The sinking island of Kerala

Munroe Thuruthu, in Kollam district, is slowly going under water, and its fleeing residents join the swelling ranks of climate refugees. Navamy Sudhish reports on the mystery behind the ‘sinking island’ and what the future holds for the families who continue to live there

Updated - November 13, 2020 11:14 am IST

Published - December 22, 2018 12:02 am IST

“It cannot be easy waking up every day to the certainty that the place you call home is sinking.” Residents of Pattamthuruthu at a destroyed and submerged bridge

“It cannot be easy waking up every day to the certainty that the place you call home is sinking.” Residents of Pattamthuruthu at a destroyed and submerged bridge

From a vantage point on the narrow ridge that meanders through Munroe Thuruthu in Kollam district, Kerala, you can see water seeping into the ragged edges of a house. Mould has invaded its walls. Its crumbling roof forms an eerie silhouette in the afternoon sun. Tall coconut stumps pierce a slate-grey sky. A canal spews dark slime. Despite all the water, the landscape is a picture of desolate barrenness. The 13.4 sq. km Munroe Thuruthu is an island that no longer holds any promises.

Thulasi, 42, still remembers the day, 20 years ago, when she came to Munroe as a bride. Back then, the island seemed like an idyll. Her small thatched house stood in the middle of coconut palms, on land filled with layers upon layers of silt. But today there is neither sand nor coconut trees. She lives in a ramshackle structure bursting at its seams. Water enters her house every day — an unwelcome guest that leaves the walls damp and turns her yard into a brown pool of filth. She knows that her land is being reclaimed by water, and that the entire island will be wiped off the map soon. Yet, this is the future that awaits all residents of Munroe Thuruthu, a string of eight islets at the confluence of the Ashtamudi Lake and the Kallada river. It cannot be easy waking up every day to the certainty that the place you call home is sinking.


The gathering tide

In low-lying Pattamthuruthu, one of the islets in the island’s mid-western part, the homes are a little more than rotting heaps. Salt residue sticks to their floors like fungi while saline water gnaws at the concrete. Says Thulasi: “Water rushes inside during high tide and the strongest tides happen on full moon and no-moon days. You cannot flush your toilets when the flooding happens. When the water recedes, it stinks for hours.”

The home of Appukuttan, 40, and Sumangala, 36, is a fly-infested cesspool. The couple say there is no option to help them drain the flood water as they can’t afford the clay — priced at ₹1,000 per boat load — that is needed to fill it. Says Sumangala, “The flooding will continue till May. There are nights when you suddenly wake up sensing something is wrong and step into ankle-deep water.” Their house is surrounded by kambatti thickets, a variety of mangrove, that keeps the water in the nearby canal stagnant.

Like many others on the island, Sunil Kumar, Geetha and their two daughters, aged six and eight, have to wade through dirty water almost every day. Says Geetha, “We know it’s not hygienic for the children and they often get skin diseases. But we don’t have any other way out.”

Her neighbour, Ponnappan, 68, says the recent floods have made the situation worse. He says: “The water level has grown compared to previous years.”

Two islets in Munroe, which include Pattamthuruthu and Peringalam, do not have motorable roads. Connectivity is a major problem for the residents. The only higher secondary school on the island is in Peringalam. For students, getting to school can be an ordeal. Says Kalyani, 48, a resident, “You have to walk on waterlogged roads and take a boat to the school. There are no vehicles.” When Thulasi’s husband, Sathyan, fell ill, his neighbours had to carry him on a chair for nearly 2 km to the nearest road. “Elders, pregnant women, and people with serious health issues suffer a lot. Recently, a girl delivered her baby on the road while on her way to the hospital,” Kalyani adds.

A tourist travelling in a country boat through Pezhumthuruthu.

A tourist travelling in a country boat through Pezhumthuruthu.


In the past, most of the islanders were farmers. Today, the men take on odd jobs while the women look for earnings from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The island also has a small number of fish farmers. Yet regardless of their occupation, they all share similar nightmares.

Lakshmikutty, 72, talks about how, in August this year, the pandal that was put up for her grandson’s wedding got flooded. The family had to suddenly organise extra funds to book a wedding hall. Shobhana, a homemaker, adds that for many families, finding a good matrimonial alliance has become very difficult. “Who would want to relocate to a stinking island with no basic facilities?” she asks. The island, which lies barely 20 km from Kollam city, presents a stark contrast to the bustling business centre.

Not surprisingly, there has been a steady exodus from Munroe island, which currently has only 2,200 families, and is dotted with abandoned houses in varying stages of decay. Says Sathyan, 49, “Our biggest problem is finding a buyer for our land. Many have just abandoned their home as it has become impossible to sell it.”

“Many homes are a little more than rotting heaps.” An abandoned house at Peringalam

“Many homes are a little more than rotting heaps.” An abandoned house at Peringalam


After the dam

The island’s decline began with the construction of the Thenmala dam. Located 70 km away and constructed in the 1960s under the Kallada Irrigation Project, the dam blocked the flow of fresh water as a result of sediments from the Kallada river — the main determinant of the land’s fertility. Today the whole area has turned saline.

Binu Karunakaran, president, Munroe Thuruthu panchayat, says, “The threat of tidal surge became aggravated after the [Indian Ocean] tsunami in 2004. It also accelerated the whole sinking phenomenon. Earlier, it took decades for a building to deteriorate. Now it happens in a couple of years.” He spreads a map of the island on his desk and points to an island called Ekkappuram. “Eight families used to live here,” he says. “Today, the whole island is completely under water.”

Munroe itself has been reporting a dip in population over the last few years. Says Karunakaran, “The island currently has 9,800 residents. But it used to be over 15,000.”

According to a report prepared in 2016-17 by the Government Engineering College, Thrissur, the 2004 tsunami caused a sudden rise in the volume of building settlements, affecting the life of islanders. It says: “Around 418 families are reported as affected. Many buildings in the area had settled down into the ground, ranging from a few centimetres to nearly half a metre (sic). The flood water during periods of high tide enter into the buildings and cause damage to the dwelling units. The premises of the houses are water-logged at times, causing problems for even entry/exit. A few residents have abandoned their dwelling units for safer locations.”

Karunakaran says that outward migration from the panchayat is the main reason for the decline in the island’s population — a demographic pattern that bucks the trend in the rest of the country. He says, “As per the 2011 Census, the population growth rate for Munroe Thuruthu was minus 0.57%. In 2001 it was minus 0.36%. Parents often leave the place when their children relocate to other places. Hundreds of families have fled the island in the last few years.”

Another problem on the island is the scarcity of drinking water. During high tide, the public water supply system stops functioning and water has to be transported in canoes. V.K. Madhusoodan, a member of the environment committee of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, says, “Before the tsunami, there was tidal flooding in the island for only two months in a year. But now it happens eight months in a year.” Madhusoodaan, who also conducted a study on the sinking island, adds, “The island can also be seen as the first casualty of global warming in Kerala, creating a band of environmental refugees.”

Some history

In the not too distant past, Munroe Thuruthu used to be a hub of coconut farming. Named after Colonel John Munroe, the British Resident of erstwhile Travancore State, the island was the main source of funding for the construction of CMS College in Kottayam during the pre-Independence era. But over the years, saline intrusion has stripped the soil of its fertility. Now the coconut trees on the island are mostly barren stumps. The local coir industry too collapsed due to a shortage of the raw material.

Many farmers then turned to the only remaining option: aquaculture. The last few years have seen the emergence of several fish farms. But the recent floods have wrecked the island’s fragile ecological balance, and, once again, it is the farmers who have had to bear the brunt. H. Salim, Deputy Director of Fisheries in the Kerala government, says, “The floods caused a sudden change in the physico-chemical parameters of the water, making it a less suitable environment for many species. Then the change in the salinity level led to the vanishing of plankton which, in turn, will affect fish production in future.”


The cause of the problem

While several studies have tried to pinpoint the reason for the island’s steady sinking, none has come up with a fully satisfactory explanation. The National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS), based in Thiruvananthapuram, has been monitoring the island for the past one year. Says K.K. Ramachandran, Group Head, Atmospheric Processes, NCESS, “The preliminary results of their investigations do not suggest that there is any rapid subsidence or ‘sinking’. Structures on the island which have faulty foundations, of which there are many, have gone into this self-weight consolidation stage.” He adds, “To reach any conclusion on ground subsidence, we should track ground measurements using GPS for a longer period of time. But flooding is another matter, and the low-lying reaches of the island are under serious threat.”

An NCESS study has found that the total water-holding capacity of Ashtamudi lake has decreased by 15% in the last 17 years. He says, “Munroe’s canal system is not properly maintained. A mesh of vegetation is blocking the waterways. So, once the astronomical tide from the Neendakara harbour [40 km away] reaches Ashtamudi, water gets trapped in the island.”

Global warming and climate change are also seen as the main forces driving the steady inundation. Ramachandran, however, says that climate change can only be one of the contributing factors. “There is no denying the impending threat of sea-level rise. We have decoded that pattern. But that alone cannot cause such a geo-environmental condition,” he points out.

“In Munroe,” Ramachandran continues, “there are areas that get inundated, but when we analyse the tides, we find that sometimes even the highest tide doesn’t flood the island. We have also found a particular kind of internal resonance in the water body of Ashtamudi and currently we are researching that. Results from geophysical methods are expected to throw light on the sub-surface lithology and sediment layers. So the real reason behind the flooding is not the astronomical tide, but something else. We are hoping to figure it out within a year.”

Another major concern for the scientists is the evident sagging of the railway line cutting through the island. This is the same line from which, in July 1988, the Island Express fell into Ashtamudi lake, claiming 105 lives. Says Ramachandran, “Nearly 100 trains pass through the line every day and the ground vibrations will affect a place like Munroe. If you go to the Munroturuttu railway station, you will see that the entire platform has come down almost to the level of tracks.”

The NCESS has also collected vertical core samples — soil samples collected by digging deep — from different parts of the island to study the sediment build-up. Adds Ramachandran, “This island was partly built by the dumping of soil. So the sediment layers have become compressed over the years. That’s why the buildings get slumped into the sediment layer, which means they are settling down and getting consolidated into the mud. The loosely laid sediment build-up cannot bear heavy structures and therefore we should adopt a construction method that is not so harsh on the terrain. We have to be very careful when it comes to new constructions.”


Hope floats

K.N. Balagopal, a former Member of Parliament from Kollam — he drew national attention to Munroe’s plight by raising it in Parliament, in 2015 — believes that it is time to look for sustainable solutions. He says, “I first noticed the issue when I visited the island in 2014 to assess rain damage. The farmers were facing a severe crisis, with nearly all their crops buried under water. But the flood pattern hinted at something other than the annual monsoon havoc and so I started observing the geographic and environmental changes on the island.”

After he raised the issue in Parliament, a Central delegation visited the island to study the problem. Says Balagopal: “They went back after installing a tsunami warning system and nothing much came of it.” He feels that instead of branding the island as “ecologically fragile” and preparing for a mass evacuation, the State should adopt construction methods that suit the topography.

He adds: “While looking for solutions, we discovered this concept of disaster-proof amphibious houses that can either be floating type or built on stilts. They use low-weight and water-resistant material and the units will have chemical toilets. At a later stage, we can focus on the possibilities of reviving agriculture and tapping the tourism potential of the place. The island can also be marketed as a model showcasing the terrifying consequences of global warming.” Funded by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the first flood-proof house of Munroe is now nearing completion. Soon, the island will also flaunt the first amphibious building in India.

Nanma Gireesh, a postgraduate student of Translational Engineering, says, “This is a structure that will rise whenever flooding occurs and settle back when the water recedes.” Gireesh, who is designing an amphibious structure on the island for the tourism department, adds, “It will be the first such amphibious project in India. I finalised the design with the help of my guide, Suja R., after visiting the Netherlands and studying the patterns there.”

For its buoyant foundation, the construction method normally prescribes using recycled plastic barrels or bamboo/concrete pontoons as per site specifications. Says Gireesh, “Under normal conditions, the structure stays on the ground. But when flooding happens, it rises over the level of water. It won’t float away as it will be connected to four guidance posts whose heights can be customised.” Another highlight of the amphibious building is that it can be easily transported to another location as a single unit. “It’s not attached to the ground, and you don’t even need to dismantle it in order to transport it,” she adds.

At a workshop in February, at Munroe Thuruthu, organised by the State Wetland Authority Kerala (SWAK) and Directorate of Environment and Climate Change (DoECC), Kerala, many experts suggested that the entire island be divided into different zones based on vulnerability and that residents of only specific areas be rehabilitated in safer locations. While some parts of the island such as Patamthuruthu, are caught in the death throes, others such as Manakkadavu and Peringalam are seeing a revival in tourist inflow.

Says Karunakaran, “We currently have 28 homestays, four service villas and two resorts. Shikara rides on the river are very popular. The tourists also enjoy travelling in country boats and canoes. Mangroves and migratory birds are another attraction. The District Tourism Promotion Council is operating a couple of special packages to the island.”

He adds, “But instead of mindlessly fuelling the demand, we have decided to promote only responsible tourism in the area. Nothing that harms the environment will be allowed.”


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