An eerie silence is still prevailing over Chellanam, a coastal village panchayat located between Ernakulam and Alappuzha in Kerala, where cyclone Tauktae barrelled dangerously into the tiny houses of covid- battered fish workers a few days ago. Over 500 houses of the village were inundated in the worst-ever sea attack since Cyclone Ockhi of 2017.
The primary health centre at Kandakkadavu in the middle of the panchayat was seen fully submerged in waist-high water due to Tauktae. With the help of fire and rescue workers, health department officials were able to retrieve medicines and equipment stored there, especially those required for Covid-19 treatment.
According to panchayat president KD Prasad, Chellanam witnessed a spike in Covid-19 cases when the cyclone Tauktae wreaked havoc in all 21 wards. There were 601 active Covid cases in the panchayat area, and even the facilities where the patients got accommodated were destroyed in surging waves. He said high waves continue to hit the coastal settlements despite cyclone moving away.
A local resident Louis Abraham said that seawater intrusion into houses is continuing and most houses are under knee-deep water. “As covid related lockdown was strict in our area, rescue and rehabilitation work faced enormous hurdles,” said Louis. “We had even to organise online protests to attract relief works and government intervention.”
The situation is almost similar in the Thiruvananthapuram district’s fish worker settlements such as Beemapalli, Vizhinjam, Anchuthengu, Muthalapozhi, Paruthiyur and Kochuthoppu. The road linking Thiruvananthapuram city with the domestic terminal of the local airport via the famous Shanghumukham beach was washed off. Though the cyclone killed only two people in Kerala, its intensity across the coastal region was heavy. The worst affected districts include Ernakulam, Kollam, Alappuzha, Kozhikode and Kasargod.
“The nature and severity of cyclone Tauktae indicate that the Arabian Sea will witness more such severe storms in the coming days, especially during late monsoon season, due to climate change,” points out S Abhilash, a scientist with the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Cochin University of Science and Technology. “Until 2014 when Cyclone Nilofar occurred, there were no cyclones in the entire Arabian seacoasts. Global warming, climate variability, and weather changes are increasing the risk.”
“As far as the Kerala coast is concerned, many human interventions make the cyclones severe,” said Abhilash. “They include land reclamation, port developments, shrimp farming, river diversion, dredging, and sand mining.”
“Places like Chellanam have witnessed severe destruction because of the human activities which turned supporting factors for the natural forces,” he observed. “The cyclones have intensified the ongoing coastal erosion.”
Abhilash stated that the cyclone frequency over the Bay of Bengal is on the decrease in the recent years, but they are increasing over the Arabian Sea around the onset phase of the monsoon.
He noted that cyclone Tauktae is the fourth cyclone in recent years to have developed in the Arabian Sea and in the pre-monsoon period of April to June. All these cyclones since 2018 have been categorised as either ‘severe cyclone’ or above. After Cyclone Mekanu, which struck Oman in 2018, the Arabian sea witnessed Cyclone Vayu in 2019, and it struck Gujarat. Cyclone Nisarga followed it in 2020 and struck Maharashtra.
“All tropical cyclones require large amounts of energy to remain alive,” he observed. “Normally, this energy is obtained from the warm water and humid air over the tropical seas. At present, seawater up to depths of 50 metres is hot in the Arabian Sea, and so the possibilities of more cyclones are in the cards.”
While Thushar Nirmal Saradhi, a social activist who works with the climate change victims of Chellanam, emphasised that “for people outside Chellanam, sea erosion may be a new phenomenon propelled by the climate change-induced cyclones but for us, it has been happening for over six decades”.
“It all began when a shipping route was dredged to Cochin shipyard through the sea close to our villages,” said Saradhi. “The construction of the coastal highway connecting Kochi with Aapuzha has further intensified sea erosion.”
“Now, the cyclones have turned into a regular phenomenon posing a severe threat to our people,” said Saradhi. “In the previous years, the authorities have promised to construct sea walls using geosynthetic tubes. Still, synthetic geo constructions that began last year were washed away in the cyclone.”
Impact of projects
The unscientific and rapid development of big infrastructural projects is being pointed out as one of the reasons for the intense impact of the cyclone.
“The impact of the cyclone (Tauktae) was heavy on the northern parts of all major constructions in the sea in Kerala, mainly ports and breakwaters,” said Max Martin, a researcher working with coastal communities in Southern Kerala. “Rampant coastal zone violations and destruction of adjoining wetlands have contributed immensely to the destruction. The coastal region of Kerala is now under high risk, and it is high time that ways are found to minimise the impacts of climate change.”
A similar concern is being highlighted by those working with fishermen.
“Every year, the sea is drawing closer to us,” said Joseph Jude, a rights activist working with Kerala fish workers. “The wide beaches are getting smaller. Cyclone Tauktae is not an isolated phenomenon. It is an extension of the disasters happening in the coastal region for a long time. The human factors related to sea erosion are often ignored conveniently.”
Albert Thomas, a fish worker of Arthunkal in Alappuzha observed that climate change has been affecting the character of the Arabian sea for a long time.
“The sea started turning turbulent ever since the Tsunami of 2004,” said Thomas. “Ockhi further worsened the situation. Now we rarely see the sea calm.”
“The height and force of the waves have increased in recent years,” said Thomas. “They are times, not just during the monsoon months of June to September but all through the year. It is difficult to predict how the sea will behave.”
Fish workers also alleged that there is an alarming depletion in fish wealth in the Arabian Sea in the last three years. They state that because of the loss of beaches, they find it difficult to dry their nets and small fish under the sun.
In Vizhinjam-Shanghumukham regions, fish workers accuse the Vizhinjam International Seaport, which is under construction, of inciting natural disasters. A news report said that Cyclone Tauktae severely damaged the breakwater of the under-construction seaport severely, and vast amounts of stones and concrete pillars were washed away.
“The seaport has played a significant role in destroying houses in Valiyathura, Beemapalli, and Shanghumukham areas. Because of the constructions in the sea, the waves have become rougher. The breakwater has prompted the waves to hit the shores harder,” observes Joseph Vijayan, an expert on coastal communities in Thiruvananthapuram.
Are seawalls effective?
In 2017, the international journal Natural Hazards published a paper “Impact of sea-level rise and coastal slope on shoreline change along the Indian coast,” which said that the highest level of coastal erosion was occurring in West Bengal and identified Kerala as a close second. Other studies have also observed that the western coast of India was primarily stable except for Kerala’s coastline of 590 km. They estimate that about 63% of the state’s coastal region faces sea erosion.
Earlier this month, the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority distributed a draft coastal zone management plan among concerned local bodies in all coastal districts for discussion. In Kerala, nine districts are affected by sea erosion.
During each incident of sea turbulence, coastal communities seek solutions, and the government soon starts the construction of seawalls. As per data available from the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority, seawalls have been erected in almost 60% of the Kerala coast, spread in 310 km.
“Seawalls are not a solution to sea erosion. Fortifications of this kind are increasing the flow of the currents around the shore. That results in the intensification of waves to the north of the breakwater and subsequent further erosion of that shoreline. But the local people insist that fortifications are the only way they can save their homes,” observed Abhilash.
Joyce Mary, a 52-year-old resident of Kannamaly, said seawalls were a big failure in preventing the raging sea from entering households. Even huge stones and concrete pillars used for the walls have been washed away. Losing home, Joyce moved to a relative’s house where 15 people of three families now live.
According to Joseph Vijayan, seawalls and breakwaters are interruptions of sediments across the coast preventing the coastal areas from getting replenished. While Max Martin said: “We need to plant trees and plants in the coastal areas that protect our beaches. Only natural remedies can solve the issue, not human-made constructions. Coastal vegetation, as well as mangrove plantations, can hold the sand in the shore.”
Activists want the state government to formulate a policy in this regard. “A state like Kerala with its long shoreline needed to have a clear policy outlook to protect coastal areas,” said Charles George, a leader of the Kerala fish workers forum.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.