When the south-west monsoon gained strength in the second week of July, ferocious waves from the Arabian Sea breached the sea wall in the coastal village of Chellanam in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, ravaging more than 700 houses and driving 1,400 residents to the safety of government-run relief camps on July 15.

The villagers returned home five days later, when the rain had subsided, to find huge piles of sand and garbage in and around their homes. “Monster waves damaged the foundation of our home and brought truckloads of sand into it,” said Treesa, a village resident who lives in the Companyppadi neighbourhood. “We took three days to clear it.”

The sea left a trail of destruction in Chellanam. It damaged hundreds of houses, blocked toilets and other drainage systems and contaminated open wells. “We do not have water to drink at the moment as our well is filled with waste,” said Henry, who also lives in Companyppadi.

Joseph, who lives in Vachakkal neighbourhood of the village, said the strong monsoon gales destroyed the roof of his house. “The tiles of my roof were blown away in the wind,” he said. “I am living under a leaking roof. I hope I can fix it when the fishing season begins after the current trawling ban.”

Coastal erosion and flooding had also ravaged Chellanam village eight months ago, when Cyclone Ockhi hit Kerala’s coast in December 2017. “We spent many days in the relief camp at that time,” said 70-year-old Rosy, who lives near the Velankanni Church in Chellanam. “There seems to be no end to our miseries.”

This back-to-back disaster has revived an old debate here on how the village could be better protected from the sea.

Workers remove sand that has clogged a canal in Chellanam due to sea erosion. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Coastal erosion

Chellanam village is a thickly populated fishing village that is part of Chellanam gram panchayat. It lies on a sliver of land, with the Arabian Sea to the west and Kerala’s backwaters to the east. Because of its location, the whole area is highly susceptible to coastal erosion and was marked as such by the state government in 1986.

More than 13,000 people reside in Chellanam village, with around 1,000 houses situated very close to the sea. Its residents have been demanding for many years that the state government strengthen the existing sea wall and construct a breakwater. The villagers say that the height of the existing sea wall – a 3-metre high structure built of rocks – has reduced considerably as the waves have gnawed away at the sand at the foot of the wall.

Sea walls are embankments erected to prevent waves from encroaching upon or eroding coastal land, while breakwaters are offshore structures constructed parallel to the shoreline, which, among other things, are meant to prevent beach erosion.

The village residents even resorted to protests to press for their demands. They went on a hunger strike at the Cyclone Ockhi relief camp in December, and the Chellanam Coast Protection Committee organised a hartal in May. Both protests were withdrawn after the villagers received assurances from the government.

Though the government has sanctioned the sea wall project, the irrigation department, whose job it is to build the structure, has not started construction yet.

Officials in the department blamed the delay in construction on the unavailability of rocks. “Restrictions on quarrying have reduced the availability of rocks in the state,” said executive engineer Abdul Shukoor. “We will be soon piloting a project to build a sea wall using geo tubes.”

In this method, massive tubes filled with sand are placed near the high tide line to help reduce the impact of waves on the coast.

A sand bund next to sea wall in Chellanam. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Temporary solution

The delay in the construction of the sea wall has prompted the Chellanam gram panchayat to look for a temporary solution. Last week, it hired earth movers to make piles of sand in front of all houses near the sea wall. “We call it sand bunds,” said panchayat president Mercy Josey. “It is an age-old practice.”

But an official with the irrigation department said the bunds were a waste of public money. “Sand bunds will not last for more than three days,” he said. “Why are they wasting money on such work?”

Village residents concurred. “It will last only for a day,” said Ninan George, a resident of Companyppadi. “It is a gimmick. Only a breakwater can save us.”

The government has other plans to address the problem. It is encouraging people who live less than 50 metres from the shore to relocate. In January, it announced a rehabilitation package for those willing to do so. Under this proposal, Rs 10 lakh will be given to each family – of which Rs 6 lakh will be to purchase land and Rs 4 lakh to construct a house.

But the offer has had few takers. Panchayat president Josey said only 20 people have opted for the plan so far. “It was against our expectations,” she said.

Jacob, 33, a fisherman who lives less than 50 metres away from the sea in a neighbourhood near Karthyayani temple, said he would not accept the offer. “It is impossible to buy land and construct a new house with Rs 10 lakh,” he said. “I will think about it if the government increases the package. Otherwise, I will stay here until I die.”

He added: “Let the government build a breakwater and sea wall without wasting time in announcing such irrelevant packages.”

Chellanam gram panchayat president Mercy Josey says only a breakwater can protect Chellanam. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

‘Breakwater not the solution’

Experts in coastal management, however, said that the breakwater Jacob and other villagers are so keen on will further exacerbate the problem.

They said that sea erosion in Chellanam started after the construction of the Kochi port in 1926, and that the periodic dredging to remove sand from the bottom of the port added to the erosion. The port lies 16 km north of Chellanam. “It changed the sand movement ecosystem and caused erosion,” said AJ Vijayan, an expert in coastal issues.

He said the recent construction of a harbour in Chellanam – it was inaugurated in 2010 – worsened the erosion as it obstructed the natural movement of sand and sediments from the south to the north during the monsoon. “Harbour construction begins with the construction of breakwaters, which are barriers built in the middle of the sea to tame the waves and ensure tranquil waters,” he said. “Breakwaters block the flow of sand and sediments. Thus sand and sediments remain on the southern side of the structure, resulting in accretion on the south and erosion on the north,” he said.

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 pull sediment and soil away 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.

Researchers say that artificial structures like seawalls, breakwaters and groynes – structures that are meant to help control coastal erosion – in fact aggravate erosion by disrupting the natural movement of sediment. They say these structures are one of the main reasons for erosion along the Kerala coast.

Huge waves destroyed the sea wall in Companyppadi neighbourhood in Chellanam. In the foreground are sandbags placed by village residents to prevent erosion. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

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, mentioned that breakwater construction could lead to major changes to the shoreline due to erosion or accretion.

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 along the coast – over half of Kerala’s coastline. The study warned that any attempt to halt the natural movement of sediment using such 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, breakwaters and groynes continue to be constructed along the coast.

A research paper on the coastal issues affecting Kerala, published by the Nansen Environmental Research Centre in Kochi, stated that about 370 km of Kerala’s coast is subject to coastal erosion of various magnitudes due to one or more or a combination of several factors. These include the early onslaught of the monsoon and the strong waves it brings with it, geological factors and a rise in the level of the sea.

Vijayan warned that another breakwater would do more harm than good. “The gram panchayat has a length of 19 km and width of just one kilometre,” he pointed out. “Construction of another breakwater will eventually result in the disappearance of Chellanam.”