Scores of people who lost their houses around four years ago are still living in schools-turned-rehabilitation camps. The pandemic has made matters worse for these people.

Houses in coastal Thiruvananthapuram damaged in Cyclone Tauktae
news Sea erosion Thursday, May 20, 2021 - 16:39

Tauktae was still an alien word when 28-year-old Jyothi Basu Rajayyan, who is pursuing PhD at the University of Hyderabad, returned to his native place of Paruthiyoor in Pozhiyoor, a fishing village in coastal Thiruvananthapuram, some months back. He returned mainly because Telangana was badly hit by COVID-19 and his research was on human rights issues faced by fisherwomen in Kerala. Since then, Jyothi has been running from pillar to post to save houses in his village from the pounding waves, which had already eaten a major portion of the 200-metre beach.

On Sunday, huge waves, triggered by Cyclone Tauktae, destroyed Jyothi’s 22-year-old house, leaving his five-member family homeless in the midst of a raging pandemic. “My mother has breathing issues so it was not possible to take her to a crowded rehabilitation camp during this pandemic. She and my three siblings are staying at a relative’s house. It is difficult to explain the trauma of losing one’s sole property,” Jyothi said.

The erosion of coastal areas is worsening ever since Cyclone Ockhi hit in 2017. Though a 2010 study ‘Shoreline Change Assessment for Kerala Coast’ conducted by the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management had clearly mentioned a direct link between coastal erosion and artificial management of the coast like construction of seawall, groynes, etc, there was no sincere attempt on the part of government authorities to explore sustainable options to save the eroding coast.

Jyothi said that noticeable changes in the shoreline in his village began in December 2019 when authorities in Tamil Nadu, which shares borders with the village, began placing groynes to protect its shores that began eroding after the commissioning of the Thengapattanam fishing harbour.

Jyothi Basu’s house beside the sea wall at Paruthiyoor before Cyclone Tauktae struck
“Whether it is a shipping terminal like Vizhinjam or a fishing harbour like Thengapattanam, constructions aggravate erosion on the downdrift side,” he said. Since February, Jyothi has been sending petitions to the Kulathoor panchayat, human rights commission, district collector, etc. All his efforts went in vain and he helplessly watched his house being eaten away by the waves.

Increase in intensity and frequency of cyclones

Experts are urging a major policy intervention from the authorities to protect coasts and coastal communities from the threat of erosion. Weathermen point to a combination of causes that are detrimental to coasts, one major factor being warming of the Arabian Sea, which is why Kerala, among other states along the west coast, is witnessing more cyclones than ever.

Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, said that various factors such as increase in frequency and intensity of cyclones, thermal expansion of sea water and increase in heavy rainfall events together contribute to major changes in the coastal regions.

“Around 90% of the heat generated by global warming is absorbed by the oceans. Such warm pool regions in the Arabian Sea are the reason for the increase in the intensity and frequency of cyclones. Not just cyclones, there is a threefold increase in heavy rainfall events in the region, which too is a result of increased moisture content caused by sea surface warming. Rise in sea level due to thermal expansion is another factor. This triple impact results in rapid changes in the coastal regions,” Koll explained.

Coastal erosion – manmade factors

A decade ago, the ‘Shoreline Change Assessment for Kerala Coast’ study concluded stating that 63% of the 580-km Kerala coastline was eroding and advised taking proper precautions prior to erecting any further structures along the vulnerable coastline stretches.

“During the last tsunami, the impact was severe on Alappad in Kerala and Manavalankurichi in Tamil Nadu where Indian Rare Earths Limited conducted large-scale mining. That must be a learning experience. Erosion will have its maximum impact on vulnerable coasts. Human intervention disrupts the natural balance of erosion and accretion. The impact of large-scale dredging and reclamation for Vizhinjam was visible in the coast to its northern side such as Sanghumukham, Vettucad, etc during the recent cyclone. The government should give priority to such vulnerable coasts,” said AJ Vijayan, one of the founders of the National Fishworkers’ Forum.

Citing the example of Valiyathura pier, which faced severe damage last week during Cyclone Tauktae, Vijayan said that the structures laid to protect government buildings near the pier two years ago is the major reason for the recent damage.

“The headquarters of the Port Directorate and the Kerala Maritime Board are located in the land near the pier. Huge concrete structures were placed to protect the building, but it badly affected the nearby shorelines. An expert committee headed by MS Swaminathan constituted for review of the Coastal Regulation Zone notification had specifically mentioned that agencies which take hard measures like laying of groynes or seawalls should be responsible for the protection of shorelines at least 500 metres on either side. Still, government departments make blatant violations,” Vijayan said.

Long road to rehabilitation

Scores of people who lost their houses around four years ago are still living in schools-turned-rehabilitation camps. The pandemic has made matters worse for these people. The Punargeham scheme of the Fisheries Department, which aims at rehabilitating families living within 50 metres from the sea, is the only option ahead for most of them.

Jyothi Basu's house on Pozhiyoor beach damaged in Cyclone Tauktae
As per the first phase of survey conducted during 2018-19, 18,685 families were identified as those living along the vulnerable coast. The previous LDF government has given administrative sanction of Rs 2,450 crore for the project, which involves construction of flats and purchase of land. A maximum Rs 10 lakh will be given to each family, which can use Rs 6 lakh for purchase of land and Rs 4 lakh for construction of house. Officials in the Fisheries Department said that 772 units of flats are in various stages of construction and around 1,500 families have completed registration of land.

Jyothi, however, raised apprehensions over the flat being constructed at Karode in Thiruvananthapuram. “Former Fisheries Minister J Mercykuttyamma conducted a last-minute inauguration of the flats ahead of the election. However, people are complaining of lack of water and electricity connection. The distance from the beach is another concern as people in the community leave their fishing equipment near the beach after work. Daily commute is also a bit difficult,” he said.

The fishermen community is facing back-to-back disasters in the form of cyclones, heavy rainfall, COVID-19 and drop in marine catch. As it braces for another trawling ban, the community, hailed as Kerala’s own Army, faces a bleak future.

Jisha Surya is an independent journalist living in Kerala.

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