How Cyclone Ockhi and Kerala floods inspired new plans for ocean waste management

Whether people dump plastic in the beach, into the sea directly, or in water bodies inland, this waste ultimately makes its way to the sea itself,” says an activist.
How Cyclone Ockhi and Kerala floods inspired new plans for ocean waste management
How Cyclone Ockhi and Kerala floods inspired new plans for ocean waste management
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Public streets lined with piled-up trash, both bio-degradable and non-degradable, in Chengannur, Idukki, Karimban, Vazhathope, Aluva and others towns. Bridges over Muvattupuzha, Malayattoor and other rivers literally carpeted with tonnes of plastic bottles, plastic bags, diapers and other medical and hospital waste. Plastic choking Vembanad Lake, threatening its delicate ecological balance. These are just some of the realities that greeted residents of flood-affected regions in Kerala as they returned to their homes and hometowns, in addition to finding plastic bags and other waste washed up right onto their doorsteps, with still more festooning trees and poles. 

This isn’t a problem whose effects can be contained on land: as Trivandrum based NGO Friends of Marine Life founder Robert Panapilli points out, “Whether people dump plastic in the beach, into the sea directly, or in water bodies inland, this waste ultimately makes its way to the sea itself.” 

But if all goes to plan, in three years, the 6-kilometre coast of Vadakara is set to become a zero-waste seabed and coast, and a proposal is being prepared to implement a similar program through-out the state. 

Robert points out the particular danger Kerala’s coast and ocean bed faces in the aftermath of the floods in the face of the amount of waste thrown up from the rivers, and says that as of now, there’s no government project working in managing plastic waste dumping in the ocean, except one project in Nindakkara where fishermen are encouraged to bring back plastic packets they use to carry food on long fishing expeditions back to the shore for disposal instead of dumping them into the sea. However, Robert hopes that the government will begin to take notice of this issue after the recent natural disasters in Kerala, and told TNM some details about the pioneering project underway in Vadakara.

This project, which is proposed to be conducted as a joint venture between the Vadakara municipal corporation and Friends of Marine Life, was first discussed after the effects of another recent natural disaster: Cyclone Ockhi. The recent Kerala floods have only inspired officials in Vadakara to pick up the pace on their pioneering planned project for a zero-waste coast and seabed, and will hopefully serve as an inspiration for other coastal areas in the state.  

Mapping the sea bed

This project will be conducted in three stages in Vadakara. In the first stage, they plan to carry out a thorough mapping and video recording of the sea beds to a distance of up to four nautical miles to identify eco-sensitive regions. Manavil Mohanan of the Vadakara Municipal Corporation says that such a study will help identify both areas particularly rich in various kinds of marine life, and areas where waste and other materials tend to get trapped. 

Bini, Municipal Secretary of Vadakara, says that this stage of the project will also involve local indigenous knowledge holders, or fishermen familiar with the area. “Indigenous fisherman, who go to the sea for months and days, know the rocks and geography of the region, particular areas rich in say, mussels, and other local knowledge better than anyone. So we want to involve them as well.” Based on these studies, they plan to prepare a biodiversity register and detailed seabed map of the area. 

Ocean Literacy to address the problem

After preparing this seabed map and biodiversity register, they aim to begin an ocean literacy program with the help of “blue volunteers”, which will comprise of students from coastal areas, indigenous local knowledge holders and environmental organisations working in the area. These blue volunteers will impart lessons on ocean literacy to students and locals, and, Robert says, also do a survey on how plastic ends up in the sea. Bini points out, “Simply collecting waste that has been dumped doesn't solve the problem. Ocean literacy starting at the school level is necessary to address the problem.”

Finally, Robert says, “These findings will be shared with the corporation authorities, and based on this they will make new regulations. In the third phase of the project, with the support of the corporation, we will try to implement these plans to make Vadakara a zero-waste coast and seabed by the third year of the commencement of the project.” 

Robert says that while this project is already set to commence in Vadakara with the cooperation of local authorities, Friends of Marine Life is planning to submit a proposal to the Government of Kerala under its new Haritha Kerala, or Green Kerala, scheme as part of the rebuilding projects post the recent floods. 

Individuals working in the field say that the floods have opened the eyes of both the government and the public to the magnitude of the plastic waste disposal problem, and particularly that of dumping plastic waste in water bodies, in Kerala. Sachin, who works with the Clean Fort Kochi Foundation, an NGO, says, “People are concerned now because the floods hit them where it hurts and dumped the hidden waste right at their doorsteps. So now there’s a mentality shift, but facility provision has to catch up.” 

Hopefully, the recent natural disasters and the rebuilding activities being carried out in their aftermath will be cognisant of the urgency and magnitude of the work required to be done in terms of managing waste dumping in oceans and water bodies, and take the opportunity to implement pioneering projects like that planned in Vadakara in other coastal areas in Kerala, to truly make Kerala a zero-waste seabed and coast.

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