Oceans, caught between devil and the deep blue sea… (Pun intended!) – V

Human Settlements since long in the history got shaped by water resources.  Water resources can be in the form of rivers or oceans. The habitats around rivers saw the development of societies, culture, and farming for food.  This growth also helped people to reduce their dependence on hunter-gathering. Water was essential for many reasons. People needed fresh drinking water to live. Whereas settlements around seas and oceans developed as oceans facilitated to transport goods to other parts of the world for trading.  A boat is said to be in existence much earlier than 3000 BC when the Egyptians knew how to assemble wooden planks into a hull. The oldest known tidal dock in the world was built around 2500 BC during the Harappan civilization at Lothal near the present day Mangrol harbor on the Gujarat coast in India. Other ports were probably at Balakot and Dwarka.  Shipbuilding and international trade by ships were one of the main reasons for civilizations to prosper around coastal regions. 

Shipbuilding on the Thames at Redriff

Today, approximately 3 billion people — about half of the world’s population — live within 200 kilometers of coastline. By 2025 this figure is likely to double. The high concentration of people in coastal regions has produced many economic benefits, including improved transportation links, industrial and urban development, revenue from tourism, and food production.  Graph of world’s most populated cities below shows that over sixty percent of world’s most prominent cities are close to coasts.  In cities like Mumbai, Hong Kong, Chittagong, Karachi – which are all coastal – over 15,000 people crowd in a square kilometer of land (Mumbai being worst with over 30,000 people per Sq Kilometre).  The combined effects of booming population growth and economic and technological development are threatening the ecosystems that provide these economic benefits.  The reasons for the environmental decline are complicated, but population factors play a significant role.150831-largest-cities-1955

However, the pressure of urbanization is not just on coastal cities.  It is global.  Most of these urbanized cities lack proper sewage or water treatment systems and processes and continue to dump directly into the water and these further flowing into the seas.  People cause most of the problems that plague oceans.  Eighty percent of pollution to the marine environment comes from the land. One of the most significant sources is called non-point source pollution, which occurs as a result of runoff. Non-point source pollution includes many small sources, like septic tanks, cars, trucks, and boats, plus more substantial sources, such as farms, ranches, and forest areas. Millions of motor vehicle engines drop small amounts of oil each day onto roads and parking lots. Much of this, too, makes its way to the sea.


In addition to permanent residents, there are other reasons like tourism and festivals.  Many coastal regions in countries like India host annual pseudo-religious pilgrimages of so-called pleasure-seekers and worshippers with some reasonably predictable effects.  In India, for example, Ganesh festivals, Durga puja festivals and so on, add more destruction than devotion.  Along with idols, millions of tons other polluting, non-degradable and toxic materials like plastic bags, decoration articles, polystyrene, paints, oils, etc. are released in rivers, lakes, and oceans, under the name of religion.  

In tropical countries, rapidly growing tourism (with their rapidly increasing GDPs and PPPs!) has generated a wave of resorts, hotels, and golf courses that contribute specific problems to already beleaguered seaside habitats. Construction-related sediments, fertilizers applied to hotel grounds and golf courses to keep them looking pristine green, and a flood of phosphate-containing detergents used in laundry facilities compound the pressures on the marine environment.

The ocean’s front line of defence—the coastal zone—is crumbling from years of degradation and fragmentation, and its waters have been treated as a waste receptacle for generations. In some places, the loss of buffer areas combined with a rising tide of pollution has essentially suffocated marine life, along with the livelihoods that rely on it.  The conditions that make coastal regions so productive for fish—proximity to nutrient flows and tidal mixing—also make them especially vulnerable to human assault.

Pollutants entering oceans

In addition to converting seashore areas to urban developments, golf courses, and shrimp farms, other human activities on land also cause a significant portion of offshore contamination. An estimated over 80 percent of marine pollution comes from land-based pathways, flowing down from rivers into tidal estuaries, where it bleeds out to the seas. From nutrient-rich sediments, fertilizers, and human waste to toxic heavy metals and synthetic chemicals, the outfall from human society ends up circulating in oceans, often for extended periods of time. Airborne pollution carried by winds and deposited far offshore also ends up finally in the seas.  Farm runoffs, silts, and maritime transportation add insult to the injury. Sea animals mistake pollutants as food particles.  Once contaminants collect in zooplankton, larvae, and small fish (often by direct consumption), they work their way up the food chain and cause problems in the fish, marine mammals, and people who eat them.

In next articles, we will dwell more on causes of marine pollution and then after about its effects.

My longing for oceans is always too intense and too profound. That solace, that calming effect, that feeling of intimacy which I get from the oceans is beyond description.   I will end this article here with John Masefield’s one of the most famous poems “Sea Fever,” wherein he too has shown his strong desire to be connected with the sea, one of the most powerful natural forces on earth.  Masefield demonstrates an obvious and in a way passionate love for this wild and beautiful entity and seems to almost compare it to a person, referring to it as “her” and describing her “face.”

Sea Fever – By John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.


I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.


I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


Milind Joshi


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