With 40% of the first phase of the tetrapod seawall project completed in the Chellanam grama panchayat of Kerala’s Kochi, residents are experiencing the first calm monsoon in several years. In places where the tetrapod blocks have been laid, the waves merely touch the top of the seawall, and seawater does not seep into their houses like it did in the past, residents note with relief apparent in their faces. Over the years, the dredging activities of the Cochin Port Authority and the construction of the Chellanam harbour had stripped the coast of its sandy beach, leaving the area residents battered by sea erosion.
It was in June this year that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had inaugurated the Rs 344-crore tetrapod project. The first phase of the project extends for 7.5 km, from Chellanam harbour in the south to Puthenthode near Kannamaly in the north. The project, which will cover a 10 km shoreline in two phases, has been designed based on the studies conducted by the Chennai-based national Centre for Coastal Research. The construction is undertaken by the Uralungal Labour Contract Co-operative Society under the supervision of the Anti-Sea Erosion Management Unit of the Irrigation Department. Till now, 20,235 tetrapods and 3,50,323 metric tonnes of granite have been used in the construction. In addition to the approximately 2-km stretch across which tetrapods have been installed, other areas where granite has been unloaded in preparation of the seawall construction are also enjoying relief from the rough sea this monsoon.
Pious Alby K A, ward member from Kandakkadavu South where the construction of the seawall has been completed along half the coast so far, says the tetrapod seawall has prevented the sea from entering the areas that it had raged through last year. Around 20 houses here had faced severe damages during the last monsoon. Pious lives a mere 15 metres away from the seawall, of which 80% of work has been completed. “After cyclone Tauktae hit in May last year, life here was miserable. My family was considering moving. The tetrapod seawall now offers us safety,” he says.
Mariamma Kurishinkal, Chairperson of the Chellanam Kochi Janakiyavedi, confirms that sea has not entered the land in stretches where the tetrapod seawall has been built. According to her son Pious KG, they have been facing the rage of the sea for nine years now. This is the first time since then that their house, which stands at a distance of less than 70 metres from the seawall, has not been battered, he says.
In the Velankanny area of Chellanam, around 50% of the project has been completed so far, says Joseph Jithu, an area resident. Just a hundred metres away from his house, granite pieces have been stacked as part of the seawall construction. Tetrapods will arrive next.
Velankanny is one region that the sea has not spared for the past several monsoons. “In comparison, this year has been one of great relief,” Jithu says. However, he is not ready to believe predictions about the tetrapod seawall’s life with eyes closed though. “Tetrapods are completely new to us. We will have to wait and watch to see if they will provide lasting safety.”
K K Krishnakumar, member from Maruvakkad ward, says the project offers protection for the life and property of the people of Chellanam. For the project to be truly effective, it should stretch across the shoreline of Chellanam grama panchayat and extend to Beach Road in Fort Kochi, he says. Chellanam Bazar, which falls in his ward, has been sanctioned six breakwaters in the project. The construction of these breakwaters will begin once the rough season is over.
Chellanam ward hasn’t been covered in the first phase of the tetrapod seawall project. However, ward member Beena Martin informs that it is expected to extend to Chellanam in the coming phases. While no sea incursion was felt in areas where the tetrapod seawall has been built, the water that entered residential areas in her ward was caused by tidal flow and not the angry sea, Beena says, while observing that the monsoon this year has been calm compared to previous years.
Advocate Thushar Nirmal Sarathy of the Chellanam Kochi Janakiyavedi is of the opinion that the relief felt across places where the tetrapod seawall construction has been initiated has more to do with this year’s weak monsoon than with the seawall’s effectiveness. “When the monsoon lashed the eastern parts of the state in 2018, the coastal regions did not face severe rains. This was why fisherfolk were able to engage in rescue operations then. The monsoon this year is similar to the one in 2018 — it is not very severe along the coast,” he says.
Joseph PL, a Kandakkadavu resident, agrees that the sea is not as rough as it has been during the past monsoons. While acknowledging that this could have contributed to the calm in areas where the tetrapod seawall has been built, he hopes that the ferocity of waves due to depressions too can be reduced by a strong seawall.
Krishnakumar recollects how Tauktae had lashed across the shore last year. “We have been lucky enough not to have any cyclones or depressions this year. Had there been a similar cyclone this year, the sea would have entered people’s houses in several places, despite the seawall,” says the Maruvakkad ward member. “There are points where seawall construction had to be paused because of sea incursions during construction. Even there, much seawater has not entered the land,” he points out.
But a temporary relief is not enough. Residents point out the need for regular maintenance of the seawall. Joseph PL points out that the continuous waves that lash out on the seawall will smoothen the granite and eat into the tetrapods’ concrete. “Our estimate is that this wall will have to be repaired in the next four to five years,” says the Kandakkadavu resident.
Besides, not everyone has received the benefits of the new seawall. Prince, a Janakiyavedi activist from Cochin Corporation’s Manassery division, says that the seawater had flooded several parts of his locality despite the relatively weak monsoon. His house, barely 1.5 metres away from the old seawall, had to be leak-proofed four times, even as the sea continued to beat down on it. Another activist from the Saude division, Matilda, also says that the seawater had entered her neighbourhood on Thursday. Concerned that this would repeat in the coming days, she laments that their plight is constantly ignored when discussing Chellanam’s sea erosion.
Besides, breakwaters are crucial in supporting the sea’s natural sand depositing along the coast. The seawall will last longer and become an effective deterrent of the angry sea only if it is supplemented with breakwaters at regular intervals. The residents have no doubt that beach replenishment is the lone sustainable solution for their plight. “Breakwaters are essential to prevent further sand erosion from beneath the sea wall,” says Prince.
“The government has decided to construct breakwaters in Chellanam Bazar and Puthenthode based on a scientific study of the Chellanam coast. But the residents here are of the opinion that breakwaters are essential across the entire coast,” Pious Alby points out.
Janakiyavedi activists also strongly advocate for the Port to deposit the sand it dredges along the Chellanam shoreline to facilitate beach replenishment. Protests demanding the same too are still underway, says Pious KG. “The dredged sand that is dumped in the deep sea is causing damage to fishing equipment, including nets. If it were to be deposited along the shore, it would help ensure replenishment of the beach.”
Krishnakumar too agrees that depositing sand along the shore will reduce the strength of the waves, which in turn will ensure longer life for the seawall. “The waves can be tamed only with the reconstruction of the beach, duly aided by breakwaters,” he says.
Pious Alby, however, is sceptical of the practicality of depositing sand dredged by the Port along the coast. Logistical issues are sure to come up as the Port transports the dredged sand on large ships, which cannot approach the shore, he points out.
While Chellanam residents heave a sigh of relief as the tetrapod seawall construction progresses, the population largely constituted by fisherfolk says that the rough seas have kept them from practising their trade for a while now, pushing several households into dire financial straits. Prince points out that the repeated expenses spent on repairing their houses and the lack of employment due to the rough seas has put several fishermen like himself in financial difficulties. The fisherfolk now lack a strong leadership to face the middlemen’s lobby, he says.
According to Pious Alby and Jithu, the middle men who buy fish from the fishermen are the ones making the most off the trade, often leaving the latter with pittance for hours of labour. Alby strongly believes that legislation against such practices is the only way out. “A secure house with no means of income is of no use. Employment is as important as safety for the people of Chellanam,” he reasoned.