The ocean for economic development

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST



With the pressure increasing on land-based resources, it is becoming clear that the future lies in tapping the resource potential of oceans to meet the needs of the growing population for food, energy, medicine and so on. India is fortunate to have in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf an ocean area comparable to its land area. The Department of Ocean Development (DOD) has been taking a number of initiatives to understand the dynamics of the ocean and exploit its potential for economic development. The Secretary to this Department, Dr. Harsh Gupta, who has been associated with ocean studies for over 30 years and under whose leadership the third Scientific Expedition to Antarctica set up, in one Antarctic summer in 1983, a permanent base for wintering - a record hitherto unmatched by any other country - spoke to B.S. Padmanabhan. Excerpts from the interview:

* Can you briefly explain the relevance of ocean development to the general economic development of the country, as there is not much public awareness about this?

We have got a total land area of three million square kilometres. We are an old country and this land is being used extensively. At the same time, we have 2 million sq km of ocean area in the Exclusive Economic Zone and we are working for a legal continental shelf, which may give us an additional area. Thus, in the ocean we have an area that is comparable to our land area. The extent to which we can meet the future needs of the people in many areas - food, energy and medicine - depends on how well we understand the ocean surrounding us. That is why when I came to this department in 2001, I realised that we should look into three basic questions. The first is what we should know about the Indian Ocean. The second is how much is known already, and the third is what should be done over the next 15 years to fill the gap. The debate on these questions by the entire oceanographic community led to the development of the Vision Document.

So far as economic importance of the ocean is concerned, we are spending about Rs.90,000 crores every year to import oil. We have not looked into the deeper ocean yet in our own EEZ, and I sincerely believe that after proper surveys we would be able to discover oil, natural gas and new resources like gas hydrates. We did some work to see whether the areas in our EEZ are hospitable for the formation of gas hydrates, and the results were positive. This has become a mission mode programme in our Tenth Plan.

In this programme we are looking into both scientific and technological routes. A lot of studies have been undertaken globally on gas hydrates but no country has yet exploited them in any offshore region. Russia has exploited gas hydrates in the permafrost region of Siberia, but not offshore. So a lot needs to be learnt about gas hydrates. We are developing a programme under which for the first time we shall be measuring shear-wave velocity, and with the help of this we can understand the genesis of gas hydrates. So far as the technological route is concerned, we realised that drilling borewells would cost Rs.40-50 crores and that may not be the best thing to do. We are therefore developing remote-operated vessels, which will sniff at the bottom of the ocean and, at suitable places, drill up to the depth of 150 metres so that we are able to explore and assess the gas potential. Once this is achieved, commercial firms will come for actual exploitation.

* What is the time frame you have in mind for this?

Within the next five years, we are going to develop the necessary technology for comprehending the resource potential. Production is not our job. We do not want to get into that.

* The DOD has been functioning since 1981. What are its major contributions so far?

We have been actively participating in scientific expeditions to Antarctica. In the summer of 1983-84, when I was the leader of the Third Scientific Expedition to Antarctica, we set up a permanent base called Dakshin Gangotri there and left behind 12 members to winter. That was a world record. No other country has so far succeeded in setting up a permanent base there in one Antarctic summer. For the past 19 years we have been continuously wintering in Antarctica. This has led to India's entry into the Antarctic Treaty System in which India now holds a very important position. All these were possible because of the initiatives taken by Dr. S.Z. Qasim, the first Secretary of this department.

Observations play an important role in our understanding of the ocean. Our observations are far from adequate. In the Tenth Plan we have increased the number of data buoys to 40 in the Indian Ocean region. We have already seen that the data buoys, deployed in the last three or four years, have provided immense information on several oceanic parameters, which are helpful in tracing cyclones. The classic case was the cyclone threat on the western coast in May 2001. With the help of the information the data buoys provided, it was forecasted that the cyclone would not touch the land areas of Ahmedabad. So in that direction a lot of progress has been made.

In the Tenth Plan we have already formed the Indian Ocean Global Ocean Observation System (IOGOOS). The concept of GOOS started sometime in the 1990s and it was formed in the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and many other oceans. But there was no GOOS for the Indian Ocean. You will agree that no single country can obtain all the necessary information for a vast area like the Indian Ocean. It is important that we get into collaboration mode to collect and exchange information. In November 2001 we had a preparatory meeting attended by people from several Ocean Rim countries, and we drew up a programme for forming a GOOS for the Indian Ocean. A year later we met in Mauritius, and in the meantime the structure of the Memorandum of Understating (MoU) on the kind of knowledge base we want to develop and exchange was finalised. At the Mauritius meeting, 30 institutions from Ocean Rim countries signed the MoU and elected India to chair the IOGOOS for the first six years. This office is now located in Hyderabad. This has met a very important requirement in understanding the dynamics of the Indian Ocean.

Another very important programme is the Array for Real-time Geotropic Oceanography (ARGO), which is an internationally coordinated project. The floats deployed under this programme are different from normal floats. They dive to a depth of 2 km and while ascending they pick up information on temperature and salinity. Globally there are going to be around 3,500 floats. In the Indian Ocean 450 floats will be put up, and India has the responsibility for 150 of these. We have already put up 30 floats and within the Tenth Plan, the remaining will be put up. The responsibility for receiving the data from ARGO floats within the Indian Ocean lies with India. The data from all the floats, including those put up by other countries in the Indian Ocean, come to Hyderabad. We process them and pass them on to other regions. This has met a very urgent requirement because in all our ocean circulation models we did not have the necessary temperature and salinity profile, which is important to make useful forecast based on ocean circulation models.

There are many technological contributions. For instance, we have indigenised the data buoy. The imported one used to cost Rs.50 lakhs. The National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) has developed a buoy, which is now manufactured by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). It costs Rs.20 lakhs only. Similarly, the NIOT has developed a Tide Gauge and has got patents in India and abroad. These are being put up at different places, including other countries.

* More than one-third of our population lives in coastal areas. What steps are being taken to ensure that the livelihood of this population is not threatened by the consequences of increased industrial activities around coastal areas?

We have a long coastline and about 30-40 per cent of our population lives in coastal areas. Through our Potential Fishing Zone Advisory Service we tell the fishing community where to go for fishing. The information is conveyed through radio and 250 centres set up along the coast. We use the information on sea-surface temperature and chlorophyll content to identify potential areas for fishing. This has helped fishermen. Independent surveys have shown that the catch is up to 50 per cent more now. Apart from the increase in the catch, fishermen save a lot of time because they now know exactly where to go for fishing and consequently also save on the cost of diesel oil. In the process they can also go deeper.

We are monitoring pollution in 82 fixed locations and fortunately the scenario is okay in the sense that pollution levels are not increasing except in a couple of locations off Mumbai. Basically it is industrial pollution in these locations. Recently a study by NIOT revealed a lot of debris in the ocean off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. We found foreign markings on this debris, which were thrown by ships in violation of international convention that no ship should throw waste into the sea.

We are also running training programmes on coastal zone management. These tell the participants what to do to sustain and improve the environment of coastal areas. In fact, under the Integrated Coastal and Marine Area Management (ICMAM) programme, the NIOT has generated a good capsule of training for different stakeholders on coastal and marine habitat management using the Geographic Information System (GIS).

* You mentioned the programme on gas hydrates. What is your department's contribution in exploiting other resources in the ocean?

We have a programme on polymetallic nodules. We are one of the seven nations to be accorded the status of pioneer investor by the United Nations. India is in the forefront in all the four areas of exploration, exploitation, environmental impact studies and extraction. We have explored 150,000 sq km of area in the Central Indian Ocean basin, which was allotted to us by the International Seabed Authority (ISBA). As required, after the survey we relinquished 50 per cent of that area by March 2002 and have retained the remaining 75,000 sq km for further exploration and exploitation. After detailed surveys we have found out the quality, quantity and slope of the beds on which the nodules occur. For exploitation, we are developing technologies. We have developed crawlers for going up to a depth of 500 metres. These crawlers collect the nodules and send them up. We are in the process of developing the next generation of crawlers, which can go up to depth of 6 km. We have also undertaken environment impact studies and periodic monitoring. For extraction, we have set up a Pilot Plant at Hindustan Zinc Limited in Udaipur, Rajasthan, which can treat up to 500 kg of nodules a day. Nodules having more than 2 per cent by weight of nickel, cobalt and copper are economically viable. We have developed the technology with which we have achieved the extraction of almost 98 to 99 per cent. The Pilot Plant has been working for almost one year.

* When will you be scaling it up?

We shall not take up scaling up. We are not in production. We shall provide interested companies with the necessary information about the nodules and the technology for extraction, and it is for them to take up production.

* What programmes have you initiated to tap energy from the ocean?

We are doing quite a bit to tap ocean energy in addition to gas hydrates. You must have heard of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC). We are doing work for deploying a one megawatt demonstration plant near Tuticorin. It takes time to develop technology. We have succeeded up to 75 per cent. Owing to unsuitable weather, we could not make the connection from the cold water pipeline to the barge. We hope to do it early next year. It will be the first plant of 1 MW capacity anywhere in the world. The OTEC is highly suitable for island regions like Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar.

* The setting up of an Ocean Resources Commission is envisaged in the Vision Document. What is the present status of this proposal?

We have done the basic work and the document is under process.

* What steps are you taking to generate public awareness about ocean development?

We are bringing out a book for high-school level children to improve ocean awareness among students. We had a series of half-an-hour programmes telecast by Doordarshan for 15 weeks. We are also supporting the publication of a magazine titled Ocean Wealth.

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