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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

The repercussions of salt extraction / Bhavnagar Bhal-India.

Posted By: R. Sudarshana
Date: Monday, 31 May 1999, at 5:52 a.m.

Key words: potable water, resource over-exploitation.

It is good that we have this EDG, some kind of intellectual gymkhana, but what is missing is a cup of coffee to go with it. I am looking forward to someone who could politely tear up all our writings and make us all think hard on our beliefs and philosophies that govern our approaches in coastal zone management. No message so far on the EDG has really been responded to. Everyone (and that is not many) is just posting a message and no one is commenting on what is written. That does not make a discussion as envisaged. If we only keep posting messages, it would rather be an Electronic Presentation Group. We could just do with some good criticism. That would serve as coffee.


I left the EDG last time promising to hopefully return and tell the stories of emerging scenarios of Gujarat coast in Western India. Now, please face the world map, locate India and look on its west coast. As you run your finger northwards on the coast, the finger gets stuck in a small cleft as it cannot move further. This cleft is Gulf of Cambay (GOC) and it belongs to the state of Gujarat. GOC is an interesting sea with a tidal range of about 10 m. Its banks experience enormous movement of sediment and the channels, tidal flats and other coastal landforms keep shifting continuously. While map makers are always busy, people who live on the banks are forced to adapt themselves to fast changing circumstances. In places, grandfather's fields have been eroded, while in other places, old port sites have moved upland. There are folklore, songs and memories pleasant and sad about the coast that betrays like a promiscuous spouse. Further, the elements are quite harsh and testing. It does not rain well anymore, the year is divided into 12 months and as many levels of summer, and the tidal waters spread out on large coastal plains making them uncultivable. Just wherever the tidal water stops, there are villages and people live. They live in great difficulty. They struggle with crops, bake in scorching sun, search for fish in heavily sedimented waters and most of them have never tasted good drinking water in their lives. We do not ask why they live there, we ask ourselves how to make their lives better. There are cities and townships in the region which are relatively prosperous due to industrial activities on the coast, but the dozens of villages where the Gods have gone crazy are the focus of our work. This coast of GOC is turning out to be a UNESCO/CSI site.


Although it never rained well in this region, there used to be a couple of big rains every year and large surface tanks dug by the communities filled well and enough to supply muddy fresh water to the people. The King of the region had a large tank dug for water storage several decades back and it served well for ages. Now, no one depends on that. Most villages had traditional wells too and bore wells appeared a little later. People depended on them and so did their livestock. There used to be some dry crops like cotton. Life was never very kind but it offered a fair opportunity to survive. Liquid cash, like liquid water was in short supply.


Due to the very high tides, large coastal plains, good spreading of sea water and a very hard working sun, large tracts had salt encrustations for centuries in the region. Hence, salt was traditionally collected and commercially sold by the people. The salt was not only edible, it also had many good chemicals and the Government even set up a national institute for research into the salts. The potential of salt was easily recognised by a few enterprising local people and in the last two decades, they set up large salt farms in the coastal plains. These salt farms started close to tidal creeks from where sea water could be pumped in and spread over large tracts. Villagers got employment here and were happy with the little fortune they could make. Under their circumstances, it was very wise to float with the tide. Salt farms flourished well, commercial institutions funded them, the Government issued licences, the maritime board assisted with official formalities and the national scientific institutions transferred salt and chemical technologies to entrepreneurs. Everyone acted wisely. Here was a case where science and technology was wisely applied for human benefit, socio-economic progress was good and it was culturally acceptable as even the great grandfather had collected salt from the tidal plains. Small ports were planned to cater to salt export needs. Large business houses and Public Sector Units came into the region and bought thousands of acres of the coastal plain to set up salt and chemical plants. The profit philosophy was very simple. Tide works for you, sun works for you and when the Gods work, cost of production is very low and profit margins are huge.


When the plains near to tidal creeks were no more available, lands a little farther were also bought up for salt farming. Then, who will wait for the tidal water to turn up after 12 hours ? Suddenly, God looked lazy. The 50 m aquifer was known to be salty while the deeper one was better and potable. Pumps were set up to draw water from the shallow aquifer and the ground water replaced the tidal water in many salt farms. Selling water pumps and maintaining them became a big business too. As more and more water was drawn from the ground over the years, ground water turned more salty and even the deeper layers turned salty. The 250 mg/L chloride isoline migrated miles away from the coast and people adapted themselves to drinking water with chloride at about 1000 mg/L. In many villages near the coast, even that water became unavailable. Now, every drop of water had a pinch more of salt.


In a large area called 'Bhavnagar bhal' (Bhavnagar dry lands), agriculture is nearly non existent. Dozens of villages have no source of drinking water. The local government sends a tanker with water to each village, but the middleman makes a business of water. Some large industrial plants send water to nearby villages sometimes, but charity is never regular. Slightly brackish water, which the man in the city may never accept, is welcome here. Muddy water from a large surface tank miles away is brought in cans to coastal villages by profiteers and sold at a worrisome cost. Livestock maintenance has started appearing foolish, with the competition man has to make with animals for water. Younger and abler men from the villages have started abandoning the old ones and migrate away. Reverse osmosis, the scientific technique of desalination of sea water is still too expensive and there is no administrative will to forget about 'cost benefit analysis' when it concerns drinking water for people. Hell is slowly and gradually breaking loose.


1. Yesterday's wisdom will not save you today.

2. Today's wise man may look foolish tomorrow.

3. God can be unreliable, so don't bend the elements too much.

4. Salt water is not potable.

5. The poor man just compromises and does not demand.

6. Like biodiversity, we should keep people also where they belong - at any cost.

7. Society often believes that making money is wisdom.

8. When one appears wise, everyone follows.

9. If everyone blindly follows the wise one, it could be disastrous.

10. People survive even when the system does not respond instantly to crisis. But it is all a shame.

Finally friends, if I get through my other commitments on time in the coming week, I hope to write Part 2 of the Gujarat scenario (Planning for port development / Dholera-India) soon.

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