Nine-year old Hasain Sina’s T-shirt was about the same shade of blue as the tarpaulin stretched taut across the broken roofs. He picked his way through a narrow rubble-strewn lane lined by the husks of modest homes. They looked as though they had been sliced vertically by some gigantic scalpel, their inner lives and private spaces thrown open to the world.

Sina walked past one of these houses, whose face had been sheared off by the sea. From within the three walls that still stood, a woman waved at him and went back to her morning chores. Sina waved back cheerily.

There were jagged edges everywhere, in this settlement in Ullal, on the coast of Karnataka: in broken foundation stones sticking out of the earth like broken bones, in roofs caved in and swaying in the breeze, in the nails and tiles that paved the little lane Sina walked down.

The child already seemed intimately familiar with the destruction and the bounce back – the rhythm of these lives by the sea.

As we walked, he told me how much he thought it costs to rebuild these homes and pointed at the few that had been able to afford it. Extended family, he was beginning to realise, had homes in faraway places that one could escape to when the sea got really violent.

At the settlement’s sea-facing mosque, he described how it had been resurrected after a rich benefactor from a nearby town decided to step in. He was particularly excited by its coat of whitewash, so different from the moss-laden concrete and exposed brick around it.

His own home, just a few hundred metres away, lay damaged by the sea.

In recent months, he has drawn comfort from a giant new seawall that stretches the length of this settlement, half-a-dozen metres from their homes.

The wall stands about eight feet tall and, from where we stood, ran as far as the eye could see in both directions.

Seen from the sea, it is a haphazard mass of tetrapods that looks like a game of three-dimensional Tetris gone wrong.

It was completed by the Karnataka government in 2019 with technical and financial support from the Asian Development Bank, and is the latest move in a decades-long battle against coastal erosion.

“This is good work,” said Abdul Rashid, who is Sina’s neighbour and on most days is a labourer on fishing boats, at the lower end of the seafaring hierarchy. He has had to rebuild substantial portions of his house thrice without insurance. Insurance companies refuse to cover these houses because of their hazardous siting. Rayappa, the municipal commissioner of Ullal City, said he has tried pushing insurers to extend coverage to them, but without success.

Abdul Rashid, Hasain Sina and and a friend, Sameer, in front a house cut up by coastal erosion. A seawall built in 2019 has offered some protection to the settlement. Photo: Aditya Valiathan Pillai

Ullal’s new, reinforced seawall arose from a graveyard of lesser projects built and destroyed over a decade. As the monsoon sea advanced to consume houses and roads, the government lined the shoreline repeatedly, first with rocks, then rocks again, and then very large sandbags. Every monsoon, the winds picked up, the waves grew violent and these defences were dismantled by the sea. “It is such a powerful hit,” said UT Khader, the four-time MLA of the area. “These huge stones are flying around like footballs right at the houses.”

The new seawall, with deeper foundations and many more layers of defence, is a reprieve for elected representatives and government administrators, pausing decades of local dissatisfaction. “There was a lot of pressure earlier,” said Khader, “but now it has reduced.”

This story is playing out across Karnataka’s coast and in many Indian states. A mix of unscientific coastal development and climatic change, seen here as rising sea levels and more frequent cyclones, has made coastal erosion more widespread and unpredictable.

According to separate government studies, between a third and 46% of India’s coastline has seen varying degrees of erosion in the last three decades. Over a fifth of Karnataka’s coast was eroded between 1990 and 2016. A 2019 paper that studied erosion in different parts of the state’s coast found that Ullal was the worst hit: since 1990, it had lost the most land to the sea, at the rate of 1.3 metres a year.

As pressure mounts, these quiet coastal settlements are being shaped by a new brand of politics driven by climate impacts. In the problem of erosion, local politicians see a new arena for competition and recognition, particularly because these vivid scenes of devastation are annually plastered across local papers, and television and mobile screens.

Seawalls are politically attractive because they are concrete, visible symbols of state-sponsored safety. The government is therefore frantically building more of them. Seawalls already cover between 10% and 15% of Karnataka’s coast. Reports suggest that over two-thirds of neighbouring Kerala’s famed coastline has already been walled.

Scientific wisdom, however, has moved decidedly against seawalls in recent years.A new landmark report on climate impacts and adaptation from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, repeatedly warns against seawalls, except in instances where they are part of a long-term plan. It warns that they can lull communities into a false sense of security as sea levels rise, apart from being expensive and hard to reverse. They are also known to transfer erosion to other parts of the coast.

But keeping the coast intact without seawalls would mean reaching into the innards of Karnataka’s remarkable growth story, and making politically damaging changes to how it manages areas as varied as its seaward trade, construction, rivers, and bureaucracy. For example, letting rivers flow undammed would allow their sediment to recharge beaches, but would jeopardise promises made to increase the state’s highly-scrutinised summertime water supply.

Climate adaptation is often seen as technocratic work, involving prediction and planning, but Karnataka’s coast is proving that it is equally about politics. It foreshadows the challenges India will face in responding to the IPCC’s new report, which calls for urgent and extensive adaptation to climate impacts across the country.

This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.

Ullal’s shore began eroding after the construction of a breakwater for Old Mangalore Port in 1994, around a kilometre to the north. The breakwater, a thin 200-metre strip of stone laid perpendicular to the coast, has been vital to the city’s growth. For almost three decades, it has sheltered ships from the storms and the lashing waves of the Arabian sea, giving the city’s post-liberalisation boomtime trade networks room to grow.

In the years since, regions south of the breakwater have eroded one after the other, like a wound moving down India’s west coast. Each new instance has been met by a wall, only for the problem to reappear in an adjacent area.

This is because India’s coastline is a single, constantly evolving organism. Beach sand moves in long and unseen migrations up and down the coast each year (see an explanatory video here), propelled by waves striking the coast at an angle. An impediment to this journey, like a breakwater, leads to sand pileups on one side and a vacuum pocket of sorts on the other, in which erosion takes place. A seawall is usually built, which pushes the vacuum pocket and erosion to adjacent land. People in this new pocket lobby for a seawall. The cycle repeats until large portions of the coast are armoured.

“It’s like a gangrene that’s spreading,” said Parvez Ahmed, whose beach-front homestay now teeters over the sea, some of it already lost, just a few kilometres south of the Ullal erosion site.

Ahmed’s house is mere meters away from a brand new array of anti-erosion structures, which includes seawalls. (He requested that his name be changed for this story.)

Ullal’s shore began eroding after the construction of a breakwater for Old Mangalore Port in 1994. The new seawall has deeper foundations and more layers of defence than earlier ones. Photo: Aditya Valiathan Pillai

In recent years, this coupled process of erosion and seawall building has been turbocharged by increasingly frequent cyclones on the west coast. The last two decades have seen 52% more cyclonic storms in the Arabian Sea than the two decades before that. During these storms, the waves batter the coast with greater intensity, sometimes eroding in a few hours as much land as would have been lost in months or years. These cyclonic storms also last longer than before, lent enormous energy by a rapid increase in the Arabian Sea’s temperatures, which is warming faster than the global average.

All this is made worse by the fact that there will soon be a lot more water sloshing about the world’s oceans and crashing onto these fragile shores. In half a century, the sea level at Mangalore – one of Karnataka’s largest cities – would have risen between 20 and 30 cm in the more likely emissions scenarios. This is higher than the projected rise in more-discussed vulnerable cities like Mumbai and Kolkata. These rising waters will be substantially driven – in a breathtaking example of planetary complexity – by the melting of ice in Greenland.

To really understand the climate crisis is to see it in still life, in the quiet moments after a storm has passed. Pictures were shared on Whatsapp, in alarm and as warnings, among government officials in the aftermath of Cyclone Tauktae, which passed the Karnataka coast in May 2021. They capture roads sawed in half along their length, alarmed junior officials gesticulating wildly at a raging sea, a man in a red makeshift plastic raincoat staring passively at a pile of rubble that once had meaning, men desperately flinging sand-filled gunny sacks at the foundations of a house to stabilise it before it slipped into the sea.

This was a cyclone that did not make landfall in Karnataka. It arced northwards some distance from its coast in its infancy and then rapidly intensified, hugging the coast of Maharashtra, missing Mumbai by a whisker, and finally making landfall in Gujarat. It was the fifth-strongest tropical cyclone recorded in the Arabian sea (satellite records began in 1998), killing at least 91 as the country battled a deadly second wave of Covid-19.

In Karnataka, at the fringes of this behemoth, government machinery sprang to life trying to protect and salvage. Large boulders were dumped in fast-eroding areas in emergency operations. “We took the Hitachi and JCB right into the water to put the stones,” said Ramdas Acharya, referring to backhoes that the government used in the operations. Acharya, assistant executive engineer in the Port and Fisheries Department in Honnavar, north Karnataka, recounted how temporary seawalls were erected in hours, amidst a flurry of calls from officials and residents losing roads and houses before their eyes.

On these days, political tensions peak in areas that suffer chronic erosion.

Rayappa, the municipal commissioner of Ullal City, recalled a time before the seawall, when officials feared monsoon field visits because of agitated residents.

Immediately after Tauktae, the local bureaucracy asked the state government for more seawall resources. Government correspondence shows that, in less than two weeks, officials at the Port and Fisheries Department of Udupi District, worst hit by erosion after the storm, had put together a wish list of 28 new seawalls in four assembly constituencies, covering nearly 10 km of shoreline, at a proposed cost of Rs 100 crore. They argued that a generation of temporary seawalls, built to lessen immediate damage, but too weak for repeated onslaughts, needed to be upgraded.

In a letter to the district commissioner on July 17, 2021, they also called attention to scenes of destruction plastered across local media and noted that residents were living “in a state of anxiety” because of the threat of further erosion as the monsoon intensified.

The funds have not been sanctioned yet. At a press conference a month after the cyclone had passed, then home minister and current chief minister Basavaraj Bommai asked the district administration to forward the seawall proposal to the central government. Only a few months earlier, the state’s fiscal management review committee had painted a bleak picture: a dramatic shortfall in revenue due to Covid-19 restrictions, a massive increase in borrowing to keep the government functioning, and a recommendation to slash all schemes with expenditure less than Rs 20 crore. Weakened growth prospects would spill over into the next fiscal year, it warned.

In a cruel but increasingly common twist of fate, Karnataka also suffered widespread flooding over the course of the 2021 monsoon. By August, the government had categorised over a third of the state’s taluks as flood-affected. In December, the fiscal management review committee’s mid-year review sounded alarms about the threat to the exchequer from large flood-compensation packages that have become a political necessity in the state.

It is a disquieting preview of the stresses on government as climate change becomes more pronounced. The worst of the crisis will not come from large, stand-alone disasters but from the compounded effects of many – small and large, noticed and unnoticed. The IPCC’s recent report on the physical science of climate change predicts, with high confidence, that many regions are projected “to experience an increase in the probability of compound events with higher global warming”.

These warnings are now all too real in sleepy coastal towns of Karnataka once immune to their cold anxieties. “We don’t have any more money for this,” sighed Uday Kumar, assistant executive engineer in the Port and Fisheries Department in Udupi, standing atop a large temporary seawall in Kapu when we met on September 30, 2021. “It should hold if there’s another Tauktae.”

He gestured at the low-lying area behind the wall, shaded by swaying coconut trees. “But if the wall is breached, the water will flood that land,” he said.

Seawalls are a contested technology across the world and in India. Global advancements in engineering thought are overturning the traditional insistence on hard infrastructure for its cost and potential to disturb sensitive ecological systems. Instead, progressive coastal management specialists propose protecting depleted beaches by artificially replenishing them with pumped sand, holding them in place with vegetation, or building artificial barriers at sea to dissipate waves before they strike the shore.

In India, this movement has found official endorsement. Recent guidelines on national coastal climate adaptation, drafted by the Asian Development Bank and approved by the water ministry, say seawalls must be the last resort, used only when 11 other possible solutions with less environmental impact have been discarded. It predicts that as sea levels rise and storms intensify, the walls will have to be raised and broadened until they become “untenable”, all the while eroding adjacent beaches. Like many reports on solving erosion, the guidelines call for a mix of soft and hard approaches, for walls in areas at imminent risk and softer measures in areas that are projected to erode only in the future.

But this movement underestimates the political allure of visible protection. Seawalls are popular and intensely lobbied for along the coast.

Parvez Ahmed, for example, has been organising residents and businesses, petitioning ministers, arguing with district authorities, and talking to local media for close to two years now. His newly renovated homestay on the beach is on the edge of an erosion cliff; it is an anxious wait for the inevitable. It is a pretty house in Mediterranean shades, blue roof and white paint against the Arabian horizon. The Greek colours proved most popular with Israeli tourists, he said, but they never paid enough. The Rs 20 lakh renovation, bay windows and all, eventually started paying off with the Bengaluru “IT/BT crowd”.

But erosion set in quickly, moving in at a rate of 10 feet a year, he estimates. A seawall only a few years old already runs across his property, but it is broken in parts and has not stopped the advance. The postcard coconut trees in his backyard have fallen into the sea – shrivelled brown fronds lie motionless upon the seawall. The erosion line is about six feet from his house.

“My house is going to fall next year, 100%,” he said.

Many houses along the coast in Ullal have had walls sheared off by coastal erosion. Insurance companies refuse to cover these homes, citing their hazardous siting. Photo: Aditya Valiathan Pillai

The land was bought before Independence. Ahmed’s grandfather made his money as a contractor building British railway lines and spent his savings buying this plot from a British tobacco trader. “The deed is in the most beautiful Kannada. They don’t write like that anymore,” Ahmed said. And for a moment, the fight disappeared, and resignation passed over his face. He talked about moving to his coffee estate in the hills. He kept coming back to the eight people employed in homestays nearby, with whom he sympathised. One is an alcoholic “of weak mind”, and Ahmed worries the relentless march of the erosion cliff will drive him over the edge.

The solid grey reassurance of seawall granite is at the heart of seawall politics. In the month after Tauktae, letters between local government departments capture visits to erosion sites by an assortment of politicians and administrators: Karnataka’s revenue minister; its home minister; the local MP; MLAs from three assembly constituencies; the district commissioner; revenue officers of various stripes; and an assortment of local leaders. Many called for the immediate construction of permanent seawalls.

This is unsurprising. In a review of the literature on climate adaptation politics, Nives Dolšak and Aseem Prakash at the University of Washington found that politicians are likely to pick hard infrastructure over other options, because they are concrete symbols of safety and visible demonstrations of their effectiveness. “If adaptation entails investment in less visible soft infrastructure and capacities, public support for such measures might not be forthcoming,” Dolšak and Prakash pointed out.

A senior bureaucrat in the Port and Fisheries Department, who wished to remain anonymous, echoed these findings.

He pointed out that the growth of seawalls was driven in part by the pressure on elected leaders to demonstrate visible achievements in competitive constituencies over a short five-year term.

“Everyone wants to have their projects. Overall, the system gets messed up,” he lamented.

The least politically attractive option is a managed retreat, where the shore is left to a rising sea and people are resettled inland. In the United States, a 2011 government agency report discussed getting the government out of coastal protection, and letting nature and economics take their course. The paper is drenched in cold realism. “Because modern civilization has not faced a rapid rise in sea level, sometimes the best response may be to do something new,” it began.

The nature of coastal politcs in Karnataka makes resettlement politically untenable. Fishing castes are an important political force in the coastal belt; the coastline is dotted with tiny fishing hutments and the community’s presence permeates daily life. Each of these villages, for example, has a road that runs parallel to the sea. They are all called the same thing: “fishery road”. Put together, these narrow streets form a near-continuous stretch along the coast, an invisible artisanal highway by the eight-lane.

“If they lose this place, they don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Lalaji Mendon, MLA from the Kapu constituency, the state assembly’s only fisher community representative and a former co-convenor of the BJP’s National Fishermen Cell. It is a competitive constituency, but Mendon seemed popular among his base that late-September afternoon on Kapu beach, as he huddled with a lifeguard (“Hello, Murali!”), his arm draped across the man’s back, as he shouted quick hellos to beachfront shopkeepers all addressed by name, and as he stopped for a long and familiar chat with the parking attendant, now turning the corner after a rough couple of years on the bottle.

He spent the day inspecting several incomplete seawalls with government engineers. Tauktae had led to many new erosion patches, forcing local officials to put in a request for Rs 47 crore worth of new seawalls. Mendon believed the fishermen did not want to leave their homes. “They don’t have an education and they don’t have a chance at another job,” he said over a lunch greatly perked up by the day’s catch. “We are all traditional fishermen,” he added. “We put some stones and try and rescue it.”

Some of the causes of coastal erosion, such as rising sea levels and the increasing frequency of cyclones, are beyond the control of any single government.

There are other causes that can be regulated, but are politically difficult to tackle. Karnataka’s nine ports, for example, might disrupt crucial annual migrations of sand along the coast, but they have helped make it one of India’s richest states.

Such political considerations also lie at the heart of the state’s dam-building project, which has the unintended effect of damaging the coast. At least 25 small dams are currently being constructed on the state’s west-flowing rivers under a new government scheme to decrease summer water scarcity in the state’s three coastal districts, which is a politically charged issue. But these dams trap river sediment that, left unimpeded, would have emerged from river mouths to become the sand beneath our feet at the beach.

Reduced sand flow worsens coastal erosion, which leads to demands for new seawalls, which then cause further erosion. Over time, this recursive loop tightens, and eventually becomes an ecological noose.

Dr KS Jayappa, Professor of Marine Geology at Mangalore University, has been studying Karnataka’s coastal morphology since the early 1990s. His papers are a fascinating and detailed history of the state’s coast in a period of rapid and permanent change, told in the unemotional language of satellite images and formulae. They show the skeletal frame of Karnataka’s growth spurt – ports, harbours, dams – locking into place. But they also reveal the ecological costs of extracting the economy’s connective tissue: sand.

“The sand is like gold,” Jayappa said.

Sand is often mined where it is finest: at the river mouth before it emerges onto open sea and assimilates with the coast. This depletes nearby beaches. River sandbars are huge, captive, easily accessed deposits often located in protected and ecologically fragile slices of the coast called Coastal Regulation Zones, or CRZs. Mining activities are either banned in CRZs, or restricted to small operations for local consumption.

Coastal sandmining took off during the construction boom of 2005-’06, as small towns and cities began expanding vertically and horizontally, and Bengaluru began its dizzying tech-fuelled rise, said Anil Kumar Sastry, a Senior Assistant Editor at The Hindu in Mangalore and a long-time commentor on regional environmental politics. In the mid-2010s, hundreds of permits were handed out, with numbers rising and falling to the sway of political pressure and the threat of judicial intervention, said Sastry.

The state has a voracious appetite: there were over 10,000 reported illegal sandmining cases in Karnataka between 2018 and 2021.

Just a few kilometres north of Ullal’s crumbling shores, the National Green Tribunal found serious procedural irregularities in how the government had handed out CRZ mining permits and the way in which sand was being mined: with illegal machinery, at volumes many times the permitted amount, and no oversight.

In 2018, several important figures in Udupi district’s construction industrygathered to protest CRZ sandmining regulations. The groups they represented sat at the heart of the local economy: the district’s lorry and tempo owners’ association, the district builders’ association, the painters’ association, the welders’ association, and even the interlocking tile layers’ association. A local MLA threatened a bandh for more sandmining permits.

In 2021, the local Civil Contractors’ Association threatened to stop all construction activity if they failed to receive an uninterrupted supply of fine-grained CRZ sand.

These political challenges make efforts to stall coastal erosion an uphill battle. Shores continue to erode; seawalls continue to be built. “They will not consider our views,” said Jayappa, reflecting on his many years of arguing for a more scientific, all-encompassing approach to the problem with the government.

The gravity of the problem is leading to some fresh thinking. One of the reasons the issue has become so politically thorny is that the governance of the coastline is incredibly fragmented, suggested YK Dinesh Kumar, Mangalore’s Deputy Conservator of Forests and Regional Director for the Karnataka Coastal Zone Management Authority. He listed a dizzying array of institutions responsible for that thin strip of land: departments of port, fisheries, minor irrigation, environment, mines and geology, and tourism, the Karnataka Maritime Board, district administrations, the coast guard and police, among others. Each has their own stake in that strip. Each sees in the coast an opportunity for growth.

“We need one body to manage the coast,” argued Kumar.

He outlined the vision of an “umbrella institution” to create and implement policies dictated by scientific expertise rather than political expedience.

Sastry, in his many years of covering the coast, from sandmining to seawalls, has come to the same conclusion. “You need unified command,” he said.

But such a solution would strip many ministries of powers, revenue, and rents. More pragmatic solutions include the creation of an inter-ministerial committee, or coordination by the Chief Minister’s office, said Tharakesh Phayde, executive engineer for the Port and Fisheries Department and the official in charge of the district’s seawalls. Scientific clarity, on variables such as protruding breakwaters and sea-level rises, could come from “a common maritime thinktank consisting of all coastal states” because developments in one state have effects elsewhere, he noted.

Such bold departures from decades of governance tradition seem crucial with rapidly rising seas. But innovative flicks of the governance wand will mean little unless their spirit is carried to the very lowest reaches of government, where people experience the state every day. Unfortunately, local governments in India lack the capacity needed to adapt to climate change: they are extremely understaffed and, with the exception of a few of the richer urban bodies, lack connections with climate specialists.

In Ullal, for example, Abdul Rashid recalled a lone village panchayat official coming to survey the damage in the years before the new seawall. Improvements in capacity would have to be accompanied by greater transparency in the face of widespread suffering and ever-larger compensation schemes. Rashid claimed the bribe for house-damage compensation depended on how much others in his lane were bribing that year, and usually stood at around a sixth of the Rs 3,000 or so on offer.

Change will take many years and a concerted political effort. In the meantime, the seawall has pulled those closest to Ullal’s violent sea out of a tailspin. “At least now we can sleep,” said Rashid. “I used to lay awake for three months straight in the monsoon. Can you imagine that? That’s what you should write. That’s how you should describe this.”