infrastructure facilities, weak institutional mechanisms, lack of financial resources and vast sectoral and regional disparities adversely affect the adaptive capacity of developing countries to climate change. Thus, climate change exerts additional stress on the ecological and socio-economic systems that are already facing tremendous pressure due to rapid industrialization, urbanization and globalization of economies.

  • Hydro-meteorological hazards would exert even greater hardship to the people as well as damage to the natural resources in small island state developing countries and countries with long coastlines, such as India.
  • It is reported (UNEP 1989) that India, with a low-lying densely populated coastline extending to over 7000 km, is highly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Most of the paddy fields of coastal regions are highly vulnerable to inundation and salinization (Gupta 2005).
  • The small island nations, such as Kiribati, Seychelles and Maldives, have more than 80% of the land area at less than a metre above the present sea level.
  • Such low- lying islands may have to pay a heavy price in terms of loss of human lives, and property if sea level rises to the extent forecast by global climate models (UNEP /GRID; Arendal 2005).
  • Further, migration of coastal communities to inland areas will swell the number of environmental refugees (Myers 2000, 2002).
  • Earthquake risk is high in several parts of India (Rao 2005).
  • There is also concern about future large magnitude earthquakes along the Sumatra Fault southeast of the 2005 event rupture and the adjacent region that last failed in 1833, which is likely to have accumulated substantial strain (Lay et al. 2005; Sieh 2006).
  • International efforts to improve the tsunami-warning capabilities are warranted, given the inevitability of future great thrust earthquakes along the Sumatra zone.
  • Consequently, the Indian Ocean countries are creating a framework for a region- wide warning system and girding for the next killer wave (Stone & Kerr 2005).
  • The growing concentration of population along India’s coastline will have to be prepared particularly for much higher intensity of hydro-meteorological hazards.
  • For these reasons, small island developing countries and the countries with long coastlines need to focus on disaster management particularly in their coastal regions.
  • Discussion of these issues with special reference to the coastal regions in the developing countries is the main thrust of this paper.
  • The need of the hour is to promote concerted efforts for preserving natural ecosystems and diversifying coastal economies, which can enhance recovery from disasters and resilience to their effects (Adger et al. 2005; Allenby & Fink 2005).

2. Vulnerability

  • Vulnerability to disasters has social, gender, ecological and economic dimensions in addition to the well-acknowledged technological capacities of the countries.
  • It describes the degree to which a socio-economic system or physical assets are either susceptible or resilient to the impact of natural hazards.
  • Development practices which do not take into account the susceptibility to natural hazards result in enhancing the vulnerability. There is a close correlation among the trends of increased demographic pressure in developing countries, enhanced environmental degradation, higher human vulnerability and the intensity of the natural disasters.
  • For instance, both the intensity of damage and loss of human lives were more severe where the mangrove forests had been degraded at the time of the Orissa cyclone in 1999.
  • The degradation of the environment, particularly the forest cover, is often a critical factor that transforms a natural hazard, or a climatic extreme such as heavy downpour, into a disaster (Myers 1989).

Poverty, environmental degradation and hazard vulnerability form a vicious spiral, and are mutually reinforcing. The poor are compelled to exploit environmental resources for survival and also to live dangerously close to the high tide zones, and thus become highly vulnerable to cyclones, tsunamis, etc.

Furthermore, among the poor, women and children are particularly vulnerable. Apart from the physical constraints caused by pregnancy, delivery, nursing care, etc., social and economic handicaps also contribute to their enhanced vulnerability.

A generally poor reproductive health care system, particularly for women in these rural areas, combined with increasing incidence of tuberculosis, malaria and HIV / AIDS substantially weaken their health status.

  • In India, economic globalization has accelerated the pace of migration of young men from rural to urban areas, where new employment opportunities have emerged. While this trend may be good in one sense, the detrimental consequence is the ‘feminization of agriculture’ in the rural areas.
  • With much of the agriculture in the rural areas remaining as ‘subsistence farming’, the real effect is the ‘feminization of poverty’.
  • Already handicapped by gender-related disadvantages, the worsening of economic status makes women much more vulnerable socially.
  • Aglionby (2005) reported that four times as many women died in the tsunami as men on 26 December 2004.
  • In Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, India, 391 women were killed, compared with 146 men.
  • According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), children account for a third of the casualty.
  • In some districts of Tamil Nadu, the casualty among children was an overwhelming 50-60% (,UNICEF Lays Out Four Point Programme for Tsunami children’, Press Trust of India, 4 January 2005).
  • The young girls and women face the danger of being pushed into prostitution by the anti-social elements.
  • The trafficking of young women and girls in the human trade was noted as a serious dimension of gender-specific vulnerability resulting from natural disasters.
  • What matters in the end, however, is that both sudden and extremely violent as well as the not-so-aggressive natural hazards with considerable lead time exert their adverse effects differently on urban and the rural environments, the rich and poor and males and females.
  • The need is to bridge the gaps in technological, social and gender divides.

3. Vicious spiral between poverty, environmental degradation and natural disasters

  • The United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs developed a background document in February 2002 on Sustainable Development for the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in August 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
  • One of the background papers submitted by the United Nations relating to an International Strategy for Disaster Reduction discusses natural disasters and sustainable development.
  • The question posed in it was whether sustainable development along with the international instruments aiming at poverty reduction and environment protection, can be accomplished without taking into account the risk of natural hazards and their impacts. The answer was negative.
  • Disaster reduction policies and measures should enable societies to become resilient to natural hazards while ensuring that development efforts do not increase their vulnerability to these hazards.

Way back in 1972, at the UN Conference on the ‘Human Environment’ held in Stockholm, Sweden, late Ms Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, stated that without addressing the problems of poverty and deprivations, it will not be possible to establish harmony between humankind and nature.

Dr Maurice Strong, then Adviser to the UN Secretary-General also drew attention to the vicious spiral between poverty and environmental degradation. Resource-poor and landless rural women and men migrate to neighbouring urban areas in order to eke out a living and end up as ‘environmental refugees’ (Myers 2002).

  • The M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) that was set up in Chennai, India about 15 years ago, therefore, laid stress on linking the livelihood security of landless and resource-poor rural women and men with ecological security in a mutually reinforcing manner.
  • MSSRF’s research programmes are also designed to transform the ‘Green Revolution’ referred to as ‘exploitative agriculture’ (Swaminathan 1968) into an ‘Evergreen Revolution’, a term coined by Swaminathan (1996) to denote farming systems that do not cause degradation of the ecological foundation of agriculture and would, therefore, be able to enhance productivity in perpetuity.
  • The vicious spiral between environmental degradation and ever increasing frequency and intensity of hydro-meteorological disasters has received the foundation’s attention. It is now widely acknowledged that anthropogenic pressures leading to degradation of mangrove forests (FAa 2003) in the coastal regions and non-mangrove forests throughout the developing world reduce carbon dioxide absorption and generation of oxygen.
  • Soil erosion is yet another serious problem.
  • Degradation of forests directly and indirectly also enhances human vulnerability to natural disasters. The mutually reinforcing vicious linkages among environmental degradation, poverty, destruction by natural disasters and sustainable development are illustrated (figure 1).
  • The strategy to break the vicious linkages requires concurrent attention to reduction of threats to sustainable rural livelihoods, restoration, conservation and enhancement of ecosystems and arresting environmental degradation and sustainable use of natural resources.
  • The dictum, ‘good ecology is good business'(Swaminathan 1999a) should underpin all development activities.
  • Developing countries like India, must launch vigorous family planning programmes and contain the unsustainable population explosion.
  • In India, poor economic conditions and the craving to have a son account for a large number of children per couple in many households.
  • Technologically advanced countries, which also have high levels of human resource development, must not only reduce their consumption of energy from fossil fuels, but also share their technologies for ‘clean energy’ production technologies and energy-saving strategies with the developing countries.
  • The trans boundary nature of the harmful effects of climate change leaves humankind with no other option. It is equally important to integrate disaster management with policies, programme of activities and support for sustainable development.
  • The Brundtland Commission Report (1987) was titled ‘Our Common Future’ to stress that irrespective of political frontiers, the fate of humankind is ecologically intertwined.

4. Mainstreaming disaster management into sustainable development

(a) Bottom-up approach to sustainable use of natural resources

( i) Sustainable development

  • By the 1980s, humankind started facing serious ecological and social crises. The ecological problems consisted of serious damage to the basic life support systems of land, water, forests, biodiversity and atmosphere. Renewable energy sources also became a matter of great concern.
  • The social dimension of crises arose from increasing poverty and hunger, economic, social and gender inequities, rapid growth in human population resulting in reduced per capita availability of arable land and irrigation water.
  • The ‘famine of employment’ (i.e. livelihood) largely accounts for food insecurity at the individual household level, because of population explosion on the one hand, and rapid technological advances leading to automation and jobless economic growth, on the other.
  • All these factors led to MSSRF defining its research agenda in terms of sustainable development, rooted in the principles of ecology, social and gender equity, employment (particularly rural livelihood) generation and economic viability and energy efficiency (A Social Vision for Science 2000).
  • If technology was an important factor in the past in increasing economic and social disparities and causing ecological harm, the MSSRF’s approach has been to enlist appropriate blends of traditional and frontier technologies as allies in the movement for economic and ecological well being and gender equity.
  • A social contract between science and society (Swaminathan 1999b, 2000a) has been underpinning the programme of activities of the MSSRF.
  • In the field of agriculture, the MSSRF’s goal is to spread an Evergreen Revolution (Swaminathan 2000b). Wilson (2002) in his analytical book ‘Future of life’ refers to the significance of Swaminathan’s concept of Evergreen Revolution in the following words: 

The problem before us is how to feed billions of new mouths over the next several decades and save the rest of life at the same time, without being trapped in a Faustian bargain that threatens freedom and security. No one knows the exact solution to this dilemma. The benefit must come from an Evergreen Revolution’.

Sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland Commission (1987) is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

  • It is clear then that sustainable development that takes the impact of human activities on the environment into account and tries to minimize environmental damage is the key to poverty reduction, ecological security and mitigation and management of weather- and water-related natural disasters.
  • The programme of research and development initiatives of the MSSRF provides replicable models for realizing sustainable development (Swaminathan 2005a).
  • Focusing on the resource-poor and landless communities in the rural, and particularly in the coastal, regions is urgent, imperative for reasons of population density, work and income security, rapidly declining natural resources and high level of vulnerability to natural disasters.
  • The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve in the State of Tamil Nadu, India, is an example of a precious biological heritage affected by the vicious spiral of poverty, degradation of natural resources, and natural disasters (M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation, 1998).
  • Their marine and adjacent land resources and biodiversity have started to decline rapidly because of a combination of anthropogenic pressure, pollution and hydro-meteorological disasters.
  • Consequently, sea cows (dugong) and several kinds of marine organisms notably disappeared and these necessitated the MSSRF to initiate appropriate remedial action (Twelfth Annual Report 2001-2002, of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation). This action is described below.

4. Mainstreaming disaster management into sustainable development

(ii) Operationalizing sustainable development

  • With a firm conviction that the vicious spiral of poverty and environmental degradation could be broken by technological and knowledge empowerment of the illiterate, unskilled and resource-poor rural women and men, the MSSRF initiated in 1998 a programme for fostering sustainable livelihoods in the Gulf of Mannar area with support from the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Development Programme.
  • Earlier, similar work had been initiated in about 20 villages in Pondicherry and a great deal of experience had been gained. The thrust in these projects is the blending offrontier technologies with traditional knowledge in order to provide a pro-nature, pro-poor, pro-women and pre-employment orientation to technology development and dissemination.
  • The resultant technologies, known as ‘ecotechnologies’ are readily adopted by rural families, because of their economic and ecological advantages. Local natural resources are sustainably managed.
  • The question of whether the largely illiterate and semi-literate rural women and men could develop knowledge and skills and become capable of handling eco-enterprises had already been answered in the 1970s.
  • Swaminathan (1972) had coined the term ‘techniracy’ to describe the pedagogic methodology of ‘learning by doing’.
  • When learning is through work experience, the poor are able to master new technologies within a short span of time.
  • Groups of women and men separately or jointly organize themselves into self-help groups (SHGs) and undergo training and capacity building in one or more ecotechnologies based on the resources available in the region.
  • Whole villages are organized into bio villages, where concurrent attention is paid to the conservation and enhancement of natural resources and to on-farm, non-farm and off-farm livelihood opportunities.
  • In biovillages, the extreme poor (i.e. those earning one US dollar or less per day) are enabled to take to multiple enterprises based on market demand so that the total income of the family is raised to an adequate level. The biovillage paradigm, designed to foster sustainable and equitable rural development and job-led economic growth (Swaminathan 2005a), is represented in figure 2.
  • Location of biovillages in three states of India, numbering 100 at present, is shown in figure 3.
  • In order to build the capacity of rural families to manage the various enterprises on their own, Biocentres are established as integral part of the biovillages.
  • The organization and functions of the Biocentre are presented in figure 4.
  • The eco-enterprises shown in figure 4 are just illustrative and not exhaustive. The aim is to provide key centralized services to promote economically viable, decentralized production, thereby combining the benefits of ‘mass production’ and ‘production by masses’ approaches to economic activity.
  • Demystification of technologies, especially relevant to sustainable rural development, training and capacity building of the rural communities, provision of microcredit for the microenterprises and establishing market linkages, are all integral components of a biovillage paradigm.
  • The five Es of ecotechnology in the biovillage paradigm are economics, ecology, equity (gender and social), energy and employment. Without job-led economic growth, the poor and the marginalized people will not be able to come out of the poverty trap.
  • Renewable energy is essential, particularly in the context of an ever increasing price of petroleum-based fuels.
  • Further, the sustainability factor would not be firmly anchored unless social and gender equities are mainstreamed into all the development activities. The actions to be taken today for sustainable development, keeping in view the need to manage climate change, are outlined by Swaminathan (2002) . The coastal communities can access both the land and marine resources for developing ecotechnologies and eco-enterprises. The coastal biovillage paradigm, therefore, takes into its account both the marine- and the land-based natural resources for developing eco-enterprises, as well as training and capacity building of the local communities.
  • The MSSRF has prepared a toolkit describing the various ecotechnologies and how to develop these. Wherever feasible,’aquaculture estates’ are also developed. Individual fishermen can bring the catch of the day to these estates, which are equipped to process and market the fish, crabs, prawns, etc.
  • While individual fishermen may not have time and resources to process and market their commodities, the centralized aquaculture estates are designed for this purpose. The power of scale is thus provided to the resource-poor fisher communities.
  • A ‘fish for all’ movement was also launched in 2003 jointly with World Fish Centre in Penang in order to ensure integrated attention to all steps in the capture to consumption chain.

Marine- and land-based natural resources in the coastal areas for developing on-farm and non-farm enterprises are wide ranging. For example, the brackish water area, especially mud flats and saline-affected areas, largely remain barren or with limited biological productivity due to low soil organic content, low level of nutrients and hypersaline conditions for most part of the year. In the estuaries, mangroves provide detritus that nourish crabs, prawns and fish (Mumby et al.2004).

  • Developing an enterprise of mud crab fattening is pro-nature, pro-poor, pro-women and pro-livelihood oriented (figure 5a).
  • Organic shrimp aquaculture is another community-centred eco-enterprise. Culturing ornamental fish is very remunerative since it has an export market and landless women are given training and initial resources to take it up.
  • Fish pickle is also a very promising enterprise. Since many of the coastal villages do not have cold storage, the fisherwomen are forced to sell the fish catch of the day to the middlemen at low prices.
  • Introduction of fish pickle technology has resulted not only in value-addition but also in reducing the involvement of middlemen and others who exploit the fishers. Pearl culture is yet another market-driven enterprise.
  • In the Gulf of Mannar area, the MSSRF introduced local communities to the science and art of artificial coral reefs. This has helped to revive fisheries in small areas.
  • Coral reefs are an important ecosystem, both in terms of biodiversity and for the invaluable goods and services they provide to millions of coastal dwellers at tropical latitudes (Moberg & Folke 1999).
  • Paddy is a major agricultural crop in the eastern coastal areas of India. The landless women are trained to use the paddy straw as a substrate to culture oyster mushrooms (figure 5b).
  • Making paper and boards from banana waste is yet another pro-nature, pro-women and pro-poor enterprise.
  • The new paradigm of Evergreen Revolution envisages agriculture to be more biology- than chemistry-based.
  • What this means is that biofertilizers andbiopesticides would replace the chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides, respectively.
  • SHGs of women are trained to produce vermicompost/worm compost (i.e. the process of using earthworms to digest kitchen and garden waste to create a faster than normal composting; earthworm castings contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus and 11 times more potassium to enrich the soil (figure 5 c) and biofertilizers and biopesticides such as the Trichogramma egg parasitoid (figure 5d). It must be emphasized that demystification of science and successful standardization of the laboratory-based technologies into ecotechnologies leads to the shifting of assetless families from unskilled to skilled work, thereby adding economic value to their time and labour.
  • The experience with biovillage paradigm shows that people-centric sustainable management of local land, forest and marine resources establishes mutually reinforcing linkages between development and environment. The environmental degradation ascribable to anthropogenic pressures is greatly minimized. As of now, there are 100 biovillages located in Tamil Nadu, Orissa and the union territory of Pondicherry (figure 3).

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