One day last week, Mary Stella Rajesh sat on the cracked edge of her crumbling house by the sea in Chennai, watching the waves lash against the remains of a collapsed brick wall. Her two-year-old son laughed with delight every time a surge of water crashed against the shore, carrying away sections of sand as it receded. Since May, the sea has battered Rajesh’s brick tenement so intensely, one room and a bathroom have been destroyed, leaving her six-member family with only a single room to share.

“We don’t know when the rest of our house will fall apart,” said Rajesh. “None of us feel like leaving this place. We just hope that the tide recedes soon so that we can rebuild our house.”

Rajesh and her family live in Srinivasapuram, a fishing hamlet on shore south of Chennai’s Marina beach. Towards the end of May, high waves inundated over 100 houses. Of these, around 40 houses have been rendered uninhabitable, with the walls and floors giving way.

Srinivasapuram's residents say that they often see exceptionally high tides during the day of the new moon. These tides, which come in by around 50 metres, usually last three to four days.

But this time, the residents say, the pattern has been unusual. The high tides have persisted for over two weeks, forcing some of them to take up temporary residence elsewhere.

“The last time we faced something like this was in 2009,” said Vijaya Jagan, whose family runs a seafood transportation business. “No one has gone to work for the last 10 days. Everyone is just waiting for things to get back to normal.”

Coastal erosion

In 2012, a study conducted by the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management showed that 41.4% of Tamil Nadu’s long coastline was vulnerable to erosion.

Last year, The Deccan Chronicle reported that 5,500 families in North Chennai were at risk of being displaced. It referred to a report by the advocate commissioner, appointed by the National Green Tribunal, which said that residents of various areas in Ennore and Ernavoor, both in North Chennai, were in danger of their houses being dragged into the sea.

To prevent erosion of the coast, low walls called groynes are built out into the sea. But this has been criticised by environmentalists.

“Coastal settlements are increasing and more cement houses are coming up along the coast,” said Pooja Kumar of The Coastal Resource Centre in Chennai. “Building hard structures along the coast, like groynes, is not the solution. This only accelerates the rate of erosion on the northern side of the coast.”

She said that the new groyne structures built along the Kovalam coast in South Chennai could be the cause of the erosion in Srinivasapuram.

An outcome of climate change?

Over the past few days, the Regional Meteorological Department’s daily weather alert has often warned the coasts of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry of high wave action and wind speed reaching up to 45-55 km per hour. Experts say that this is the effect of the South West monsoon being felt even along the eastern coast of the country.

According to Dr V Rammohan, a retired professor of geology at the University of Madras, these strong winds could be a possible effect of global warming. But Dr S Srinivasalu, Director of the Institute for Ocean Management in Chennai, said that all micro-level phenomena cannot be explained by climate change.

"This erosion is due to the change in the direction of coastal currents,” he said. "This happens during the onset of monsoon. It is not a new thing for the Tamil Nadu coast."

A question of livelihoods

Last week, the state’s Fisheries Minister, D Jayakumar, proposed that a study would be conducted on sea erosion along the coast in Chennai, and how to prevent it.

For the past two weeks, residents affected by the high waves in Chennai are being provided food twice a day by government officials. “The government has asked people if they want to relocate,” said V Selvi, a social worker who live in Srinivasapuram. “But real fishermen will not go anywhere. You cannot build a sea near your house wherever you go.”

All photographs by Vinita Govindarajan.