Kerala's coastline faces serious threat

Kerala has a population of about 33 million, out of which 80 percent live in the state's nine coastal districts. The six-hundred-kilometer shoreline of state is densely populated and the pressure of habitation on the beaches has increased manifold in past three decades. Besides increasing tourism, business and industrial activity have played a major role.

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Keralas coastline faces serious threat

Forty-one-year-old KochukuttyAmmais forced to live inside a school building with her family at Valiyathura village near Thiruvananthapuram. She was shifted here from Shankumughambeach five years back in 2013,when raging sea wavesclaimed the land where her hut was situated.

Kochukutty's family is not the only one shifted to this government building, which belongs to the fishery department of Kerala. There are ten more families in this building braving toughand unhealthy conditions.

"We came here after we were rendered homeless. There is only one toilet here and five families use that. You can understand how it is. There is no space to sleep. All of us sleep on the floor. We need a house (to live)" Says Kochukultty Amma.

The government has promised to provide homes to these families, but the construction of the houses isn't complete yet.

KochukuttyAmma(right) is living in a school building for last five years. Her home was swept away by sea-waves in 2013. (Photo -Hridayesh Joshi)

This is the stark reality of Kerala today. A state situated at the south-west coast of India thatconsistently appears in the annual list of the must-see tourist destinations of Lonely Planetin Asia. This province blessed with beaches, backwaters and verdant forests also wears the tag of being'God's Own Country'. But now Kerala is losing its glory.Almost half of the state's coastline is endangeredtoday anda large-scale displacement is inevitable.

MercyKuttyAmma,Kerala'sMinister for Fisheries and Harbor Engineering admits that her government faces a 'big challenge' of relocating more than 30000 families who live close to the coast line. "Every year so many houses are lost by coast erosion. We have to relocate the people living there elsewhere."Mercy KuttyAmmatold us.

Kerala has a population of about 33 million, out of which 80 percent live in the state's nine coastal districts. The six-hundred-kilometer shoreline of state is densely populated and the pressure of habitation on the beaches has increased manifold in past three decades. Besides increasing tourism, business and industrial activity have played a major role.

Several such families are living in such temporary settlements as Kerala's coastline is fast eroding. Government admits as many as 30,000 families will have to be relocated.Photo -Hridayesh Joshi

Despite the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) guidelines issued by the government and Coastal Zone Management Authorities (CZMA) appointed in various states and union territories, the coast line of India is in a poor state. Flouting of rules is rampant. Coastal regulation guidelines are diluted by the government itself to facilitate ill planned development projects.

Changing Coastline

The total length of India's coastline is more than 7500kilometers. Around 250 to 300 million people live along this and a majority is dependent on coast and sea for their livelihoods.

A reportreleased this year by National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR)–a department of the Ministry of Earth Sciences says almost one third of India's coast line is eroded in last 26 years. The study done between 1990 to 2016however, also speaks about the new land mass formation (accretion)which is almost as much as erosion. Nevertheless, erosion remains a concern for several state governments, environmentalists and the people living along and near the shoreline.

West Bengal, Kerala, Puducherry and Tamilnadu are among the top states where erosion is more than 40%. States like Odisha and Andhra Pradesh have seen more than 40% accretion which means formation of land due to deposit of sediments. West Bengal has lost more than 99 square kilometers of land due to the net effect of erosion and accretion.

While releasing the report in August M.V. Ramana Murthy, Director, NCCR termed the coastal erosion an 'alarming threat' for the population living along and near the coast. He stressed the need for 'immediate steps' so that loss of more land and infrastructure to the sea could be avoided. 'The damage will be irreversible. Coastal population will bear the maximum brunt, especially villages and recent habitations, including buildings, hotels and resorts which are at risk.' said Murthy.

To save the erosion of coast by sea waves such stony structures have been erected by government all over the shoreline but they are causing more erosion and preventing accretion at beach. Photo -Hridayesh Joshi

Today one-third (33%) of coast line is under threat. The NCCR study shows a varying degree of erosion at different places along the sea-shore. While on the east coast 63% West Bengal coast is eroding, onthe west coast, besides Kerala the shoreline seems stable. The west coast, particularly in Kerala and Goa, is densely populated unlike in the east where most people live away from coastline. However, Goa's shore is largelystable;Kerala is in abad shape as 45% of its coast is eroding.

Scientists acknowledgeclimate change impacts and the phenomenon of sea level rise (SLR), but they don't believe it has got a direct role to play in coast erosion at least for now. The sea level rose in last century by 40 cm and this report by the scientists of National Institute of Oceanography, Goa says that the annual rise in sea level is less that 2 mm/year.

Therefore, while the extreme weather events like cyclonic storm Ockhi which hit west coast last year can be attributed to global warming, erosion can be best explained by other factors.


"Erosion and accretion are complimentary to each other. If the sand and sediments are drifted from one side, it must accumulate somewhere." Says Murthy, Director of NCCR. In theory this argument is sound but the construction of structures along the beach has disturbed the equilibrium of erosion and accretion. Sea walls, groynes or breakwaters temper with the littoral flow of the current close to the shore. As a result, the coast on the northern side of any such structure is eroded due to sea wave effect.

More than one million fishermen families are dependent on the coast and disappearing sandy beaches prevent them from their livelihood. Photo – Hridayesh Joshi

Just a few kilometers away from Kerala capital Thiruvananthapuram,Bheemapallyvillage is a classic example of what our coastlineis turning into. Hardly any beach is left along the shoreline. The entire coast is full of massive boulders and rocks, which have been put here to protect the houses of the locals. "This all is result of so called developmental activities", explains A.J. Vijayan an environmental activist and researcher who is working to savelivelihood resources for local communities. "Earlier our Kerala was blessed with long and wide sandy beaches but what remains now here is just an artificial coast with all these structures."

Experts and scientists say it's a combination of factors which affects the shoreline. The NCCR report counts more than a dozen reasons for the shoreline change, categorizing them as natural and anthropogenic causes. Natural reasons identifiedin the report range from action of waves to sea storms to sea level rise. Also, the construction of structures at the coast like harbours, beach mining and building of dams on rivers are the main anthropogenic causes cited.

The sandy beaches are turned into stony sea wall. Fishermen are left with little place to park their boats and take them to sea for fishing. Photo – Hridayesh Joshi

Man-made structures like sea walls, groynes and offshore breakwater exist in about 400 kilometers of the coastline in Kerala. These structures are built for fishing and business harbors, other commercial activities or to protect the land from sea water encroachment. "As we started building the big fishing and business harbours it has affected the behavior of sea waves. In the northern part of such structures you can see the waves hitting the coast with higher intensity as you can see here at Bheemapalli."Says Vijayan.

Kerala has today more than a dozen big, medium and small ports. The most recent one, which is also one of the biggest ports in India, is coming up at Vizhinjam near Thiruvananthapuram. The agreement for this project worth more than INR 75 billion (US 1.03 billion) was signed between the Kerala government and the Adani group in 2015. Though the project isn't complete yet, local fishermen and environmentalistssay that the erosive effect is already being felt on the coast.

T. Peter, the general secretary of the National Fish Workers Forum shows Shankumughambeach where the erosion is quite visible. Not only people living near the beach shifted away, but the Kerala government had to advisethe tourists also, to stay away from this beach.

"The erosion and damage due to sea waves has increased since they have started building the (Vizhinjam) port. You know it affects the northern side of coast. During the rough weather sea waves hit very hard here and after the monsoon when the wind blows in opposite direction the accretion is not possible because the sediment is blocked by these sea walls and groynes constructed all along the coast." Says T. Peter.

Dr N.M.Shareef of the Geological Survey of India also warns about this. In this article published in the Current Sciencemagazine he writes –

'[A]nystructure built right on the beach prevents beach accretion and not the beach erosion. Man's 's alteration of the shorelines especially by construction on the beaches will create unnatural water currents. They have an adverse effect on beaches undergoing retreat, but the effect is more pronounced on beaches undergoing long time rapid shoreline retreat. As the beach continues to erode, the sea wall may also block natural replenishment of sand from dunes or cliffs behind the wall.'

Double Whammy

Besides being ineffective in coast protection, these man-made structureshave also taken a toll on the hills. There are hundreds of quarries in the mountains of Western Ghats today and continuous digging and mining for stones to build sea wallsetc have weakened the fragile hills. This has resulted in anincreasing number of landslides. Kerala saw maximum number of landslidesthis year since the onset of monsoon and the situation turned grave during the recent floods.

Hills are being mined to bring rocks and large stonesto build sea walls. This is causing more landslides in the fragile mountainous regions. During recent floods Kerala has almost one hundred landslides. Photo – A.J. Vijayan

One of the reasons for the coast erosion is the large number of dams built on almost every river of Kerala. Kerala has today forty-one west flowing rivers and these rivers could have been great source of silt, sand and soil transportation towards the coast. This may have helped the accretion. But there are more than fifty dams on these rivers and these dams have blocked the flow of soil to the seashore. थे Fifth assessment report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 75% of sediment flow is blocked by large dams.

"Once we started constructing big dams everywhere, it has blocked the sediment transport and the rich soil coming in along with the nourishment to the sea. It has two effects. One, it has affected the health; the growth of beaches and two, it has also affected the nourishment supply to the sea which helps to produce more marine and fish resources." Says Vijayan.

Saving the coast

Earlier this year India's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued new coastal regulation draft which should be implemented soon. However, many experts believe that new guidelines have further diluted the existing rules which may aggravate the already endangered coastal areas.

"The CRZ notification (guidelines) could have been an important tool to regulate and manage the coast and it would have helped to conserve the ecology and coastal livelihood, but it has largely been either amended to open up the vulnerable part of the coast or the authorities who are overseeing it are spending their time approving the projects." says KanchiKohli, a researcher at New Delhi based think tank Centre for Policy Research.

The Kerala government is now exploringthe use of geo-synthetic tube technology to make off-shore breakwater at Poonthura. Under the technique large geo-synthetic tubes are placed deep under the sea water to break the energy of waves.

The National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) has already experimented with this technique at Kadalur (Chennai) on the east coast. "If successful इन Poonthurathis method will be used in Shunkumughambeach area also",says minister J. MercykuttyAmma. However, the effectiveness of this method is still debatable.

Is it desirable to fight nature or should one find a way to live harmoniously with it? Many experts and scientist believe that people should move back from the coast to give the sea waves enough space. According to an estimate,INR 10 to 15 million are spent to construct the sea walls in one kilometer and mostly it deprives the fisherman community from having a natural coast for theirlivelihood. If people move back from the coast and allow the sea to have its space, there will be better co-existence.

Nandkumar D the former professor of geography at University College Thiruvananthapuram and senior advisor, climate change and environment at non-profit Inter-cooperation Social Development says "If they (NIOT) are doing this (use of geo-synthetic tubes) as an experiment it is alright but the best thing (to protect the coast) what we can do is to let the sea play at the coast. We lost the beach due to all this encroachment. If people move a little away from the coast it will make a healthy beach and the local community will be happy as the stony structures which hamper their livelihood won't stand between them and the sea."

The government of Kerala says it has plans to remove people who live within 50 meters from the coast and the process has begun. "We have made arrangements to shift 192 families in flat-like accommodations." says minister J. Mercy KuttyAmma.

(This report was first published in India Climate Dialogue)


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