Bearing the brunt of erosion

Defenceless against the vagaries of the weather and the threat of coastal erosion, hundreds of families living along the coast face displacement.  Many shifting between shelters and their homes when the monsoon gains strength, they live in the hope that the government will find them regular homes soon.

Updated - May 21, 2022 11:24 pm IST

Published - May 20, 2022 07:28 pm IST - THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

Families who lost their houses in sea erosion being accommodated inside a warehouse  at Valiyathura in Thiruvananthapuram.

Families who lost their houses in sea erosion being accommodated inside a warehouse at Valiyathura in Thiruvananthapuram. | Photo Credit: MAHINSHA S

Fathima Carlos walks into her kitchen and points to the cracks snaking up the backwall. The walls and floor of her home, she says, are constantly damp from the salty spray which blows in from the waves breaking over the seawall close by.

Only a narrow, cluttered strip of backyard and the seawall, a low, irregular blackline of piled-up granite boulders, separate the small house at Thazhampally in coastal Thiruvananthapuram from the persistent fury of the Arabian Sea.

Once the southwest monsoon sets in - which is in a few days’ time - things are going to get worse, says Fathima. She and her 72-year-old husband, a fisherman, would love to do what many of their neighbours have already done: move! But money remains a problem.

“In the last monsoon, the glass on the windows at the back of the house was shattered by the waves. Several times in the past we have shifted to relief camps when the sea became really rough. Politicians come here only for the elections,” she says.

Many families on this southern stretch of the Kerala coast have similar stories to relate. Several of them have managed to build new homes a little inland, but they can scarcely break their ties to the coast — their livelihood depends on the sea and the fish it provides.

‘‘Coastal erosion has claimed many houses in these parts over the years. When the weather turns bad, the sea will pound over the seawall,” says Lyons, 72, another resident here. “In the old days, there was a broad beach here. Would you believe it?” he asks. Now there are only houses and the remains of houses tightly hugging seawalls.

Residents such as Lyons blame the unscientifically constructed groynes of the Muthalapozhi harbour mouth for the erosion which has gradually eaten away their beach. ‘‘Nowadays, the drinking water supply is also bad. We get water one day, then there’s nothing for the next two-three days,’‘ says Lyons’s son-in-law Mathews, a heavyset man hailing from Kollam. 

A quick drive along the otherwise breezy and picturesque coastal road is enough to see how bad things really are. The beaches - or what’s left of them - of places such as Anchuthengu, Poothura, and Valiyathura are lined with the skeletons and rubble of houses destroyed by the waves over the years.

A little north of the Anchuthengu Fort, the seaside is littered with the collapsed concrete slabs of a shed constructed not so long ago for a fish-landing centre. ‘‘The shed came down last Karkidakam. It was used only for a few days,” explains Yesudasan, a local.

Blue tarpaulin and sandbags cover the thin, exposed walls of small houses close to the beach that are still occupied. A resident warns you not to stand too close to the water as the sand is loose and easily caves in.

Further south, at Valiyathura, which is Ward 87 of the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation, over 60 families continue to share space in four cavernous godowns close to the Valiyathura pier, an old landmark which too has not fared well in the onslaught of the sea.

The families live in the hope that someday soon the government will find them regular homes. Some of them have been there for less than six months, others, two and even three years. Residents in this part of the coast blame the breakwater being constructed for the international seaport project at Vizhinjam for aggravating coastal erosion. 

People such as A.J. Vijayan, a Thiruvananthapuram-based expert on coastal issues, are of the opinion that coastal erosion is more a man-made problem. They blame unscientifically built structures such as harbours, breakwaters, and seawalls that are a common sight along the Kerala coastline for the severe trials faced by the coastal communities today.

‘‘You could say coastal erosion really began in these parts with the construction of the breakwater for the Vizhinjam fisheries harbour. That was 50 years ago. Back then, places such as Poonthura and Panathura began to be affected by erosion,” Mr. Vijayan says.

Over the past two years, several studies have urged the State government to favour environment-friendly, sustainable solutions to coastal protection over unscientific structures which only serve to aggravate erosion. These studies stress the dynamic and organic links among rivers, estuaries and the sea. 

Seashore Erosion in Kerala: Review and Recommendation, an independent review by a group of serving and retired scientists connected to the University of Kerala, the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, and the Kerala Forest Research Institute, published in June 2021, observes that current breakwater and seawall constructions have worsened the sea erosion scenario.

They instead suggests the adoption of the ‘living seashore,’ where sand dunes and mangroves and other native vegetation are employed as natural defence. While pointing out that no single solution exists for tackling erosion, the study recommends that seashore be classified based on the severity of erosion.

Among other things, the study calls for the preparation of coastal erosion maps for Kerala, and suggests that fishing communities be treated as ‘ecosystem people,’ their locations barred to other commercial activities.

‘‘Some of our recommendations, such as those on coastal afforestation strategies, have since been taken up,” Biju Kumar A., Professor & Head, Department of Aquatic Biology & Fisheries, University of Kerala, who was part of the study, told The Hindu

In September 2020, the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) called for steps to curb illegal and unscientific construction and the rampant encroachment along the Thiruvananthapuram coast and relocate people from vulnerable locations.

The study Coastal erosion and management along the Thiruvananthapuram coast also recommended a ‘‘comprehensive revisit’‘ of the environment impact assessment carried out for the multi-crore Vizhinjam seaport project.

In June 2021, the Thiruvananthapuram-based organisation Coastal Watch also came out with a set of similar recommendations for the Thiruvananthapuram coast. 

The government is, meanwhile, going ahead with the ‘Punargeham‘ scheme which aims at rehabilitating people living within 50 metres of the high-tide line. Till February this year, 2,208 people have completed land registration procedures and 1,093 houses had been constructed, according to Assembly documents.

The revised State Budget for 2021-22 also announced a ₹5,300 crore, five-year Statewide package for coastal conservation which will be a blend of technologies such as double-layered tetrapods and diaphragm walls with anti-scour layers, mangroves, rolling barrier systems, geo containers, and geo-tubes. How this works out remains to be seen. 

Meantime, the coastal communities are keeping their fingers crossed with weather experts predicting an early onset of the southwest monsoon this year. The families put up at the godown-relief camps at Valiyathura are worried about the tough monsoon months ahead.

A few of the families moved in just a few months ago from another camp close by. ‘‘We had three newborns with us when we came,’‘ says one of the women.

In a corner of one of the godowns, lamps burn at a makeshift altar where several idols and a well-thumbed Bible sit on a table beneath a crucifix on the wall. The women point out that weather alerts mean the men cannot set out to sea, sometimes for days together.

‘‘We know the alerts are for our own good. We adults can make do with water, but what will we tell our children, what will we give them to eat?’‘ asks Maglin, one of the residents. 

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