Dikes or Halophytes: letting go is a good way to spur innovation
Saline marshlands abound around the world. They are low-lying areas that get flooded with sea water in spring tides, making the soil saline and usually unsuitable for traditional agriculture. In a number of cases in Europe, they have been drained and reclaimed from the Middle Ages and have become prime agricultural lands protected by heavy dykes. Emblematic examples include The Fens in England, the Marais de Dol near Mont-Saint-Michel in France, and of course a large part of the Netherlands.
As the average sea level rises, more pressure will be put on the sea defenses that these areas rely on. While the historical response has been to consolidate dykes, in the future another response may be halophyte plants: plant species that grow in high salinity soil.
Of course, in densely populated areas such as the Netherlands, consolidating dykes – even at high expense – is likely to remain the most appropriate and economically sound response. But there is no escape to the fact that the halophyte response comes at a much lower cost and is more sustainable, for it litterally goes with the flow of nature. Therefore, in coastal areas that are not so densely populated or where populations can more easily relocate, letting go of old crumbling sea defenses and building a new economy on halophyte agriculture can prove a more judicious choice.
In yet another example of the dynamism and spirit of Indovation, India has recently unveiled a coastal saline crop initiative. Such a scheme will spur another round of innovation in terms of applications of halophyte plants (current usage include cattle feed, fish feed, edible oils, edible specialities such as sea asparagus and salicorne, and also bio-fuels), yields of different species, harvesting techniques and equipment, food-processing, etc. Interestingly, it will become a prime example of ‘innovation by the people for the people’, putting the initiative in a multitude of hands from marine scientists to local farmers, rather than in the order books of a few major infrastructure management companies.
Throughout the world vast low lying areas are seen as threatened by rising sea levels. If we let go of the old sea defense paradigm, these areas may yet turned out to be blessed by the birth of a new agriculture.