Why study of oceans matters to Myanmar and India

14 March 2020
Why study of oceans matters to Myanmar and India
(FILE) - A Myanmar family sits on the remains of their house in Bogolay, the Irrawaddy Delta, 14 May 2008. Photo: EPA

The study of the oceans is crucial for countries such as India and Myanmar because it helps governments to predict and manage responses to climatic and ocean changes, particularly monsoon rains and drought, and the dangers posed by potentially deadly cyclones.

Mizzima recently interviewed an Indian oceanography specialist Dr V Ramaswamy in Goa, India to discuss his work and cooperation with Myanmar to keep a close eye on the oceans and to allow the countries a better chance of handling extreme weather conditions – not least the type of damage seen in Myanmar as a result of 2008 Cyclone Nargis.

Please could you introduce yourself?

I am a scientist specializing in oceanography, and marine geology and biogeochemistry. I have been working as a scientist at Aquamarine Coastal & Environmental Solutions, Goa, since 1981, when I joined as a research fellow and as a scientist in 1983, and even now my interest is basically science of the Indian Ocean and the surrounding regions.

My main focus has been to work in collaboration with neighbouring countries because oceanography is a very expensive subject because we need ships to study the oceans and ships are very, very expensive. So that is why collaboration and cooperation with all the countries is very essential. And as part of my studies I have been very fortunate to involve in many surrounding countries and also the advanced countries of Western Europe. In this particularly I have worked extensively with many countries like Iran, Kuwait, Bangladesh and most important, Myanmar.

Our collaboration with Myanmar was started in the year 2002. In 2002, the Government of Myanmar approached the Indian Government to study the northern Andaman Sea. So as part of that within a few months we organized the most advanced vessel … and this vessel sailed for 35 days from Chennai to the northern Andaman Sea and back. There were twelve people from Myanmar and nineteen from India. The twelve people from Myanmar included people from Yangon University, ministry and fishery research, hydrographic department, and methodology and hydrology. So there were twelve scientists from Myanmar, including some lady scientists, there were three of them who came to India and we went on this cruise, we studied the northern Andaman Sea. The most important part of the cruise was we stayed in Yangon for three days and in the three days the ship was open to all the students, college and school students from Yangon and neighbouring areas, about 800 students came and saw the ship, and you know in 2002 that time Myanmar did not have these facilities, it had very poor facilities, so these students for them it was a very good opportunity to come and see a very modern research vessel.

After we completed the work, some other scientists came to India. Now this cruise was the turning point in oceanographic studies in the northern Andaman Sea because the last cruise in the oceans was done in the 50s, very, very absolutely no data. So this cruise of 35 days where India and Myanmar scientists participated has shown a very good understanding of the Andaman Sea, both in terms of climate, in terms of geology, in terms of fisheries, in terms of meteorology, every aspect, it has given a lot of information.

And I will not say that I am boasting but it is really true, I will give a small incident three days back, just three days back I got an email from one American professor who has carried out work in the northern Andaman Sea and he has sent me an email where he says our work has achieved so much and this could only have been done because of the study carried out by NIO and our scientists in 2002. That is great.

In 2018 I was in Myanmar for a workshop, and at that time there was a big opening, and an invitation by the Myanmar government to call people and scientists from all over the world to participate in exploring the northern Andaman Sea and the coast of Myanmar. The reason, as I already mentioned, the ship is very, very expensive, and it costs about in Indian rupees, 500 crores at least, and daily it will be requiring about $40,000 per day. So it is expensive. So they have invited people from all over the world, so our views were sought, and many countries said that the basis of the studies is the work done by India and Myanmar in 2002. That was a landmark study. 

I am happy to note the big achievement and collaboration in that project. Why did you choose the northern Andaman Sea, in terms of location, what were the reasons and how many Indian scientists were involved in that project?

We chose the northern Andaman Sea because it had not been studied at all. The reason is why we have to study the oceans is not only for the mineral resources or the fisheries resources but most important for climate because you know the monsoons are both the lifeline for India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. We depend upon the monsoon rain, and including Thailand also, Malaysia, the entire region depends upon the monsoon. Our economy is driven by the monsoon. If it were not for the monsoon rain we would not get any agriculture and everything that depends upon that.

Now the monsoon derives its moisture from the oceans, so the state of the ocean, the temperature, the circulation, all that is very important. It is also important on a daily basis because for example, if you take a tropical cyclone, the path of movement of a cyclone depends on the pressure of the water as well as the land. For example, tropical cyclones will form only when the temperature of the sea surface temperature, or surface of the sea, will have more than 27 degrees Celsius. If the water is colder than that, cyclones will not form. If the water is warmer than that then cyclones will form because the excess energy in the oceans, so this energy is transported to the atmosphere and contributes to cyclones. So the basic understanding of oceanography is very important for all aspects including very specific problems why the Mawlamyine harbour is getting silt up. It was a very important harbour once upon a time but there is so much sediment coming. Why is it getting silted up when for hundreds of years is was working, last forty years a few metres has come. So that depends upon the circulation. And this area is very interesting scientifically, it can teach us many, many things. For example the tides there, it is a macro tide, there are several tides in the Gulf of Martaban. This huge rise and fall of sea will effect everything there. The fisheries depend upon the rise and the fall of the sea, right, because the mud that comes in gives nutrients but also it makes the fish go back and forth. So that is the exploration for gas and sources. For example, I read recently, within the last few days, that a new gas field has been discovered in the Gulf, right. I have just read about this, I have been in touch, updated, very much so.

Coming back to the cyclone pattern, how has it changed in Myanmar and also in India. We used to have a cyclone in July. Has that changed a lot?

I will tell about that. I have been studying cyclones for quite some time. I have some special papers on cyclones, especially the effect of what it does. Now one of the things about cyclones is for the last one hundred years has been mapped, most of the cyclones start in the southern Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, southern Andaman Sea, and they travel westwards to the Indian coast. Mostly. A few of them will go to Bengal or Bangladesh coast, that is a normal pattern. Cyclones normally will form before the monsoon or after the monsoon also. During the monsoon you don’t have cyclones because there is a horizontal shear, the winds are so strong that the cyclones are normally 10 kilometres in height, now this is cut off by the monsoon. So that is why cyclones do not develop when the monsoon is very strong. So before the monsoon when there is no shear, the cyclones are forming, in the month of May, and the month of September, October to December. Now this is normal periods. October to December is the cyclone period. Now they form in the southern Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea and travel westwards. Now there has been a change in the cyclone patterns because of climate change and also the low pressure that has been formed. What is important to know is cyclone, once it is formed, it starts rotating, it starts moving in a particular direction a low pressure, the whole system moves. Now this system when it moves, not only is it moving towards India but now we find that there are more cyclones that are going towards Bangladesh and Myanmar. And not only weak cyclones but very strong cyclones. Very strong cyclones are formed and they are going towards Bangladesh and Myanmar and this is because of climate change, because of the increasing temperature. What I told you was 27 degrees is the optimum temperature and cyclones basically transfer the energy from the ocean to the atmosphere. Because the oceans are getting hotter, we are getting more severe cyclones. Even supercyclones are recently formed in the Arabian Sea also right.

Now the second thing about cyclones is when they are formed they are going in a new path towards the northern and northeastern part like Myanmar. The second part is, these regions since they did not experience cyclones in the past, so what they have done is the natural protection system along the coast has been utilized, for example the mangroves. The mangroves, which are a natural protection against cyclones, have been very severely destroyed, mostly for shrimp farming or for land use. In the case of Myanmar, since there were no cyclones in the 19th century and 20th century what happened was the British, at that time mostly in the northern part of Myanmar, they moved a number of people to the southern part, to the rice fields of Myanmar. For example, the Irrawaddy Delta was full of mangroves, so they have cut out all the mangroves and made it into a rice bowl, which is one of the reasons why it is biggest source of rice in Asia. Now, once you have cut out all of the mangroves, because there was a very steady climate, right, and all the rice was irrigated, and people were very prosperous and that is why Yangon became the capital city.

But what happened recently is cyclones have come to that area and there is no mangrove left. I have studied satellite images and I have found that there is only one island in the entire Irrawaddy coast which has got proper mangroves. Only one island out of hundreds of islands, hundreds of small rivulets, all the mangroves have been removed and people are staying there. So now when the cyclone comes, the whole area is flooded and that is why the Nargis cyclone was such a disaster, right, because of the climate change, and land use pattern change. So in the olden times when cyclones come, there was nobody staying there much, and the areas are protected but now unfortunately there are hardly any mangroves, we can see that. So now one of the suggestions is to replant mangroves along the coast, it is what I would suggest.

All these are linked to the climate change, what is the climate change concept in general?

Climate change is the change in climate is obvious on that. What is it due to? The earth is driven, we have the atmospheric circulation and the ocean circulation. The water moves and the atmosphere also moves. This movement is controlled by the sun, energy from the sun. So the energy from the sun comes and heat the ocean and the land, the water and the air move and that is why we get a particular weather climate. Now what is happening is the amount of heat trapped within the earth is dependent on certain gases. Like we all now carbon dioxide and methane, or even ozone, or nitrous oxide, these are other gases that are present already in the atmosphere which are trapping the energy from the sun and driving the climate. So if we change the concentration, the most important is carbon dioxide, if we change the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then the earth will get heated up more. If the earth gets heated up more, the water gets heated up, and the land gets heated up. And because of that the atmosphere circulation pattern changes. For example, the land gets heated up more, so low pressure and more wind will come, the winds will get stronger. There are many, it is a very complex system but in effect the earth gets warmer then the atmospheric pattern, the climate pattern changes.

Now the monsoon, which is most important for us, is driven by the pressure difference between the land and oceans, that is primarily due to the heating difference. For example, during summer the land is hotter than the ocean, that is when the wind from the ocean comes to the land. So in normal monsoon, during May, June, July, when the earth is very, very hot, the Asian landmass is very hot, the air from the Indian Ocean and from the Bay of Bengal sea, all come to the low pressure in Tibet, Tibet is the centre of the low pressure, so the wind will come in that direction, and because of something known as Coriolis Force, it starts bending towards the west, so that is why the northern winds become southwestwards. That is why we call it the southwest monsoon, which is there during June to September or October, right.

Now in winter the land is colder and the ocean is warmer, so we have the northeast monsoon. But the southwest monsoon is most important because most of the rainfall comes during that period fro India and Myanmar. Now, what is happening when the land is getting hotter, and the oceans are also getting hotter, the climate pattern is changing. So what is happening right now is that the monsoon will change. Now, something very funny that you must have noticed, India is in the border, this side is all wet, India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand, all are wet regions, with heavy monsoon, and if we look to the other side, towards the western side, Pakistan, Iran, Middle East, all are dry. We are exactly the border between the wet side and the dry side. If the whole pattern shifts then all these countries will get affected, and that is what is happening, the change in pattern it is predicted that some countries will get benefitted and some countries will not get benefitted by climate change with more monsoon. But whatever happens if there is a change in climate, we will need to adapt, and it is not normally good.

So this is caused due to increasing greenhouse gases, which has been there historically because we have cut a lot of forest in all the countries, and the population is changing, we are using a lot of fossil fuels. We know the general reasons for climate change. But how the monsoon is getting affected is very important and to study the monsoons it is very important that we also study the oceans and the conditions and circulation of the oceans, and the temperature of the oceans, which is very, very necessary, and since it is expensive, all countries must collaborate, cooperate, to study the oceans.

In Goa I met some people on this short trip but everyone keeps saying that getting fish, fish prices are increasing, and the fishing trawlers say they get less fish, many companies have stopped. What happened? Is that related to the monsoon, climate change, all these things?

It is a very important question you have asked. It is very, very important because most of the coastal areas, people traditionally are dependent on fish as a source of protein. And now because of transport, even inland people depend upon fish. Fish is a very important source of energy and proteins. Now the fishes in the sea, many of them along the coast, coastal zones are very important for fisheries, they come to the mangrove areas and they will breed and they have a life cycle between that. So their conditions are normally governed by the conditions of the sea. 

So I would say one part is climate change, specifically in temperature, availability of nutrients, and availability of protected breeding zones, are one cause of loss of fisheries. The amount of fishes of fishes catches drop is phenomenal, it has affected all countries. In India the price of fish has gone up very much. In Myanmar too. Of course part of the rise in price is due to increased consumption, but mainly it is due to a drop in fish catch.

Now the reason for that, as we just mentioned, is due to climate change. Okay because a certain group of fisheries are replace the normal fish, we find a new breed of fish are found. Now the reason for that is climate change both directly and also indirectly. So there are some papers that are showing that, especially the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, has got something which is known as the oxygen minimum. Okay, because the amount of oxygen in the lower part of the sea, below 200 metres, it is very low. Why is it low? Actually, it is very simple to understand. You see the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are free flowing from North Pole to South Pole, whereas the Indian Ocean, the northern Indian Ocean particularly, is covered in land, so there is a land barrier, the circulation is not so much, so it is more stagnant, right. So because of this, there is something known as oxygen minimum in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal and they release gases. One of them is nitrous oxide and it is part of the carbon cycle. Now what is happening is in the Arabian Sea and part of the Bay of Bengal, the plankton is changing, because of the climate change, the plankton is changing, because of this the secondary producers, the zoo plankton, which feed on the other plankton, they are changing. Because they are changing, the fisheries is changing, so the type of fish is changing, so because the type of fish is changing, then people don’t know how to catch the new type of fish. So that is one reason.

The second reason, which is more economic, is overfishing. Okay, we are overfishing because it is such an important source of protein and everybody is going out to fish. We have new technology and we have bigger fishing trawlers, and bigger nets. Indiscriminate fishing it is called. You don’t look at a certain type of fish. You have all the type of fish, small and big, and using the bigger fish for consumption and the smaller fish for fertilizers, things like that, you are taking away the breeding fishes, right.

And third most important, I told you, is the mangroves, which are the breeding grounds. By removing all the mangroves, we are removing the breeding ground for that.

So these three changes. Climate change, the plankton change, the second thing is overfishing, and third the removing of the breeding grounds are the primary reasons for the change in fishing. 

Let me touch on the rise in sea level. Are they really serious with the suggestion about the rise of sea level and it really threatens the existence of certain cities and low-lying areas, particularly some areas in Myanmar?

Okay, sea level rise is true. They better accept it that it is happening. And here, how do you measure sea level change? The level of change is in a few millimetres per year, less than a millimeter or a milimetre, that is the range of the sea level rise. Now it may seem very, very small, what does a millimeter change going to do? But it is very important. So what we have done, India has sea level changes, what is known as tide gauge. So we have put a number of tide gauge along the Indian coast, and as part of the collaboration also set up a number of tide gauges in Myanmar. The Indian government and the Myanmar government had collaboration around the same time in 2002 onwards set up a number of tide gauges along the Myanmar coast also and they are monitoring the rise in sea level.

Though is it only a few milimetres but over a longer period of time, over 50 or 100 years or time, it is going to be very significant. Why? For example, I will give you an example. Suppose you have a port, harbour, and the water has to be a few centimetres  below the jetty, the ship can come there. If the water comes above that, then the whole jetty is flooded. So if the jetty is flooded, to build a new jetty, how much is this going to cost? You know the cost of building this is very very high. That is the lesser part. The more dangerous part is the flooding of the land. Now, if I look at Myanmar and Bangladesh, also is very similar, Myanmar has also got an Irrawaddy Delta. Now delta means it is very low-lying. And delta is formed by sediment from the river being dumped into the oceans, all around the coast, so Irrawaddy Delta is very big, it is more than 200 or 300 kilometres, from the coast. The entire area is very, very flat and full of rice fields, and rice fields we know is very flat, and then you have the mangroves as protection. Now the entire Irrawaddy Delta is very flat and almost a few centimetres to a metre about sea level. So if the sea level rises along the Western Ghatts which we have studied, along Goa, only certain portions will be affected, that are low lying, and we have a mountain near to the coast. So it will not be affected so much. It will be affected but so much as the Irrawaddy Delta, which could be flooded for tens of kilometres. Not only tens, more than that.

Now what happens when the sea level rises, not only the sea level rise, along with that you take the cyclone coming in, so when a cyclone comes in there is something known as a storm surge, the storm surge can bring in water a few metres above. So every centimetre of land is important. So a combination of sea level rise and a storm surge due to cyclone can be very devastating, as in the case of Cyclone Nargis. 

So to control the damage, what can we do?

To control the damage, I think that it is very important that coastal areas of Myanmar should be reforested, generation of mangroves is probably the most important suggestion I can give. Apart from that I think scientific studies need to be carried out, the younger generation needs to educated about this, so that together they become aware of that. These are the normal suggestions I would give. Replantation of mangroves and studying the coastal areas is very important.

You know we had a huge disaster when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. You started the collaboration and you were involved in that. Has the situation of Myanmar improved in terms of collaboration and the capacity and handling all these things?

Yes, that is a very important question. And I think that I am very happy to say that my collaboration started in 2002 and I am keeping in touch with most of the scientists there, and I have been, as I told you, in 2018, I have been to Myanmar, so I am very happy with the changes which are taking place. The education has improved very much, the facilities have improved very much, the laboratories have improved very much, the teaching has really seen change, and most important I think that Myanmar is now open for collaboration with many, many countries.

I have right now I know my colleagues from around the world, from the United States, from Korea, from Japan, from China, from India also, many of them are collaborating very actively with Myanmar. I would only say for the benefit that Myanmar students, Myanmar scientists, Myanmar education experts, should collaborate, take this opportunity more. They should make use of the opportunity and go for collaborative studies. They should take a lot of opportunities for them to go abroad and finish their education. They can go for short-term courses or long-term courses. They can write to for example National Institute of Oceanography or other institutions and look for scholarships and studies. They can come here, learn with us, and since the collaboration is already going on, you can really understand this far better.

You see nowadays the biggest change that has taken place is all over this country is the freedom to talk through mobile phones. It has really changed. The last time when I was there, communications improved tremendously in Myanmar. It has so much improved. Because of that you are able to download and access the internet, study the latest. So I think that there has been tremendous change in terms of education. Only think what you need to do is know that there are opportunities. You just have to write to any of the oceanography institutions around the world, look at ongoing collaboration and take part in the collaboration to study the oceans, especially the area around Myanmar because it is rich in minerals, rich in gas, rich in fisheries, and it is also important for climate and also important for cyclones.

Have you any additional comments you would like to make?

I think the additional comments I would like to make that historically Myanmar and India are very closely connected and especially where I come from, Tamil Nadu, people in Tamil Nadu have a special affection for people from Myanmar. They have a very special affection. So when I went for this I started in Chennai, in every Chennai newspaper has a front page full page news about Myanmar because they have a special connection with Myanmar. Historically, we have our declarations, we all know the last king of India had been exiled in lived in Yangon and the most beloved king from Myanmar. King Thibaw, he spent his last days in Ratnagiri. It is a very nice building they have there. And the wife and children and grandchildren of King Thibaw are very well loved and respected in India. Apart from that, what I find is that the people from Myanmar are extremely warm-hearted. The culture is so nice, I feel like going there many, many times. And now it has opened up it is easy to go to Myanmar for cultural reasons. I find it very, very fascinating. It has got a lot of diversity, which is interesting from any point of view and the special connection and the warm heartedness of the Myanmar people is what brings me to Myanmar time and again.

Dr V Ramaswamy is the Managing Partner, Aquamarine Coastal & Environmental Solutions, Goa, India