World Oceans Day is observed on June 8. Environmentalist Paul Calvert and social scientist John Kurien express their concerns about the pollution of the seas and the water table

As World Oceans Day is observed on Friday with programmes and seminars, city-based environmentalist Paul Calvert, founder of Ecosan Solutions, strikes a note of warning. He says that the water in our seas is getting polluted with waste and plastics as the garbage issue in the capital city continues to fester with no solution in sight.

“I go snorkelling regularly in the coastal waters off Vizhinjam and Kovalam and, once upon a time, it used to be a memorable experience. I have swum with shoals of fish, a giant old turtle, cuttlefish, and so on. But now it is a distressing sight to see plastic littering the ocean bed,” he says.

He adds: “I can reliably report, having snorkelled on these reefs for many years that this influx of plastic bags coincided with disruptions of garbage collection. Huge amounts of rubbish have been thrown into the sea and the backwaters.”

Paul says this is bound to have a degenerative effect on the delicate ecology of the coastal waters. Although Paul has been fighting a long and, sometimes, lonely battle, against water pollution, he feels that residents are still not aware how easily the ground water and the sea get polluted on account of dumping of waste and poor or careless sanitation habits along the coasts in Kerala.

High water table

“The primary reason is the high water table in the coastal areas. It gets contaminated easily due to open toilets and poor sanitation all along the coast. Although I developed and built an ecological toilet and waste water system, no one seems to be keen on implementing it, though it minimises the need for water and does not flush human waste into the water system,” explains Paul.

Pointing to an illustrated book that explains his invention and its working instructions in Malayalam, he says he is disappointed by the response to the venture in Kerala while neighbouring Tamil Nadu has welcomed it in places like Tuticorin. His firm also set up 100 such toilets in Bihar. Although some residents in places like Pulluvilla did set up the eco-san toilets designed by Paul, the comparative costs between an eco-san toilet and a septic tank dissuaded many from opting for the former.

“If the government stepped in with a subsidy or a grant more people in coastal areas would have adopted the ecological toilet. I have one in my apartment at Vallakadavu and it works perfectly well,” says Paul.

Although the engineer from the United Kingdom reached Kerala to build boats for fishermen, he turned his attention to ‘ecological sanitation' when he realised the extent of pollution of ground water due to seepage of sewage and other human waste. But, as yet another day dedicated to the oceans passes, Paul feels that if there is more awareness about the extent of the pollution, then more residents would have reacted positively to check the pollution.

Sea of woes

Social scientist and FAO adviser on fisheries management John Kurien says a big threat to the near-shore part of the ocean is the terrestrial pollution that flows into it relentlessly every day. Household waste, sewage, industrial effluents, residues of pesticides... everything eventually finds its way into the ocean.

Unless this is stopped or reduced in some way, we are endangering the ocean, the earth's womb where life began! “It is the first 50 metres of the ocean's depth that supports the richest variety of species and life. If we were to draw a contour line connecting such places on the globe, we will find that it is five to six per cent of the ocean that supports 50 to 60 per cent of the living resources. It is this ecologically sensitive area of the ocean that gets affected by our activities,” explains Kurien.

Pollution results in biological fish kills that has become a common phenomenon in Kerala. Another threat, he says, is the use of inappropriate technology that leads to overfishing and dwindling of certain species of fish. Touching upon the developments and economic pressures that led to its large-scale use, he says that incessant bottom trawling is one of the main reasons for overfishing in tropical waters. “Unlike the temperate waters where fewer species of fish exist in large quantities that may not always be linked to each other in intricate food chains, the tropical waters support several species of life that are connected to each other through the food chain and other complex ways. Moreover, the fish varieties are affected by the seasons. During bottom trawling, huge quantities of fish of different kinds are netted in tropical waters. They could be in different stages of their life cycle and that is why certain kinds of fish that are the favourites of Malayalis are dwindling in numbers,” says Kurien.

Traditional fishing methods, he says, were more in accordance with the rhythms of the seas and the seasons. There were different kinds of nets and different methods of fishing to catch certain kinds of fish. So, there was no pressure on life in the oceans. But economic necessities and demands of a hungry market have motivated many to go in for methods like bottom trawling, which is unsuitable for tropical waters.