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November 02


The disappearing beach dilemma

- by Aurofilio

Auroville beaches are under imminent threat of being eroded


The Pondicherry seafront in 1984


2002 : the beach has disappeared


Unsustainable development practices in Pondicherry are endangering Auroville's beach communities. They face the prospect of being either washed away or needing protection by massive seawalls to prevent an erosion disaster.

It has already happened in the coastal village of Kottakuppam between Auroville and Pondicherry. During the recent South-West monsoon the sea eroded a huge part of the beach and several hundred fishermen lost their homes. To prevent further erosion and loss of property, the Tamil Nadu District Collector is now considering dumping rocks along the affected coastline. Though this measure would bring relief to Kottakuppam, it would transfer the erosion to the beaches further up north, including those of Auroville.

Satellite photo showing the pier and the enlarged beach (white, below right) south of the new breakwater. Pondicherry town with its characteristic oval grid pattern is north

The problem of coastal erosion originated in 1986, when the Government of Pondicherry gave the green light to develop a new harbour at the mouth of the Ariankuppam Estuary, south of Pondicherry. As part of the New Harbour, two long breakwaters - rocky wall-like structures that protrude from the shore into the sea - were built. These breakwaters interfere with the coastal currents and processes. As a result, a very significant process of coastal erosion was triggered off. It started south of Pondicherry, from the mouth of the New Harbour, and grew gradually towards the north. Every year another large chunk of beach was lost to the sea. In little more than a decade, all six kilometres of the beach of Pondicherry town disappeared. Today a rocky seawall extends all the way from Aryankuppam from the south of Pondicherry to Kottakuppam at the North. The Kottakuppam beach is next in turn to be washed away.

Beach erosion in the coastal village of Kottakuppam, the situation before March 2002


The beach has disappeared after August 2002.

Beaches are like rivers of sand, part of a dynamic and complex coastal ecosystem. If one follows a grain of sand on a beach one will find that it moves in small leaps and bounds. From February to October sand grains move from South to North; from November to January they move from North to South.

Nature, left to itself, has established a state of dynamic equilibrium in which that which has naturally gone is replaced naturally. The two breakwaters at the mouth of the New Harbour interfered with this dynamic equilibrium. These structures, acting like a dam, interrupted the flow of sand from South to North. As a result the beaches south of the New Harbour have grown immensely at the cost of the beaches to the north, which are now being starved of sand and are therefore perishing.

Auroville's beach erosion has already started. In the last decade the Auroville beaches have changed considerably. There used to be a sandbar, a so-called "underwater island," about 15-30 meters away from the shore. It no longer exists. The beach itself has become more and more steep. The beach sand is now coarse as the finer grains were gradually washed away while the heavier larger ones have been left behind. These are the first symptoms of beach erosion. The next thing to happen is that the beach will start receding. And this will go from bad to worse as long as the problem caused by the New Harbour breakwaters is not rectified or mitigated.

But instead of tackling the problem where it originates, the Government of Pondicherry is planning to protect its coast and restore the beaches along the town by constructing about 30 "groynes" - rocky structures similar to breakwaters that stick out like fingers into the sea perpendicular to the shore. The groynes will be 50-150 m long and placed at regular intervals starting from the New Harbour all the way to Muthialpet, where Pondicherry state ends and Tamil Nadu territory starts.
While the proposed groynes will offer at best only some temporary protection and reduce to some extent erosion along the town of Pondicherry, they will even more transfer the problem of erosion to the beaches of Tamil Nadu north of Pondicherry. What the breakwaters did at the mouth of the New Harbour, the groynes will repeat at Muthialpet. Just as Pondicherry lost all its beaches, so Tamil Nadu will lose theirs north of Pondicherry State.

A concerned group of citizens of Pondicherry has meanwhile obtained independent technical opinions from the Danish Hydraulics Institute, the Delft Hydraulics Institute of the Delft Technical University in The Netherlands, the Canadian Hydraulics Centre as well as from several individual experts. Their common opinion is that the planned groynes will not solve the problem of erosion and would transfer and aggravate the problem of erosion at other locations. Unfortunately the Government of Pondicherry has not yet changed its plans, which is amazing as the proposed groynes project is estimated to cost about Rs. 40 crores, an enormous sum compared to the construction cost of the New Harbour (about Rs. 20 crores in 1986). Moreover, Pondicherry port is classified as a minor port. Since New Harbour was completed in 1989 not a single commercial ship docked there until the month of September 2002 when one ship anchored and New Harbour was used for the first time ever. During the last two years only 16 ships came to Pondicherry, but they used the "New" pier opposite the Ashram Park Guesthouse instead of New Harbour.

The problem is not one of Auroville alone, but one of the Tamil Nadu State. Should Tamil Nadu lose part of its coastal environment and its villages because of the poor coastal management practices of the Government of Pondicherry? Should Tamil Nadu citizens be bereft of fresh underground water because the sea gradually creeps inland and the water turns saline? Should Tamil Nadu lose part of its natural defences against storms and cyclones? For when the beaches are gone, the land will be open to the sea's fury. And lastly, should Tamil Nadu lose the recreational and environmental values of part of its coast?

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