When ferocious waves crash over the sea walls and hit the foundation of her home in Valiyathura, a fishing village in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram district, Alphonsa begins to say prayers, holding the Bible.
The 60-year-old woman has had sleepless nights for the last three months ever since the sea became rough after the monsoon gathered momentum in the second week of June. The fate of her tiny brick house worries her most. When it was built 10 years ago, it stood more than 500 metres away from the shoreline. But the erosion of the beach has reduced the distance to a mere two metres now. Even the sea wall – a defence structure made of boulders – can no longer protect the house from the sea water that comes flooding in.
“Cracks have already appeared above the door at the entrance,” said Alphonsa. “Two of my neighbours lost their homes on June 28. I don’t have anywhere to go if this house caves in.”
Sheeba Patrik, Valiyathura ward councillor in the Thiruvananthapuram city corporation, said the beach erosion has destroyed more than 100 homes in June and July in the village. It also razed the concrete building of the National Centre of Earth Science Studies, besides damaging the Valiyathura pier. Another 100 homes in the nearby fishing villages of Poonthura, Panathura and Bimapalli have also been damaged.
Beaches along Kerala’s 580-km coastline face erosion during the south west monsoon months of May-September and minor erosion during the north east monsoon in December and January. During this time, high energy storm waves move away sediment and soil from the shore. After the monsoon is over, low energy waves bring back the eroded sediment and soil. The cyclical process of erosion and accretion ensures that beaches remain intact. However, when the sea turns ferocious, it no longer returns the sediments it takes away, and the width of the beach narrows.
The residents of Valiyathura and nearby villages say this process of erosion has accelerated after construction of a deep-water multipurpose sea port began at Vizhinjam, 15 km away. The first step of the port construction is the building of breakwaters, which are barriers constructed in the middle of the sea to tame the waves and ensure tranquil waters. Of the 3.5 km-long breakwaters required for the port, the construction of a 537-metre structure has been completed.
“This is the first monsoon after the work on the port began in December last year. It gave us many sleepless nights,” said 46-year-old Anil Babu, a fisherman. “Will we have to leave this place when the port becomes operational?” he asked.
Too early to judge
But scientists remain cautious about making an early judgement on Vizhinjam port’s impact on beach erosion. “We need continuous monitoring before arriving at a conclusion,” said Prof Ramesh Ramachandran, director of the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, an autonomous centre of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
Ramachandran is a member of the seven-member expert panel constituted by the National Green Tribunal to make sure the port adheres to the conditions laid down in its environmental clearance.
The Vizhinjam Port had faced opposition from people living in the coastal villages when the state government, then ruled by the Congress-led United Democratic Front, floated tenders for the development of the port as a Public Private Partnership on December 3, 2012.
The contract was eventually awarded to Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited on July 13, 2015, after an international competitive bidding. The project obtained the environmental clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in January 2014.
But local activists, on behalf of the residents, filed a plea with the National Green Tribunal in 2015 asking for withdrawal of the environmental clearance. They argued, besides not following legal procedures for clearance, that the port construction work would cause sea erosion and damage the coast’s marine wealth.
The tribunal, while delivering its final verdict on September 2, 2016, said it did not find any substance in the complaints and refused to cancel the environmental clearance. It relied on a report by the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services that categorically said Vizhinjam did not fall in a high erosion zone.
The tribunal, however, constituted an expert committee of seven members to monitor compliance of the conditions of the port’s environmental clearance. It also asked the member secretary to file a report to the tribunal every six months.
The expert panel met for the first time on May 24 at Thiruvananthapuram. It recommended that pre-dredging and post-dredging surveys be carried out to evaluate the shoreline changes. As a follow-up, the committee toured the coastal villages close to the proposed Vizhinjam port on June 26 and 29.
“The panel will continuously monitor the shoreline, and study the dynamics of erosion and accretion till the construction completes,” said Professor Ramachandran.
The half-yearly compliance report for October 2016 to March 2017 submitted by the Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited to the environment ministry said no erosion has been observed on the shoreline so far. It promised to undertake shoreline monitoring and protection measures for mitigation, but added that no such need has arisen, as on March 31, 2017.
Vizhinjam has a long history of beach erosion. The first breakwater in Kerala came up here in the early 1970s as part of the fishing harbour construction. It changed the sand movement ecosystem. Beaches eroded in villages on the north side of the breakwater, including Panathura and Poonthura, while villages on the south experienced accretion, said AJ Vijayan, the founder-member of the National Fish Workers’ Forum, a union for small and traditional fish workers.
Sand and sediments move south to north during monsoon. When the breakwater obstructs this natural movement, sand and sediments tend to stay on the southern side of the structure, resulting in accretion on the south and erosion on the north.
“Nobody knew that the breakwater caused shoreline changes in the 1970s,” said Vijayan,who was born and raised in Vizhinjam. He was one of the petitioners who approached the National Green Tribunal with a plea to cancel the clearances given to the Vizhinjam port.
Vijayan said the tribunal’s order indicated that beach erosion might happen during the port construction. He pointed out that the order said: “appropriate steps, both engineering and otherwise, shall be taken by the project proponent if coastal erosion within 10km of the project site is observed based on the shoreline studies. These measures have to be carried out as per the suggestions of the expert committee.”
“The threats are for real. But the judiciary was not convinced of our arguments,” he added.
The Environment Impact Assessment Guidelines for Ports and Harbours, prepared by the National Institute of Ocean Technology for the Department of Ocean Development in 2010, says: “breakwater construction could result in major shoreline changes as well as alter the hydraulic characteristics resulting in major impacts like accretion and erosion.” In its section dealing with mitigation measures, the guidelines advocate coastal protection measures by way of construction of groynes or sand bypassing.
But researchers say one of the main reasons for sea erosion in Kerala is the construction of structures like seawalls, breakwaters and groynes along the coast. While breakwaters are constructed in the middle of the sea, groyne is a small structure built along the shore to prevent beach erosion. Researchers say all the structures have aggravated the erosion by disrupting the natural movement of sediment.
A 2010 study by the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management found that as many as 106 groynes and 25 breakwaters have been constructed along 310 km – nearly half of Kerala’s coastline. It noted that human intervention was visible in about 63.02% of Kerala coast, while only 37% of the coast could be called as ‘no intervention coast’.
The study warned that any attempt to halt the natural sediment movement using hard structures would result in the disappearance of beaches. The study advised that proper precautions must be taken prior to erecting any structure along vulnerable coastal stretches.
Despite the warning, breakwater and groynes continue to be constructed along Kerala’s coast.
Robert Panipilla, founder of Friends of Marine Life, a Valiyathura-based civil society initiative that works among fisherpeople, said, “The governments do not think about the ecological impacts caused by these structures. They just want to fool people.”
Said Professor Ramachandran: “It is time we use bio-shields such as mangrove that do not require much maintenance.”
‘No other option’
With many families moving out of the village after their homes were damaged, Valiyathura is a deserted beach now. Stray dogs, who feast upon the rotten food and pieces of dry fish scattered on the ground, have found shelters under the ruins of the homes. Boulders from the collapsed sea wall had blocked the narrow untarred roads that connected Valiyathura and neighbouring Bimapalli.
Anil Babu, the fisherman, said Valiyathura can be preserved only by constructing a breakwater. “I know its environmental impact, but we don’t have any other option. Hope the groyne can save us for now.”