It is a rather ordinary morning in January. The waves nibble away at the western coast in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district. Much of the coast is armoured with sea walls.

There is a bustling jetty at a distance, with ships waiting to transport people to a town in the adjacent district of Raigad. There is also a bridge, that has been in the making for the last eight years, to connect Raigad district to Mandangad tehsil in Ratnagiri. But the part-finished structure has been abandoned since the lockdown. The villagers do not know why, and see no point in pursuing the question.

The ordinariness of everyday life in these sea-facing villages of Velas and Bhankot do not hint at the larger shifts they have been witnessing or are part of. But some villagers are observant. Mohan Upadhay is one of them.

Upadhay is a nature lover and a conservationist. In the last two decades, he has documented, through pictures and writings, how the shoreline in his area has changed and how biodiversity has been impacted in the process. In the neighbouring Bhankot village, he told us, the sea has come inwards, a signal of rising sea levels, while in his village Velas, the tidal patterns have changed because of the coastal bridge construction.

All of this has caused what is referred to as coastal erosion – a process that sees local sea level rise, beaches erode, strong wave action and coastal flooding. Around 37% of the Ratnagiri coastline is categorised as high-risk to coastal erosion, studies show. Since 1978, high tide levels in Ratnagiri rose by 5-6 centimetres, causing erosion of the beaches and damage to estuaries and flatlands, according to a March 2021 study by academics Lalit Thakare and Tushar Shitole on the vulnerability of the Ratnagiri coast.

While the government has been building and re-building bigger seawalls to keep erosion in check, the sea continues to creep inland, through streams and estuaries, onto the private lands of villagers with a cost to the local biodiversity and livelihoods of people.

The story is part of IndiaSpend’s Climate Hotspot project. Read our previous stories here.

Mohan Upadhay, conservationist and a native of Velas in Ratnagiri. He works with the Mangrove Foundation under the government of Maharashtra and has been observant of coastal erosion in his village, in this photo from January 9. Credit: Flavia Lopes via IndiaSpend.

On the edge

The back wall of Rajesh Karkare’s house in Bhankot village is just a step away from the sea. Staring through the living room window, 48-year-old Karkare points out how close the sea has come. He says since his childhood, he has seen the sea come in about 50 metres closer to his home.

Around 40 metres from his back wall is a crumbling stone bund that was built in the late 2000s to restrict the sea. The bund stands completely breached today, serving no purpose other than as a resting place for seagulls.

The stone bund behind Rajesh Karkare’s house is completely broken from January 2023. The bund was built in the late 2000s, Karkare told us. Credit: Flavia Lopes via IndiaSpend.
The sea from Rajesh Karkare’s living room window. In picture, Karkare and Mohan Upadhay facing the sea. But even as sea water seeped in through the embankment, the waves are not rolling in yet, Karkare noted, in this photo from January. Credit: Flavia Lopes via IndiaSpend.

The front garden is full of different varieties of mangrove trees that started coming up as the sea water began seeping into the soil. The mangroves, Karkare says, indicate how far inland the sea has come. “Across the coastline, there were agricultural lands,” Karkare noted. “Today, they are either beach, or under the sea.”

Velas and Bhankot villages reside at the foot of the Sahyadri mountains, part of the Western Ghats that stretches over 1,600 km along the western coast of India, spreading across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and a part of Tamil Nadu. The two villages are sandwiched between the mountains on one side and the encroaching sea on the other.

A little further away, in Anjarle village of Dapoli tehsil, Abhinay Kelaskar, whose home is barely 100 metres from the beach, shows how the shoreline has shrunk over the years. “See, this is wet, which means the tide came up till here just a few hours ago,” he points at the high water mark on the sea wall we are standing beside. “Over the years, the sea has come at least 15-20 metres inside. During high tide, water touches the sea wall, often surpassing the wall,” he noted. This steady ocean creeping inland is a reality across the eastern and western coastline of India.

“Sediment change (the transportation of rock and soil) is not a stagnant phenomenon,” said Deepak Apte, marine ecologist, conservationist and former director of the Bombay Natural History Society. “Erosion and accretion have long been a part of the process across the coasts. But this was slow and subtle. Now, data is showing how the patterns are changing, a change that can be attributed to a much larger phenomenon which is sea level rise.”

The National Centre for Coastal Research, a government body under the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, analysed 6,907 kilometres of coastline on the Indian mainland from 1990 to 2018. They found that some 33.6% of India’s coastline has been under varying degrees of erosion for the past 28 years, the ministry noted in Parliament in December 2022.

These changes, the ministry noted, are the result of sea level rise because of climate change, as well as anthropogenic activities like sand mining, construction of ports and harbours, barrages constructed across the coast, etc.

“It is difficult to pin-point on one or other factors, because these are compounded effects,” Apte said. “For instance, ports will have influence in a small area, but it will not alter the shoreline across the district or the state.”

Maharashtra’s coast line is dotted with ports and fishing harbours, one of the reasons cited by the Ministry of Earth Sciences behind coastal erosion on the western coast. Credit: National Centre for Coastal Research report published in April 2022.

The Ratnagiri coastline is vulnerable to rapid erosion. On average, the shoreline in Ratnagiri changes by 1.27 m/year, according to a March 2021 study which estimated erosion based on shoreline change data obtained from Landsat and other GIS platforms.

According to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, a global sea-level rise of 0.52–0.98 m is expected by 2100. This could further affect the coastal areas and result in submergence of the low-lying coastal areas.

One end of the beach in Velas in 2009, 2019 and 2021. This pocket has gone inwards, a trend that Mohan Upadhay attributes to the coastal bridge being built which has changed the tidal flow. Credit: Mohan Upadhay, via IndiaSpend.

This ongoing coastal erosion is prominent in a few pockets of beaches like Vetye, Mirya and Anjarle in Ratnagiri, according to a 2021 study by the National Centre for Coastal Research. We reached out to the Centre and the ministry for their comments. We will update the story when we hear back from them.

Credit: via IndiaSpend.

While the district has the largest coastline in Maharashtra, the District Environment Action Plan prepared by the environment department of Maharashtra and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board in 2020 fails to take note of the problem of coastal erosion. We have written to the district administration of Ratnagiri for comment, but had not heard back at the time of publishing this story.

Local biodiversity

Early morning on January 9, Vidhi Wani, a native of Velas, came to inform Upadhay that one more nest was reported on the Anjarle beach. Throughout the day, several villagers I came across carried this news in a tone of optimism, often of exuberant celebration.

Velas and Anjarle beaches in Ratnagiri are one of the popular nesting sites for Olive Ridley Turtles on the western coast of India. On the eastern coast of India, Odisha witnesses a large number of such nesting sites.

Between the months of January and February, these beaches see the sporadic arrival of these turtles, distinguishable by the olive green hue of their shells. They come to lay eggs on the shore, a phenomenon known as “arribadas”, which means ‘arrival’ in Spanish. But over the last two decades, the numbers of turtles coming to lay eggs along Maharashtra’s coast had decreased.

In the early 2000s, Upadhay joined the Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra, a conservation group, to understand why Olive Ridley numbers had been decreasing. He noted that the problem then was that villagers would steal the eggs, so they spent the better part of the decade educating villagers about the sea turtles and their part in the ecosystem.

But across two decades of turtle conservation work, with the Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra and then with the Mangrove Foundation, Upadhay came across another developing problem – that of shoreline erosion.

Velas and Anjarle beaches are popular nesting sites of Olive Ridley sea turtles. But their numbers haven decreased over the years because of shoreline erosion. Credit: Mohan Upadhay, via IndiaSpend.
Conservation tents to keep the Olive Ridley sea turtle eggs are set away from the coast from January 2023. Once eggs are laid on the beach, conservationists transfer them in these safe tents for the eggs to hatch. Credit: Flavia Lopes, via IndiaSpend.

Kelaskar, sitting alongside Upadhay at his beach-front house in Anjarle, Dapoli, elaborated on how the rising sea levels and erosion by the sea was affecting the turtle populations. “As a rule, the sea turtles come inwards, towards the dry sand, to lay their eggs. But in the last few years, the high tides have been making this sand wet. Further, sea walls have been restricting how far they can come inside. Which is why a lot of Ridley females come up to the wall and turn back without laying their eggs, and this is often visible in their footprints.”

The imprints of the Ridley Turtles have been an indicator for locals to understand the patterns of the sea. Upadhay mentioned finding Ridley Turtle eggs in sand atop a small rock hill, only to later realise that they had reached the height because of high tides.

“Other times, they lay eggs very close to the sea, only to be swept away during high tides,” Upadhay noted. “In such circumstances, external intervention, or conservation work, has become critical to keep these species safe.”

An Olive Ridley turtle usually lays about 120 to 150 eggs, and the hatchlings, after emerging from these eggs in a span of 45 to 60 days, travel to the sea. They grow up without their mothers. The survival rates among these species is very low, which is why they have been listed on the Schedule -I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 as a species needing absolute protection. The species is also listed as vulnerable under the International Union of the Conservation of Nature’s Red List and is protected under the Convention on Migratory Species and Convention of International Trade on Wildlife Flora and Fauna.

A 2019 study by Mangrove Foundation, set up under the Mangrove Cell of the Government of Maharashtra, found that rising temperatures and changing weather patterns have also been affecting the incubation temperature of the nests. Incubation temperature is an acceptable range of temperature within which the eggs can hatch.

Conservation efforts undertaken by Upadhay and Kelaskar under the Mangrove Foundation include keeping the hatchery covered and warm, so that water does not enter and the temperature is maintained.

Salt water intrusion

Half a kilometre inland from the beach, in the village of Velas, we see farmlands that have been consumed by mangrove forests.

Praful Manohar Mahadikar, 55, is the police patil (a British-era post entrusted with the job of collecting revenue and maintaining birth and death registers and unclaimed properties) of the village. He farms part-time, and owns around 1.5 acres of land around his house. Over time, he has been witnessing the rise of mangroves on land where he once sowed paddy.

A part of Mahadika’s agricultural land is taken over by mangrove trees. Mahadikar pointing at the area, in these photos from January. Credit: Flavia Lopes, via IndiaSpend.

The soil in some areas has become saline and we are seeing this mangrove growth,” he said. “We cannot even touch the mangroves or cut it, even when we have ownership over the land, because these are recognised as a threatened species by the government and we will be fined if we cut it.”

Ironically, mangroves are critical to coastal landscapes. Studies have shown that mangroves act as a buffer between the sea and the land, and protect the shorelines from damaging winds, waves and floods.

Conservationist Deepak Apte has noted encroaching mangroves across the coastal districts of Maharashtra. “Certainly a lot of inundation is happening and a lot of agricultural land is getting converted into mangroves,” he said. “We are trying to understand now how much is natural growth of mangroves and how much is because of land inundation due to sea water.”

The small patches where mangroves grow on Mahadikar’s farm have been left uncultivated. Mahadikar and his wife are now thinking of planting coconut trees, which can tolerate salinity in the soil, on the rest of the land before they too are encroached by mangroves. “Growing coconut trees will be a long investment of around 16 years,” he said, “but for what it is worth, only they can tolerate the saline level in the soil.”

Elsewhere, Murlidhar Sadanand Shette faces another problem. He cannot graze his livestock on the agricultural land he earlier used, as mangroves have taken over, and he has to go further up on the hills to graze the livestock.

The stream flowing in front of Vikas Wani sees an inverse flow of water whenever there is high tide, he told us – twice a day, sea water lifted by the tides comes further inland, overriding the fresh water of the stream. “You can recognise it as salt water because it is brackish and not as clean as the stream water flow,” he said. The effect of sea water coming further inland is that it seeds the soil with brine, and this affects the mango trees on his farm, as such trees with their deep roots are not tolerant of high saline content in soil.

Updhay noted that today, only 11 families in the village are engaged in farming. The change came when the Nisarg cyclone hit the western coast in June 2020 and all the fields were flooded with sea water. “Government officials came to take samples of the soil, to understand the salinity level, but the results haven’t been out yet,” he said. We reached out to the environment department of the Maharashtra government and will update the story when they respond.

As the salinity levels in the soil kept changing, the villagers experimented with different kinds of seeds that would grow in the soil. Sujay Mahadev Bhagat, another villager of Velas, explained, “Earlier, when the soil used to be a little less saline, we changed the seeds to khare bhaat (saline rice seeds). These seeds were traditionally produced, and the rice that grew also looked different, kind of red in colour. Now, these seeds also do not grow as the salt level has increased beyond their tolerance.”

“With high salinity, agricultural land will become unsuitable for traditional farming,” Apte told IndiaSpend. “Communities will have to shift to salt-tolerant farming.”

Adaptation the way forward?

Sea level rise is a reality,” Apte said. “It is only a matter of time that we take it seriously.” He and other experts I spoke to said that efforts should be centred on dealing with how to live with the changing sea levels.

Across India, governments are relying on physical defences like sea walls as an adaptation measure to stop erosion. Already, on the 560-kilometre stretch of Kerala’s coastline, 386 kilometres have seawalls. In August 2022, the Maharashtra government reportedly proposed 42 sea walls across the state coastline.

But in February 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change warned against building sea walls to protect from sea level rise and storm surges. Seawalls, it said, are supposed to help people cope with sea level rise but can wind up having unintended consequences, like protecting just a small area or harming natural barriers like coral reefs. Seawalls are also known to transfer erosion to other parts of the coast.

“Just by putting bunds or embankments you cannot fend off the sea, because the sea will intrude from someplace else,” Apte noted. “So you will only shift the problem from one place to another.”

There are other adaptation mechanisms that are often overlooked. For instance, in 2017 the government of Maharashtra came out with the Mangrove Protection and Employment Generation Scheme to promote mangrove-based livelihood opportunities like crab farming, bee-keeping, fish farming and eco-tourism, among others.

Under the scheme, the government will provide subsidies, for individuals as well as collectives, to pursue mangrove-based livelihoods. In the case of a collective, the state will invest 90% and the beneficiaries will invest 10%. In the case of an individual, the state will invest 75%, while the individual will invest 25%. The funds are made available via the district authority and the mangrove foundation. Upadhay, who works with the mangrove foundation, noted that many people are not aware of the scheme, which is why it has not taken off to the extent it could have.

“I fear there will be a time when mangroves will be the most abundant species in our coastal area,” noted Upadhay. “Making a living out of such salt-tolerant species will be the only way out.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.