Umesh is renovating his house on a sliver of land between the Sita-Suvarna rivers on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other. This house is in Kodi Bengre village in Karnataka’s Udupi district that consists of a couple of rows of houses, a narrow tar road and a sandy white beach. Along the 4-km spit, between the road and the beach, is a low wall of neatly stacked black boulders. But opposite Umesh’s house the boulders lie strewn about leaving a breach in the wall.

“During the monsoon the waves displaced the stones here and scattered them. Some of these large boulders were even dragged into the sea. Even with the wall, the water comes on to the road sometimes,” Umesh said.

Kodi Bengre had a particularly rough monsoon this year. “The waves were so high that they came over this house,” said Fatima Bi, pointing to a single storey shack at the edge of the beach. Fatima lives at the tip of the Kodi Bengre spit where land projects into the estuary. Locals warn visitors that the sea here is dangerous on any given day. During the monsoon the sea uprooted and toppled coconut trees. Sea water flooded some 20 houses and left them so damaged that their occupants left Kodi Bengre for good, moving to drier ground.

Now, the sea is barely visible from Fatima’s small yard. For the last two months, municipal engineers are building a two-meter high granite barricade. Fatima and her neighbours feel safer with this new wall but are waiting for the work to be completed.

Fatima Bi and the sea wall

“It’s the same story every year,” complained the local store owner. “They come after every monsoon when the reports about erosion are going around. They do some temporary work and go. They don’t do it scientifically. They don’t finish the work.”

Others believe the work should never have been started. “Sea wall construction is the stupidest possible thing. It is just throwing stones into the sea where there is no accountability,” said VN Nayak, former professor of marine biology at Karnatak University in Karwar. “You must have bigger stones at the base and smaller ones at the top and built in a particular sloping way. They just pile the stones up anyhow.”

The construction of temporary sea walls has been going on in bits and pieces through the 95 kilometres length of the Udupi coast and further south in Dakshin Kannada district since the early 2000s. According to the government’s assessment, almost 250 kilometres of the state’s 280-kilometre coastline is prone to erosion.

The coast at Kodi Bengre has changed so fast that people there remember a very different seashore from a couple of decades ago. Twenty years ago, Fatima recalls, a dozen or more houses at the mouth of the estuary were washed away and the land they were on just disappeared.

“There was land at least one kilometre that way,” said seventy-year-old Bhojusuvarna, standing outside his snack shop in the middle of the spit and pointing to the sea. “When I was a child, my family had two houses there. All that has gone.”

Further south at Kapu beach are similar observations of the sea creeping in. Kapu with its flat beach, imposing rocks and lighthouse is a favourite film location. “I have lived here all my life and I can tell you that every year the sea comes in a little bit,” said Lokesh, a lifeguard.  “Earlier, the sea was nowhere near the lighthouse, like it is now.”

On location at the Kaup lighthouse.

Scientists say that this visible change at Kodi Bengre is due to the inevitable interaction between waves and sandy shores, a constant cycle of erosion and accretion due to climate variability from year to year or between decades. However some of the more permanent erosion has been triggered by the pressure of development – by construction of new houses, hotels, ports and power plants; by sand mining and sand dredging; by building the sea walls that are meant to protect against erosion. The changes bring out in stark relief the troubles the coast faces from sea level rise as projected in various climate change scenarios.

Sea level rise at India’s coast

Research from the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa shows found that sea level rise off the Indian coasts between 1993 and 2012 was 3.2 millimetres per year, a much faster rate than earlier in the 20th century. The global average sea level rise for the 21st century is expected to be 1.7 millimetres per year leaving oceans at about half meter higher by the end of the century.

A rise of a few millimetres can cause widespread damage in the form of permanent flooding, bigger and more damaging storm surges and saline water intrusion into land and freshwater sources.

Bay of Bengal has been faring worse with sea level rising at 5 millimetres per year since 1993. Tiny islands in the Sundarbans are already getting swallowed by the sea and paddy fields are being inundated with saltwater, creating  climate migrants who can no longer live off that land. India’s east coast is more vulnerable and the damage from the sea in recent years has been more visible, whether from cyclones Aila and Hudhud or the flooding in Chennai this month.

On the west coast the impacts are creeping in more slowly. A study conducted at the National Institute of Technology Karnataka in 2009 on the local impacts of sea level rise in Udupi district estimated that the rate of erosion during the period 2004 - 2006 was more than half square kilometre per year. Out of the 95 km of the Udupi coast, 59% was at very high risk from sea level rise. An inundation analysis within the study found that more than 42 sq km in the district would be flooded if the sea rose by one meter.

The Karnataka government estimates that it loses more than Rs 30 crore annually due to coastal erosion and the government is throwing money into sea walls as a result against the advice of environment experts.

Rickety sea walls

Between 2001 and 2009, more than Rs 36 crores was spent on construction of 41 kms of wall, according to data from the department of public works, ports and inland water transport. Every year fresh sea wall proposals are considered and more money allocated to such projects.

The problems with sea walls start with the fact that they are almost all built on soft beaches, with house and other built structures already having taken up space till the very edge of solid ground. “When you put the heavy boulders for the wall on the soft sand, it sinks and shifts and so gets displaced easily by the water,” explained NA Madhyastha, biodiversity expert and former principal of Poorna Prajna College in Udupi city.

Secondly, when waves rushing in are blocked by sea walls, they also retreat with great force putting greater pressure on the beach in front of the wall and hastening the erosion action there. Udupi residents have observed a fast decline of the beach at the Marwanthe region ever since the wall was built there. Madyashtha and a host of other environment researchers have been advocating anti-erosion measures like plants whose root systems bind loose sand or sand dunes that are more flexible barriers and absorb the force of water better.

When the Mattu gulla fails

At Mattu village at Udyawar, beach erosion isn’t the only thing bothering residents. Saltwater intrusions have been affecting the crop of its renowned brinjal crop, the Mattu gulla. This brinjal is known for its flavour and importance in Udupi temple rituals and even got patent protection with a Geographical Indicator tag in 2010. But 2014 was a bad year for the gulla. Farmers lost 20% of their crop to saltwater intrusion, “It happened in January. The sea water came over the existing bunds at high tide and into the fields,” said Laxman Mattu, advisor to the Mattu Gulla Producers Association. “We lost between Rs 8 – 10 lakh.”

The sacred and famous Mattu gulla brinjal

This year the association has got the government to build higher bunds to keep the sea water out. But Sharada’s crop of Mattu Gulla is still failing. “Since they built the anicut here, which was more than ten years ago, it has been a big problem. The seawater flows up the anicut and the fresh water in the fields doesn’t drain out. All the brinjal plants just topple over.”

Sharada said she spends close to Rs 10,000 to grow a few brinjals on her half acre plot – Rs 2,000 to sow the fresh crop, Rs 4,000 for the plastic to line the plant beds and another Rs 4,000 for manure. “Now the crop is gone what can I do? I just have to sit and hold my head,” she said.

Sharada at her well, which gets salty in pre-monsoon months.

Like most houses along the Udupi coast, Sharada’s has its own well. For many years now, she has found that the water is unusable in the months preceding the monsoon, sometimes as early as in January. The water is salty from the sea and unsuitable for cooking or watering the fields. It’s the same story at every well up and down Udupi’s coast.

This saltwater intrusion is due to over-extraction of bore-well water, explained HN Udaya Shankar, geologist at the Manipal Institute of Technology. There is a delicate balance between fresh and saltwater in coastal zones. Saltwater is 40 times as dense as freshwater disturbing the natural interface can have enormous consequences.  “If you remove one foot of freshwater above mean sea level, 40 feet of salt water is going to intrude into the system,” said Udaya Shankar.

Figure: Population density (Karnataka State Coastal Zone Management Plan for Udupi district).

The immense pressure on Udupi’s coast is because a majority of the districts population lives along the coast. This is not because they are dependent on the sea for their livelihood but because of National Highway 66, according to Deepika Shetty, assistant professor at the School of Architecture at Manipal Institute of Technology and author of a coastal zone management plan for Udupi district.

“Other than 10% of the population, people don’t depend on their livelihood on the coast,” said Shetty. “NH66 has brought connectivity and growth pushing it towards the coast. In addition, the highway has been built on wetlands cutting of a cycle by which the ground absorbs excess rain or floodwater and recharges groundwater. The inevitable result is more extraction of water from the ground and more saline water intrusion.

The movement towards the sea is also leading to regular violations of coastal zone regulations, not unlike other seaside cities and towns in India. The district office handling coastal regulation administration has two permanent members and no team to enforce compliance.

Shetty’s plan for for the district offers strategies for lightweight construction coastal regulation zones, protection of river banks, designs for flood prevention and erosion mitigation. The plan has been awaiting central government approval since 2012.  “Our dangers in the coast are not today and tomorrow but 25 years down,” said Shetty. He therefore recommends keeping the long-term in mind and taking corrective action now rather than leaving it for later.

“The only way to deal with erosion is to retreat,” said Nayak, who like Shetty, believes that there is little point and only great cost in fighting back the sea.

This is the second part in a series on the challenges India faces from climate change.