K.G. Kumar

IT appears that God's Own Country is trying to be a bit more heavenly. As it seeks to constantly reinvent itself in the highly competitive world of global travel and tourism, Kerala is looking for new territory - this time, of a frothy nature.

With beach-based recreational tourism - specifically, surfing and wave riding - already a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide, Kerala is looking seawards to attract scores of sun worshippers to its shores.

Last week, Kerala Tourism was reported to be toying with a Rs 4.05-crore project to build a pilot multi-purpose submerged artificial reef that can alter the nature of waves off the famed Eve's Beach in Kovalam, near Thiruvananthapuram. The ultimate goal is to make the beach resort India's numero uno surfing destination.

At present, the beach exists for only six months of the year. The rest of the year, during the rainy six-month monsoon period, erosion eats away the beach, leaving little left even for the traditional fishermen to launch their craft.

The proposed artificial reef is expected to stabilise the beach and even generate a wider beach. Traditional fishing activities can then be extended for the benefit of both fishermen and tourists.

The Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment will fund the model studies and design, estimated to cost Rs 20 lakh. Kerala Tourism, the Centre for Earth Science Studies and the Department of Harbour Engineering will be the implementing agencies for the project.

According to a report in The Hindu, the 500-metre-long reef, to be made out of giant non-woven geotextile bags filled with sand, will remain submerged, with its crest remaining just below the low-tide level. To be placed 200 metres away from the beach on the seabed at a depth of 3-7 metres, it will block all waves higher than one metre, allowing only small waves to wash ashore.

The offshore technology has reportedly been found successful in Australia, Indonesia, the US, the UK and New Zealand. The technology is said to be best suited for sandy beaches, where the tidal range is less than three metres. The Kerala coast has a tidal range of around one metre.

While these conditions may appear objectively ideal for such a venture, Kerala needs to proceed with the utmost caution. Past experience has shown that, more often than not, tampering with nature can lead to disastrous results.

True, in the past, traditional fishermen have experimented with artificial reefs, not far from Kovalam - with remarkable success. But those were minor interventions featuring small reefs built of concrete blocks and discarded tyres, and meant to aggregate shoals of fish. Kerala Tourism's proposed project is nothing short of a major geophysical intervention, specifically designed to alter existing natural phenomena.

As the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami revealed, nature's fury can be lethally disastrous when time-tested conditions are tampered with. The destruction of mangroves for tourism and real estate projects in several parts of Asia magnified the damage to life and property caused by the killer waves. In contrast, where mangrove forests did exist, as in parts of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Malaysia, the damage was relatively less.

More recently, according to research just published in the international science magazine Current Biology, human damage to the coral reefs off Sumatra in Indonesia was found to be more destructive than the damage caused by the devastating tsunami.

Dr Andrew Baird of the James Cook University (JCU) in Queensland, Australia, said that he and his fellow researchers had reached this surprising conclusion after extensive research on the coral reefs closest to the epicentre of the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake that caused the tsunami.

While human technological control and mastery over nature has been the driving force behind the world's material progress, evidently, a cautious and precautionary approach is called for.

In the specific case of the proposed artificial reef project in Kerala, even greater caution needs to be exercised since it is likely to affect hundreds of fishermen and coastal communities. They are already among Kerala's most marginalized and underprivileged sections.

Any project designed to alter their environment and the source of their livelihood and working lives should necessarily be discussed with them and their organisations.

The writer can be contacted at kgkumar@gmail.com

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 14, 2005)
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