Tag Archives: John Jacob Puthur

Erosion of Puducherry-Villupuram Coastline: Why a ‘Hard’ Solution for a ‘Soft’ Problem?

Excerpts from a letter to Pondy Citizens’ Action Network (with copies to relevant Central, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu government officials) by Commander John Jacob Puthur, Charge Hydrographer, FIS, FCA, FGS, Indian Navy (Retired), dated 10 February 2009, in which he:

Questions the “authorities” on the reasons for taking ‘hard’ solutions to tackle coastal erosion:

Apparently, your long struggle to put in place an eco-friendly ‘soft’ solution to tackle coastal erosion seems to have had little impact on those in authority. The experts and those in authority seem determined for a ‘hard’ solution in the guise of a groyne-field. What exactly is their motivation to construct the groyne-field? Is it that they have failed to see the truth or they simply don’t want to see the truth?

It’s obvious that the people concerned are not ignorant, so there is hardly a need to explain the matters afresh. Nevertheless, I shall explain Puducherry’s coastal erosion problem as briefly as possible, in an everyday language. You may find that useful to make things clear to the common citizens likely to be affected—the non-specialist stakeholders…

So what is this truth about coastal erosion affecting the Puducherry-Villupuram Coast? And how can we get the experts to see that, and so get them to adopt the correct approach to tackle the problem of coastal erosion?

There is an old Chinese saying though—”You cannot wake up a man who is only pretending to sleep.” Therefore, getting them to see the truth, when they are pretending to not to see it, is definitely going to be a difficult affair. That does not mean that you must give up easily.

Explains the problems of coastal erosion in layperson’s terms:

Let see what this truth they are refusing to see. First let us be clear—erosion is not natural to the coast, any coast. If it was natural such a coast would never exist. However, the movement of sediments, sand, along the coast, along most coasts, particularly along the East Coast of India, is natural. The Puducherry-Villupuram Coast forms a tiny segment of this long East Coast of India. Sand moves along this coast from south to north during the Southwest Monsoon—from April to September. Then during the Northeast Monsoon—from October to February—the sand movement is reversed, and it moves from north to south.

What causes the sand to move along the coast? Even this has been established to certainty. The waves crashing on the coast at steep angle pushes the sand along the length of the coast. During the Southwest Monsoon, the waves meet the coast at a sharp angle from the south; hence the sand is pushed along from south to north. The wave direction almost reverses during the Northeast Monsoon, with the waves meeting the coast at a steep angle from the north, consequently, the sand moves from north to south. Millions of tons of sand are thus moved either way, every year.

The wave action during the Southwest Monsoon is more intense and lasts much longer than that during the Northeast Monsoon. Therefore, the amount to sand moved from south to north is much more. So we can say, annually there is a net movement of sand from south to north. You don’t need to be an expert to understand this. It is not easy to physically observe this movement of sand taking place on a normal shoreline. This movement of sand however becomes apparent when someone manages to interrupt the movement.

What happens when this movement of sand along the coast is interrupted? Before I attempt to answer that let me share with you what can cause such an interruption. The sandy coast is ‘soft’ and so highly dynamic—prone to movement. Anything ‘hard’ erected on this ‘soft’ coast will interrupt the movement of sand—jetty, wharf, pier, breakwater, seawall, groyne, groyne field, and even large ship beached (sometimes they use beached ship as a breakwater, for example, at Vishakhapatanam). When any such a ‘hard’ structure comes up on the coast, sand begins to accumulate on its upstream, which in the case of our coast will be to the south of the structure. This then would result starvation of sand downstream of the structure, that is, north of the structure, along this coast. To make good this starvation of sand for onward movement along the coast, the waves, which continue to the lash the coast, begin to erode the coast. The process of coastal erosion is as simple as that.

Gives the history of the recognition of the issue of coastal erosion on the East coast of India:

This truth became known for the first time along the East Coast at Chennai, some two hundred odd years ago. A small wharf was built on the coast, off the Fort St. George, probably to receive the Governor General’s Yacht. Soon the sand began to accumulate on the southern side of this wharf—the birth of the now famous Marina Beach. At the same time, on its northern side, the coast began to erode. In a few years time, the eroded stretch became an indentation on the coast, which was otherwise straight as an arrow for miles and miles. This shoreline indentation went on to become the Major Port of Chennai. Nevertheless, the accumulation of sand to the south still continues. The Marina Beach getting wider every day. Just as the accumulation of sand on the south of Chennai Port is continuous, so is the erosion to the north. And so, beyond Chennai Port, yet another indentation began to form, which in due course became the Fisheries Harbour, hoping it will bring to an end the erosion. Erosion hasn’t yet stopped. The erosion continues northward, taking away precious coastal landscape. Who is going to pay for this environmental disaster? Is anybody doing anything about it? That is not the only example of coastal erosion due to ‘hard’ structures on the coast.

Gives other examples of erosion along the Eastern coastline:

The Ennore Port has repeated the same story. The coast north of Ennore Port is now steadily eroding. Kakinada is yet another example, where to the north of Port, nearly two kilometres of the shoreline has already been lost due to erosion. Vishakhapatanam Port is the next example, where erosion to the north of the port is to some extent controlled by a ‘soft’ solution—sand-bypassing. I understand that it is the Vishakhapatanam Port that is footing the bill. So we may look at this as precedence in your favour. Further north, the Paradip Port is causing relentless erosion north of it. More new ports fast coming up along this coast will only compound the problem. As yet no one has arrived at a port design that wouldn’t cause erosion. The experts in question must surely be acquainted with these examples of coastal erosion.

Gives the history of erosion along the Pondicherry coast:

Erosion along the Pondicherry coast began long ago, when the first pier was constructed. And when that pier was wrecked in a cyclone, a new one was built. So the erosion northward continued. Then the Pudhucherry Port was created further south. After the creation of the port, it became the main cause for the disruption of sand movement from south to north. The New Pier ceased to be the culprit any longer. In case of erosion, the culprit is easily caught. Wherever the sand is accumulating is the give away of the obstructing structure. We can now see sand accumulating south of the new port.
The sandy coast along the Beach Road gave way to an ugly seawall. (Then someone decided to drape the seawall with sand. That doesn’t make the coast any soft.) Despite this seawall, the erosion continued unabated further northward—north of hardened shoreline.

Tells us why groynes are not the solution:

A groyne or groyne field is not going be anything different, but only serve to harden up yet another section of the shoreline. So the erosion will spread further northward. There will be no end, until it reaches the next river mouth on the coast—the Palar River. Are we to go on building groyne-fields or seawalls all the way north, perhaps up to the mouth of Palar River? Is that the eventual solution that the experts are contemplating?

Questions “pliable” experts and vested interests:

Why are the experts not looking at the more eco-friendly ‘soft’ solution, but insisting on a ‘hard’ solution—the groyne-field? The case seems to be more a matter of self-interest, and of questionable integrity, at least, for some parties involved in the project process. Who are these individuals with vested interest in a groyne-field? The answer will become clear if you look at what goes into the construction of a groyne field. There is no complicated technology, specialised equipment, or even technical expertise involved in the construction of a groyne or groyne-field. All that you need is a huge quantity of rocks and boulders. Therefore a rock quarry must be involved. So the quarry owner(s) will be interested. Then, to transport the rocks and boulders from the quarry to the coast a large number of tipper-trucks will be needed. So the owners of the tipper-trucks will also have a serious stake in the project. Then of course, a large workforce of unskilled labour; at the quarry, in loading up, in transporting, and also at the work-site on the coast. Such a workforce is often resourced through powerful labour contractors—the vote-bank managers. These three vested interests are moneyed, and politically powerful; in fact, some of them may themselves be calling the shot seated on the seats of power. They have thus huge ‘illicit’ power and material resources even to engineer experts’ opinions. Without the help pliable experts it is hardly possible to get such projects through on file.

Don’t expect these arguments will in some way convince the already blinded Experts and the authorities led by them. The nexus of quarry owners, transporters and labour contractors simply cannot be wished away. A social action approach could do the trick, but it may not be easy task to convince the local fishing community, who may want a groyne-field to protect their own stretch of coast, unmindful of what may happen to the people further north, or even if the beauty of the coastal landscape is marred forever. These simple coastal folks mistakenly think that seawall or groyne, made of huge rock as and boulders, works just like a fortress wall on land. Getting them to see a seawall or a groyne as something potentially destructive, unlike a protective fortress wall on land, may not be easy.

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