Coastal erosion not driven by Vizhinjam port, says researcher 

U.S. -based academic’s study, which attributed erosion to the natural seaward jutting of certain places, has come in for criticism from those demanding a halt to the port construction

September 30, 2022 12:46 am | Updated 12:46 am IST

Clement Lopez

Clement Lopez

A study that found no correlation between the coastal erosion and the Vizhinjam port has stirred up a hornets’ nest in the Thiruvananthapuram Archdiocese of the Catholic Church (Latin rites), which spearheads the fishermen’s agitation against the port. A section of priests mounted a scathing verbal attack on the author of the study Clement Lopez, a U.S.-based researcher and former researcher at the Department of Future Studies, University of Kerala. In a chat with The Hindu , he explains the circumstances that led to the study and its socio-economic significance. Excerpts:-

Q / One of the main demands of the Thiruvananthapuram Archdiocese is a study on the impact of the port work on the district’s coastline. They also want a representative of the fishermen to be included on the panel of the study. You hail from the same community and from an affected coastal village, Poonthura. But they have outrightly rejected your findings and questioned your integrity. Your comments.

The priests who opposed my findings did not challenge the study academically or scientifically. Instead, they tried to question my integrity by launching a personal attack. That is not the way to challenge a scientific study. I don’t think the Church is against me over the findings. Only some priests, who have personal interests, have opposed me.

Q / Could you explain the circumstances under which you decided to come up with the study?

Though I shifted to the U.S. in 2013, I was involved in matters related to the fishing community in Kerala. The Church used to seek my guidance in subjects related to my domain. I taught Economics in the seminary under the diocese for 14 years. I strongly argue for the fishermen’s cause and out of the seven demands put forth by the diocese, I support six, except the demand to halt the port construction. I know there is no logic in the demand as the coastal erosion was not aggravated by the construction. I know each nook and cranny of the coastal villages, both from the perspective of a researcher and a common man.

When the protest became a long-drawn affair, I urged the Church to stop the stir by yielding to the request of the State government that was ready to reach a consensus with the fishing community, except for their demand of halting the port construction. But some priests decided to intensify the strike by misleading the fishermen. This was not acceptable and I was forced to come up with a study. There is a clear conspiracy and some political interests in the protest against the port.

Q / It is a known fact that any structure on the shoreline, be it groynes, breakwater, or seawall, aggravates erosion on one side and accretion on the other side. So is it wise to construct a port on a highly eroding coastline?

In fact, the factor that has been causing erosion in the coastal villages north of the port and accretion in the southern villages is the location of the Kovalam cliff, Azhimala, and Chowara that jut seaward, at one point, around 1.4 km to the sea. This pattern of erosion and accretion was there even before the construction of the Vizhinjam harbour. The Adimalathura coastal village, on the southern side, and near the Chowara hills, has a history of only 100 years after families from further south migrated in tune with the accretion.

My study, based on the data of beaches in the past years from Google Earth, shows that there is no correlation between Vizhinjam port and the severe erosion that happened in Valiathura, Thope, and Shanghumugham, which are located around 16 km from the port. It is clearly connected with the nearby 12 groynes in Cheriathura and Beemapally.

The Vizhinjam port is being constructed on the south side of the Kovalam cliff, which is not an eroding beach, but an accretion beach. Also, a sizeable proportion of the breakwater is within the bay, and the rest within the length of the cliff. The port can cause further erosion over and above the traditional cliff-induced erosion only when its seaward projection exceeds the length of the Kovalam cliff.

Q / Being an expert, what is the best development model available to mitigate the impact of the erosion?

The beaches are different in terms of availability, sand size, and nearby structures, both natural and constructed. For example, the award-winning technology ‘Tetrapot’ that uses the tetrapod and mangrove seeds or plants inside, intertwining roots with adjacent tetrapots, thus creating a habitat, may not be successful if the soil is not marshy. In that case, it needs additional effort. Some beaches need beach nourishment.

The whole Thiruvananthapuram beach should be considered as one unit. The beach protection master plan should consider the impact on the adjacent beaches and the plan should address and pre-empt the same. Rather than resorting to one coastal protection technology, the strategy should combine them. Once the waves are diffused through the groynes or geotube, (geotube at Kadaloor in Tamil Nadu, and Kovalam were a failure), the beach nourishment should be backed with layers of ‘tetrapots’.

For the long-run stability of the beaches, the beach should be created both from the shoreline and from the other side, by taking over at least one layer of houses. The integrated and multi-technologies-based strategy and the master plan should also include periodic maintenance. In the case of beach nourishment, one estimate is ₹1,800 crore for a size of 100 km, 10 ft (3 metres) in height, and 200 m in width. Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, and up to Thottapally (where Vembanad lake’s south end separates) may be combined as one bio unit, which accounts for about 150 km. About 40% of this (current measure) coast is eroded.

The Kerala Budget has allocated ₹5,400 crores for coastal protection, which is currently spent in a non-integrated way, which can cause erosion elsewhere. Along with beach nourishment, mangrove-afforestation, and one-line houses (wherever required) shall be included in the integrated master plan.

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