That the sea starts in the mountains is a familiar adage in many coastal communities. This proverb is widely prevalent along coasts where rivers empty their fresh water and nutrient rich sediment into the sea. Therefore, the state of mountains with its forests and grasslands, rivers, riverbeds, flood plains, ponds, lakes, backwaters and ground water are of critical significance to the ecosystem in coastal zones and communities, particularly fisherfolk.

India’s water policy makers do not adequately appreciate the coastal community’s awareness regarding the link between coastal ecosystems and their livelihoods and the quality of the stock and flow of water from land. For them, water policy starts from mountain ecosystems but stops at the coast. But this is a landscape perspective. The integral connection between water from land and water in the sea seems lost on them. India’s current water policy is grossly incomplete without a seascape perspective.

The current National Water Policy (2012) exhibits no insight into this linkage. The new draft National Water Framework Law, 2016, however comes a bit closer to articulating this sentiment. Its preamble states:

“…water in all its forms and scales constitutes a hydrological unity, so that human interventions in any one form or scale are likely to have effects on others; water is a finite substance in nature, circulating through the hydrological cycle for millennia; ground water and surface water interact throughout all landscapes from the mountains to the oceans…”

Seascape and coastal zone

The total ocean area of our country – its Exclusive Economic Zone – extends over 2 million sq km. That is about two-thirds of India’s land area. The water in the whole Exclusive Economic Zone, and indeed the whole global oceans, has a bearing on water on land through the planet’s hydrological cycle. But our immediate concern here lies with water closest to the coastline and extending to a depth of 50 meters into the sea – the aquatic part of our coastal zone.

The coastal zone is the fuzzy interface between sea and land, where fresh water meets its saline counterpart, creating an ecosystem with the highest primary productivity on the planet. Being at the tail-end of the terrestrial landscape, it is also the final recipient of all the “good” and “bad” that runs off from the mainland. The coastal zone has a high ground water table with potable fresh water floating as a thin layer over sea water. In most countries, including India, the coastal zone also has the highest human population density. Several of the world’s mega urban centres are situated on this zone.

Landscape activities that hurt the seascape

Keeping in mind three concepts enunciated in the National Water Framework Law – aviral dhara or continuous flow, nirmal dhara or unpolluted flow and swachh kinara or clean banks – we may consider three of the numerous terrestrial activities undertaken between the mountains and the sea that affect water flows and sediment stocks, resulting in grave damage to coastal zone ecology and people. These activities are: dams, river sand mining and pollution of rivers.

Dams affect the natural flow of rivers by reducing the quantum and speed of the flow of water. While dams serve the purpose of irrigation and electricity generation, they also greatly impede the flow of water, nutrients and sediment – particularly in the form of sand – from reaching the sea. The long-term effect of reduced fresh water flow into the sea also increases its salinity levels with a possible impact on climate patterns.

Over time, the cumulative effect of numerous large dams can seriously hurt the productivity of the sea by starving it of vital nutrients, thus affecting marine life. But there are other equally untoward consequences. For instance, the quantity of the sediment flow into coastal waters is reduced and its quality also changes. This upsets the natural balance of littoral sand transportation along the shore and contributes significantly to coastal erosion, which has harmful effects on the occupations and homes of fishing communities. These twin adverse effects are now starkly felt in many of our western coastal states, where most of the rivers flow from the Western Ghats into the Arabian Sea and have been dammed for over three to four decades.

River sand mining is another activity with far reaching impacts on coastal zone shorelines adjacent to river deltas. The erosion of the coastline is caused because of complex interactions between river flow, waves and the tides. Excessive mining of river sand creates hungry water – water without sediments and nutrients – further exacerbating the productivity loss of coastal waters.

Pollution from rivers and their banks is the most well-known and visible negative effect of terrestrial activities that despoil the coastal zone. From the landscape perspective, the coastal zone is at the tail-end of the ecosystem. As a result, all the run-off from fertilisers and pesticides used in agriculture, industrial effluents and urban sewage waste ultimately find their way to the coastal waters. Industries along the coast make substantial demands on fresh water too, and send chemical and thermal pollution directly to the coastal waters. The pollution load often affects the quality of coastal ground water. It also ruins the productivity of coastal vegetation such as mangroves. Runoffs of the chemical inputs into agriculture cause harmful algal blooms known as red tides in the coastal sea. Discarded plastics sink to the bottom of the sea and destroy coastal reefs, and are also ingested by fish. Waves and tides wash plastic garbage back onto beaches spoiling their aesthetic beauty and hurting economic activities such as tourism. Coastal ecosystems and the people living on the coast thus bear all these negative effects of land-based water pollution.

The sediment cell concept

For the landscape perspective to be properly merged with the coastal seascape perspective in India’s water policy, new concepts need to be developed along the lines of the country’s primary watershed and aggregated integrated river basins concept.

One concept gaining acceptance in India that represents the aquatic realm of the coastal zone in a similar manner is the “sediment cell”. The word “sediment” here refers to a range of material – from fine particles of silt and clay to coarse gravel – but the main constituent is sand.

The sediment cell, as defined by the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, is a stretch of the aquatic realm of the coastal zone between boundaries, which partly or wholly contain sand movement. The Centre contends that within sediment cell boundaries, coastal processes act as a coherent, integrated system. It is a self-contained unit. Any development within its boundaries will have minimal impact on areas outside them. The boundaries of a sediment cell are often delineated and hugely impacted by rivers flowing out into the sea. There are large primary sediment cells that can then be disaggregated into smaller secondary cells.

In a fluid coastal sea, the sediment cell concept may appear rather static. However, it is a helpful beginning for integrating the landscape and seascape perspectives.

In the coastal zone seascape, the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management has mapped 27 primary cells composed of 59 secondary cells along the coastline of India’s mainland. This compares with the landscape mapping of 35 integrated river basins disaggregated into 112 catchments and 3,257 watersheds.

A holistic water policy

A wise water policy for India requires the merger of a coastal seascape perspective and a landscape perspective. The integrated river basin concept attempts to make the landscape perspective more holistic. To this, we need to add concepts that connect the dynamics of the coastal seascape to stocks and flow of water from the landscape. This will be an important starting point to fashion a water policy that will adequately cover the concerns of coastal ecology, the sustainable livelihoods of coastal communities and the future of other coastal zone populations.

Only when we plan for the sediment cell concept and the integrated river basin concept in unison, will “the sea starts in the mountains” adage turn into an actionable reality. This is one way forward to make India’s water policy more inclusive and scientifically rigorous.

John Kurien is visiting professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Nandakumar D is retired professor of geography, University of Kerala, and currently senior advisor, environment and climate change, InterCooperation Social Development, India.