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Kerala's climate refugees

Rampant soil erosion and rough seas are uprooting Kerala’s coastal residents from their homes and livelihoods.

Keralas climate refugees

65-year-old Maria sits at the doorstep of her demolished house. Only a wall attached to the door remains intact. Every morning, she comes "home" and sits there till the evening, ruminating over her memories from the time when she and her family had started to build their new house.

"My family and I lived in this house just for two years. One night, there was an announcement for us to go to a relief camp as the sea was rough. When we returned the next morning, the house was ruined by the waves. We were heartbroken," she lamented.

Maria lives in the coastal Valiyathura in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala. As per official records, 110 families have lost their houses in Valiyathura alone because of coastal erosion and rough seas. Another 100 homes have been damaged in the nearby fishing villages of Poonthura, Panathura and Bimapalli, all over the last five years.

About 200 fishermen families are living in different government schools, which function as temporary relief camps. Three or four families live in a single classroom, sleeping on the floor and cooking inside the same room. Many of them go to the shoreline regularly to see the remains of their houses.

"We are living in this school for the last five years. My child does not know how to live in a house, he was born here. We had a three-bedroom house there in the first row of houses on the shore," said one of the refugees, Mini, tearfully.

Alphine from Valiyathura has had sleepless nights as she fears losing her home to the eroding shoreline. Ten years ago, when her house was built, it was more than 550m from the shoreline. Now, it is hardly three metre away. "Cracks have already appeared in the doors and windows. We have packed our things and are prepared to run away anytime from here," she said.

In Valiyathura, the most affected coastline of the district, three rows of houses near the sea have been devastated. Another three rows – about a 100 houses – are under severe threat. Like in the case of Alphine's house, most of these already have cracks. Sanghumugham is one of the most popular beaches in the district. The seawall here is completely broken and the beach has been eroded in this southwest monsoon, which began in June.

"There are two types of erosion: cyclic and progressive. One need not worry about cyclic erosion as erosion during the rough season gets balanced by accretion during the calm season in a year. Progressive erosion is the one that has to be addressed as it is continuous. The reason for progressive erosion needs to (be) assured through scientific studies and appropriate corrective measures can then be taken," D Ilangovan, a senior principal scientist at the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), told Mongabay-India.

The erosion in Valiyathura, Poonthura and Panathura of Thiruvananthapuram seems to be progressive as the beach was not restored. But, in Shangumugham, the erosion is cyclic and the beach gets restored after the rough season.

Constructing seawalls has been Kerala's main defence against the drastic erosion. However, it proved to be a failure and experts opine that these walls can, in fact, have an adverse effect. Seawalls are structures built between water and land areas, usually along the coastline to protect waves from hitting the shore and prevent soil erosion. Of the 590-km stretch of Kerala's coastline, 310 km has sea walls.

KV Thomas, a former scientist at the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) told Mongabay-India that seawall construction is, on the contrary, one of the reasons that cause erosion. According to him, erosion during monsoon is common but, after the rains, the beach doesn't get reinstated because of the sea wall. The sediments that are washed away don't come back, he claimed.

He analysed why Valiyathura and Shangumugham were the most affected beaches. "Both Valiyathura and Shangumugham beaches lie in between a gap of seawalls. The Valiyathura shoreline exists in between two seawalls that end on its south side and another seawall had started from another side where the people lived in between. So, it caused an elevation of water level in the gap. That is how we lost hundreds of houses in Valiyathura," he said.

Cyclone Ockhi of 2017 is also attributed with worsening the situation. "This year the erosion was severe compared to previous years because the damage that happened during Ockhi could not be repaired due to continued depressions in the sea after the cyclone," Thomas said.

"We have around 590 kilometres of coastline, I don't think sea wall constructions produce the desired effect. Seawalls and breakwaters are not scientific solutions. Putting a barrier on the coast will destroy the ecosystem. It will deepen the sea," said Oommen V Oommen, former chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board. Oommen affirmed that natural protection is the only way out. "We need to plant trees and plants in the coastal areas that protect our beaches. Only natural remedies can solve the issue, not manmade constructions. Coastal vegetation, as well as mangrove plantations, can hold the sand in the shore," he said.

(In arrangement with Mongabay.com, a source for environmental news reporting and analysis. The views expressed are those of Mongabay.com)

Haritha John

Haritha John

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