Fishermen in Kerala live on edge as coastal erosion destroys homes

Coastal erosion has emerged a major struggle for Kerala’s nine sea-facing districts, rendering fishermen families refugees in their own land. Tiki Rajwi on the resultant loss of the beach, homes, and livelihood, in what is both a human and environmental calamity 

Updated - July 14, 2023 08:41 am IST

Published - July 13, 2023 07:28 pm IST

Rough sea battering the Ambalappuzha coast in Alappuzha district.

Rough sea battering the Ambalappuzha coast in Alappuzha district. | Photo Credit: Suresh Alleppey

On Sunday, the sun finally came out after a long week of squally weather and rough seas. Soggy footwear, plastic bottles filled with dirty seawater, food wrappers, and broken thermocol pieces littered the narrow, concrete road hugging the crumbling seawall at Poonthura, a fishing village situated five km from Thiruvananthapuram city.

‘‘The waves threw back all this junk. Two days ago, you could not even stand here like this. The sea was all over the place,’‘ Oliver, 52, a stocky fisherman who has a one-room-plus-kitchen setup nearby, says pointing to the detritus. 

Also read | Climate vagaries to blame for coastal erosion: studies

The walls of Oliver’s home, and that of many others along the zig-zagging road, remain damp to the touch from the salty spray. The granite boulders, piled high  decades ago in this part of coastal Thiruvananthapuram, today offer scant protection during the two monsoon seasons lasting from June to December. To the north and south, some 70 or so metres apart, remnants of rock groynes poke out ineffectually into the sea like mutilated fingers. 

Rough sea battering the Ambalappuzha coast in Alappuzha district.

Rough sea battering the Ambalappuzha coast in Alappuzha district. | Photo Credit: Suresh Alleppey

The first strong spell of the 2023 southwest monsoon season, which lashed Kerala in the first week of July, has turned the spotlight back on the State’s eroding coasts and the plight of those who live on the beaches. 

In recent decades, coastal erosion has rendered fisherfolk from Kerala’s nine coastal districts, refugees in their own land. The State has a 592.96-km-long coastline. Of this, 46.4%, or 275.33 km, is impacted by erosion, according to the National Assessment of Shoreline Changes along Indian Coast (Volume 2 - West Coast) published in March 2022 by the National Centre for Coastal Research, a Ministry of Earth Sciences agency.

Only 30.8% (182.64 km) of the Kerala coast is deemed ‘stable,’ while accretion was reported in the remaining 22.8% (134.99 km). The remaining length of India’s west coast is largely ‘stable,’ according to this report.  

Inside Oliver’s place 

Legally, the house belongs to his mother Jeremina Vincent, he explains. The orange paint, dulled by age, is peeling from the damp walls. Framed images of Jesus and Mary adorn the far wall above a cracked concrete shelf. Fishing equipment — bundles of fishing nets, two Suzuki outboard engines, and two ice boxes stacked one above the other — take up most of the space in the cramped front room. White splotches, left there by the salty seawater which seeps in when the sea turns especially rough, cover the floor. 

The waves crashing outside thunder as if they were in the next room. It is a constant reminder of the threat of coastal erosion looming over Kerala, where traditional fishing methods tie down communities perilously close to the shoreline. Come monsoon season, there is a dramatic increase in the level of danger. 

A view of the houses damaged in sea erosion at Chellanam in  Kochi.

A view of the houses damaged in sea erosion at Chellanam in Kochi. | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

‘’There was no seawall here when we were young. We had a sandy beach and two rows of houses instead. They have all vanished now,’‘ says Herbert Joseph, a fisherman who grew up at Poonthura. As beaches no longer exist at Poonthura, the local fishermen are forced to keep their boats moored at the bustling harbour at Vizhinjam, 10 km to the south. 

Elsewhere on the Kerala coast, the situation is not much different. “Our place is turning into a ghost village as people are moving out to safer places. Only a handful of families with no other option continue to live here to face the raging sea,’‘ says Soman Pothuvel, 65, pointing to destroyed and abandoned buildings at Madhavamukku in Ambalapuzha North grama panchayat, Alappuzha district. 

At coastal Kannamaly in neighbouring Ernakulam district, Simi Midhun, 30, turns anxious every time clouds gather over her village. ‘‘Everything was washed away by the waves which lashed our place last week. The continuing sea incursion has almost destroyed our house,” she says, trying hard to hold back her tears. ‘‘My parents are now sleeping on a cot placed in front of our house. I have shifted to my uncle’s house with my husband and two children,” she adds. 

Erosion to get worse

In July 2022, a study by the Department of Geology, University of Kerala, observed that erosion may turn severe along the coast of Thiruvananthapuram district by 2027. The Assessment of coastal variations due to climate change using remote sensing and machine learning techniques: A case study from the west coast of India analysed coastal variations from 2006 to 2020 along the 58-km-long Thiruvananthapuram coastline.

It observed that approximately 2.62 sq km of land had eroded away over a 14-year period, while 42 km faced ‘‘acute erosion”. The erosion, it further noted, was caused primarily by high intensity waves during the monsoon and post-monsoon seasons. 

A fisherman’s house that collapsed in the merciless onslaught of torrential rain and relentless sea erosion at Ponnani in Malappuram district.

A fisherman’s house that collapsed in the merciless onslaught of torrential rain and relentless sea erosion at Ponnani in Malappuram district. | Photo Credit: Sakeer Hussain

A full year later, observations show the predictions in the report to be coming ominously true, says Shaji E., Associate Professor and Head of Department. ‘‘Erosion is happening at the rate mentioned in our report,’‘ he says.

At Gotheeswaram in the Beypore ward of Kozhikode Corporation, 17 families live on a small strip of land between the sea and the beach road. During the rainy season, they are often forced to move into relief camps or houses belonging to other people. “Our houses sit less than ten metres from the sea. There is no seawall either. Usually we do not wait till the sea turns rough. We move out much earlier and come back when the sea is back to normal,” says Shiju C., a resident. 

While coastal residents clamour for seawalls, like the new tetrapod-based one built at Chellanam, Kochi, other studies have blamed unscientifically built ‘hard structures’ - seawalls, groynes and harbours - for aggravating coastal erosion. This has prompted some experts to call Kerala’s eroding coasts a ‘‘man-made problem.’‘  

Also read: ‘Mangrove Man’ in Kerala fights to salvage sinking shores

In June 2021, an independent review (Seashore Erosion in Kerala: Review and Recommendations) by serving and retired scientists from the University of Kerala and the National Centre for Earth Science Studies had urged the government to adopt ‘living seashore’ models, observing that current breakwater and seawall constructions had only worsened erosion. 

Last year, the fishing community, led by the Latin Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram, had launched large-scale protests against the under-construction Vizhinjam international seaport project, blaming it for the coastal erosion in the region.

Muthalappozhi, in the north of the district, meanwhile, has turned notorious for recurring fishing boat accidents, which the local fishing industry attribute to design flaws in the harbour groynes. The region is witnessing a fresh bout of protests this week over another boat capsize that claimed the lives of four fishermen

In the coming years, climate change effects and changing monsoon patterns are expected to hold serious implications for coastal communities. The State Action Plan on Climate Change 2023-2030 has warned that ‘‘Kerala, being a coastal State, is at risk of sea level rise and its coastline is susceptible to large-scale sea erosion, losing over 40% of its coastline to the sea over the past 26 years due to sea level rise, leading to more frequent and severe coastal flooding in low-lying areas and coastal erosion”.

The State government’s Punargeham rehabilitation and housing scheme is designed to encourage fishermen families to move away from the shoreline. But such solutions are not always practical, say coastal residents.

“We have been asked to shift to a safer location permanently. Some people here have taken up the government offer of ₹10 lakh to do so. But many families are resisting the offer as the money is not nearly enough to purchase land and build a house elsewhere,’‘ says Mr. Shiju of Gotheeswaram, Kozhikode. 

As long-term solutions acceptable to all continue to prove elusive, coastal communities live with the constant fear of having to evacuate to relief camps once the sea turns rough. In places such as Valiyathura, a fishing village in Thiruvananthapuram, entire families have spent years in congested shared spaces in school rooms and godowns as the government pondered solutions. Till recently, more than 60 families occupied four large godowns close to the old pier at Valiyathura.  

The majority of the families have now been shifted to rented spaces, a temporary measure until they are provided flats under the government scheme. But four families continue to occupy the smaller of the godowns whose interior has been partitioned into cubicles, one per family. ‘‘All the other families were shifted from here except us,’‘ said Mary Myrtle. ‘‘We were told we are not eligible, as we never had houses in the first place. We were tenants of one of the families who lost their home. All of us were evacuated to a nearby school first and later here,’‘ she says. She adds after a brief pause, ‘‘It will be seven years this month since we had to move out.’‘ 

For the traditional fishers, the monsoon months add to their misery on the employment front as well. Erratic weather over the Arabian Sea means they remain out of work, sometimes for days on end, as coastal weather alerts are routinely accompanied by a temporary ban on fishing activity.

‘‘Last year, we lost 26 days of work on account of weather-related warnings during the two monsoon seasons (southwest monsoon lasting from June to September and northeast monsoon from October to December),’‘ says Jackson Pollayil, president of the Kerala Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, an organisation representing the fishing community.

(With inputs from Sam Paul A., G. Krishnakumar and Aabha Raveendran)

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