Editorial Articles

Issue no 25, 17-23 September 2022

Swachh Sagar, Surakshit Sagar

Improving Ocean Health


Jyoti S. Verma


With marine litter choking our water bodies globally, taming the menace is basically a race against irresponsible production and consumption of undegradable materials like plastic. It is a task that humans can only accomplish together. A step in that direction is the Government of India's 'Swachh Sagar, Surakshit Sagar' campaign that calls upon the general public to meet at the beaches of India to do our bit. Humans share a complex relationship with water bodies existing on the blue planet, especially the ocean. From absorbing heat to producing oxygen, Earth's oceans are imperative to the survival of humans and other living beings. To humans, the mega water reservoir not only runs the life-giving water cycle, giving us freshwater and oxygen, but also moderates the climate and influences the day-to-day weather. While humans also rely on the ocean for food and transportation, we, on the other hand, respond with harmful activities like overfishing and pollution, disturbing the lifeline of the planet and its species. What has added to the woes is the indifferent attitude of human beings towards water bodies. Since you began reading this article, one million plastic drinking bottles have been bought globally, with some expected to end up in the oceans. The result is that today, litter in the marine environment has become a major concern globally, as it affects all the oceans and seas to a greater or lesser extent, irrespective of where the waste comes from. On one hand, microplastics have entered the human body through this waste, on the other hand, marine biodiversity, ecosystems, fisheries and economics of coastal regions are in jeopardy. Studies say that plastic litter kills around one million seabirds annually, with plastic entanglement alone taking lives of an estimated 0.1 million marine animals such as dolphins, whales and seals. The problem is set to worsen, as plastic waste in landfills or the natural environment is set to reach 12 billion tonnes by 2050. If continued unabated, plastic could outweigh fish in the oceans by then, says the World Economic Forum. Plastic is not the only problem marine litter poses to oceans and its inhabitants. Rubber, paper, processed wood, textiles, metal, glass, ceramic, or any man-made long-lasting solid material that humans have improperly disposed of and that has ended up in or near a water body like estuary, river, sea, ocean or beach is a concern. The slow rate of degradation of marine litter, especially plastics, together with its incessantly mounting volume, has made the waste a global threat and damage hard to control, leave aside reverse. The way ahead, according to experts at the 2022 UN Ocean Conference (UNOC), Lisbon, Portugal, (27 June-1 July 2022), is ocean action led by science, technology and innovation with participation from every individual on the planet.


‘Swachh Sagar, Surakshit Sagar' To address the menace of marine litter across India's vast coastline, the Government of India launched a coastal cleanliness campaign on July 5, 2022. The campaign, 'Swachh Sagar, Surakshit Sagar' is a 75-day citizen-led campaign launched to improve ocean health through collective action. The campaign culminates on September 17, 2022, after cleaning 75 beaches along the country's nearly 7,500 km long coastline with participation of government bodies, voluntary organisations and local societies. The objective of the campaign is to encourage massive public participation, both physically and virtually, to make awareness about reducing marine litter, minimal use of plastics, segregation at source and waste management. The three under-lying goals of the campaign are to consume responsibly, segregate waste at home and dispose responsibly. Under 'Swachh Sagar, Surakshit Sagar' the Centre has targeted to remove at least 1,500 tonnes of waste from the oceans, while reducing the use of single-use plastics-responsible for more than half of the marine litter assessed across Indian coasts from 2018- 2022 through pan-India coastal monitoring and beach clean-up activities at regular intervals. The Centre banned single-use plastics nationwide from July 1, 2022. This coastal clean-up campaign is being run together by Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Ministry of Education, Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Ministry of Jal Shakti, Ministry of Fisheries and Animal Husbandry, National Service Scheme (NSS), Indian Coast Guard, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Paryavaran Sanrakshan Gatividhi (PSG), and other government departments, social organisations and educational institutions. With an estimated expenditure of about Rs 10 crore, key audiences for 'Swachh Sagar, Surakshit Sagar' include local communities that rely on oceans and beaches for livelihood, school and college students, and youth and citizens in general. It aims at engaging the audience in adopting lifestyle and behavioural changes that promote environmental sustainability. In addition to physical activities such as actual beach clean-up along with rallies, skits and contests, the campaign is engaging people through virtual activities like quizzes, pledges and challenges. The campaign is being supported by a mobile app, Eco Mitram, to spread awareness about the campaign virtually and encourage common people to register voluntarily for beach cleaning.


Change Begins with Us: Union Minister of State for Science & Technology and Earth Sciences, Dr Jitendra Singh informed in July that more than 200 tonnes of garbage, mainly single-use plastic, was removed from the seacoasts during the first 20 days of the coastal clean-up campaign. The Union Minister further sought active cooperation of members of civil society to achieve the target to remove 1,500 tonnes of garbage, mainly singleuse plastic, from the coasts on 17 September 2022, a day observed as 'Sewa Divas.' The need to act responsibly, collectively and persistently is now being felt globally, as observers and experts insist on more such actions and solutions based on science and public participation. Participants at the UNOC emphasised on the serious need for scientific knowledge and marine technology to solve the issues of pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change that threaten the ocean. The stakeholders in this process include every individual, organisation and country on the planet. The suggestions are already shaping into pro-grammes, bilaterally and multilaterally, with countries putting in efforts to decode marine litter to develop solutions to overcome it. On February 14-15, 2022, the Governments of India, Singapore and Australia jointly organised an online East Asia Summit (EAS) Marine Plastic Debris workshop. The workshop brought together the world's leading experts, scientists, government officials with policy expertise, and representatives from industry, innovation and informal sectors. About 100 participants from 13 countries deliberated on four different themes, namely, studying the magnitude of marine litter problem through monitoring programmes and research on plastic debris in the Indo-Pacific Region; best practices, novel approaches, and solutions to prevent plastic pollution; polymers and plastics (technology and innovations); and opportunities for regional collaboration to remediate or stop plastic pollution. At the country level, the government is monitoring marine litter in coastal water, sediment, beach and biota, and analysing for micro/meso/macro plastics pollution, said an official statement issued on the EAS Marine Plastic Debris workshop in July 2022. It has been found that there is an increase in the abundance of microplastics along the east coast during the monsoon with relatively higher concentrations at river mouths. Urban beaches have higher accumulation rates than rural beaches, informed Union Minister Dr Jitendra Singh in a written reply in Rajya Sabha on July 28, 2022.


Monitoring is Crucial : It has been increasingly realised that monitoring the quantity and quality of marine litter is important to form strategies to address the problem. The National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR) has initiated monitoring of temporal and spatial distribution of marine litter and plastic debris along the Indian coasts and adjacent seas. The research so far indicates that plastic debris is spread along the entire water column and sediment, and high quantities are noticed during monsoon due to its spread into coastal water through creeks, rivers or estuaries by rainwater. Based on this observation, lowcost floating debris traps were installed at small river mouths, creeks and canals to prevent the inflow of the plastic to the sea, shared Dr Jitendra Singh with the Rajya Sabha on July 28, 2022. Globally, experts propose a solution that combines innovative technologies, including earth observation from space to improve knowledge about marine litter, and provide decision-aid to augment reduction initiatives. To make such a solution financially viable, it has been suggested to include the solution in an integrated circular economy channel. The value chain should cover the whole operation cycle from collecting to revalorisation of marine litter, involving local stakeholders such as the fishing community. There is already an increasing demand for solutions that track ocean plastics efficiently to tackle this problem. Agencies like EOMAP, a Germany-based global service provider of satellite-derived aquatic information on maritime and inland waters, uses data from European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission to track water on and under the ocean surface. An interesting monitoring exercise was recorded in 2017 when the Motagua river in Guatemala flooded the Honduras Bay with a tide of plastic litter. The shocking photographs of the incident moved Greek researchers to test Copernicus Sentinel-2's sensor capabilities for tracking dense marine debris patches. The results of this research showed how multispectral satellite data can be used to automate marine debris monitoring.


Partnerships, the Way Forward: The participants of the EAS Marine Plastic Debris workshop agreed that litter pollution being transboundary, collaborative action plans are important for combating this menace. The experts put forth suggestions to ban single-use plastic and adopt behavioural changes in plastic use, deploy technology to track or stop plastic from entering our oceans, initiate activities at a local, regional, national and international levels, and implement local solutions to tackle the issues. The experts insisted that responsibility must extend high up in the supply chain to bring change in behaviour and producing and consuming plastic, like being used in packaging by brands and producers. It is important to monitor and research the waste. Technologies for eco-friendly alternatives to plastic must be identified and developed. Equally important are techno-logies that innovate the repurposing, recycling and reusing the waste. All of these endeavours can only be delivered if there are stringent policies and regulations on ground to ensure minimum errors. Finally, there is a need for a reliable waste management system. In another important intervention, in May 2021, the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and India agreed to a Roadmap 2030, which sets out an ambitious framework for UK and India partnerships in a wide range of science disciplines, including marine science. In this alliance, both the countries decided to bring their scientists and innovators together to address water pollution and find innovative solutions to tackling plastic and marine pollution. Under the Commonwealth Litter Programme (CLiP), the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences (CEFAS), UK, and National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR), India, piloted a project to understand declining sea water quality due to marine litter. The project achieved technology-sharing through a microplastic sampling pump, loaned by CEFAS to NCCR, three scientific cruises off the ChennaiPuducherry coast, with 300 water and sediment samples collection and joint analysis, say reports. The programme published three joint research papers, did capacitybuilding of four NCCR staff and engaged the community by creating environmental educational packs for schools in different Indian languages together with India's Centre for Environment Education.


A Date with the Ocean: The National Centre for Coastal Research, an attached office of MoES, has taken up several initiatives to augment the scientific and research capabilities in marine litter. The agency collects real-time information on coastal water quality by deploying water quality buoys at 10m water depth in coastal waters. The collected data is shared with State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) and the Pollution Control Committees (PCCs) of the Union Territories for developing an action plan for prevention of coastal pollution. In addition to traditional methods of identification and analysis of biological samples, advanced techniques such as using molecular tools are being employed. Another focus area of work is collaborating with leading oceanography institutes of the world, such as JAMSTEC, Japan, CEFAS, United Kingdom and NIVA, Norway. New research programmes such as marine spatial planning, marine litter monitoring, coastal flooding have also been initiated, informed Dr Jitendra Singh in a written reply in Lok Sabha on July 27, 2022, on government's actions against marine pollution. While mighty bodies join hands to address marine litter, the real change begins with us. World citizens must instill the spirit of UN Champion of the Earth Afroz Shah, who in October 2015, with his 84- year-old neighbour Harbansh Mathur, began cleaning Mumbai’s Versova beach. Spending his weekends at the beach, the young, Mumbai-based lawyer soon inspired volunteers-from slumdwellers to film stars, from school children to politicians-to join him in picking litter. Now, after collecting more than 4,000 tonnes of trash from the 2.5- kilometre beach, Afroz Shah vows to continue his beach clean-up crusade, which he fondly calls 'a date with the ocean'. His journey will end when people and governments around the world change their approach to producing, consuming and discarding plastic and other litter that wash up onto beaches all over the world.


(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi and can be reached at jyotisverma2912@gmail.com). Views expressed are personal.