Saturday 25 March 2017 News Updated at 01:03 PM IST
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The need to protect shared ecosystems - Deccan Herald
The need to protect shared ecosystems
Raakhee Suryaprakash, March 14, 2017
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Vital spaces: If maintained well, coastal areas have the potential to sustain vital ecosystems.

The economic theory, Tragedy of the Commons, is brilliantly shown in the music video Chennai Poromboke Paadal by Carnatic musician T M Krishna. Shot in the Ennore creek, the music video discusses the usurping of our commons in the name of progress.

It even points out that the increased damages from floods and other natural disasters are a result of, what the definition of the theory describes as, "individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action.”

But we seem to be doomed to repeat the vicious cycle of unsustainable development. A recent example of the exploitation that the commons are facing is the hydrocarbons project in Neduvasal, Tamil Nadu. What was opposed unanimously by the Tamil Nadu assembly in 2015 as a Shale gas project seems to have been repackaged as a hydrocarbons project and reinstated by the Centre for Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited’s gas exploration and extraction. Why explore such fuel sources when methane has a devastating greenhouse effect?

Poor management
As though to reinforce the disasters we are skirting, on January 28, there was an oil spill resulting from the collision of two tankers off the Kamarajar Port, Chennai. The oil has washed ashore onto beaches more than 40 km in the south but that is insignificant compared to the devastation in the northern coastline, where the accident took place. While it was a lucky break when only a few tonnes had spilled, it would have been a death blow to the coast if all the 45,000 tonnes of petroleum products aboard the ship had spilled.

This happened off the same Kamarajar Port that has designs on 1,000 acres of Ennore creek - a vital brackish water wetlands complex of mangroves, salt pans, tidal mudflats and flowing water. The actual physical clean-up was done with buckets by a group of volunteers from North Chennai. The oil extracted was treated by bioremediation process and the treated waste was stored in landfills. Clean-up bio-mimicking robots such as the Row-bot designed by Jonathan Rossiter could have been used and ensured that there was minimal human exposure to toxic oils.

We are staring at a drought in the face as waterbodies continue to be usurped. We were attacked by floods and a cyclone, yet continue with ecologically damaging, unsustainable practices. Wetlands, waterbodies, flood plains and mangroves have the ability to protect areas from flooding, cyclonic storm surges, and even tsunami. Yet, they are continuously endangered.

It’s not that eco-friendly options aren’t there or easily and cost-effectively available. It’s just that the "individual users who are acting independently” have no interest in opting for the sustainable development pathway. According to environmentalist Vandana Shiva, many so-called 'waste lands’ or commons in Odisha and Karnataka have been leased out to private companies to generate income and have been exploited.

Converting 'waste land commons’ to plantations for a paper mill is another common practice in waste land management boards in the southern states. However, it must be remembered that these lands were classified as waste lands by a colonial government because they didn’t generate revenue. In such cases, decentralised solutions could be the answer. For instance, rooftop solar and wind energy generating systems are being improved upon.

Marshes, wetlands, scrubs forests, grasslands and flood plains are vital to the health of the ecology and ecosystem of a region. Again, there are many instances of converting lagoons and coastal mangroves into commercial shrimp and fish farms. Many ecosystems along Karnataka’s coast have been affected by this. It’s another kind of monoculture that destroys the marine ecosystem already imperiled by unsustainable, non-traditional fishing practices, eutrophication, and industrial and shipping lane pollution.

Exploitation of the commons

Karnataka has 270 km of coastline, 4.04 lakh hectares of saline and alkaline lands and 67.18 lakh hectares of land eroded by water. But these areas have the potential to sustain vital ecosystems if maintained well, instead of being commercially exploited. But the most common and devastating exploitation of the commons in water-scarce and drought-prone states like Karnataka is the conversion of waterbodies into real estate. Lakes and marshes that have dried up have been sold to real estate companies for 'development’. In spite of the flooding in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry in December 2015 being attributed in large part to the diminished absorption capacity of wetlands and connected waterbodies, the hunger of real estate remains undiminished.

It is essential that the commons are cared for to ensure the prosperity of the community and environment. If not for reducing the environmental damage, we need to do it for at least ourselves. This is a vital commitment that can help ensure a safer planet for tomorrow.