Coastal Environment
Construction of harbours have caused coastal erosion and rough sea in various areas of Kerala, and the state is grappling to deal with it.
Sreekesh Raveendran

In the coastal area of Valiathura in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram, relief camps have become a common sight. Since June, as many as 134 families of Kochuthoppu and Valiathura- coastal villages of Thiruvananthapuram have been living in three schools, and in a government warehouse. Their homes were destroyed due to sea erosion during the southwest monsoon. 

Fishing families in Kerala have struggled with the effects of coastal erosion for years, with many forced to take refuge in relief camps and relatives’ homes once their houses were destroyed. 

Chellanam in Ernakulam and Kodungallur in Thrissur have almost the same story to tell, of sea erosion and destruction of houses during the monsoon season. The debate on how to protect the coastal regions has been ongoing.

As much as 70% of the world’s coastal regions are under threat due to climate change and intrusive human development, as well as from government policies that don’t offer permanent solutions, says Dr KG Thara, disaster management expert and former head of the State Institute for Land and Disaster Management Centre.

Construction of harbours have caused coastal erosion and rough sea in various areas: at Muthalappozhi beach in Thiruvananthapuram and at Bepur in Kozhikode and that of break waters at the coastal regions of Poonthura, Beemapallly and Valiathura in Thiruvananthapuram.

While the Kerala government is working on kickstarting long-term measures to mitigate coastal erosion in the form of geotubes — large synthetic tubes filled with sand — experts and environmentalists argue that the project may be unsuccessful in the long run. They say that officials should instead be focussing on solutions that preserve the coastline. 

The government’s plan

To combat the debilitating sea erosion, the government isn’t turning to just sea walls or breakwaters —  barriers built out into the sea to protect a coast  — but instead also plans to protect the coast using large synthetic tubes called geotubes, modelled after Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu.The project is slated to begin in September after it is approved by the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), according to Fisheries Minister J Mercykutty Amma.

In a seminar on coastal erosion in Thiruvananthapuram, the minister recently said that despite the construction of breakwaters for the port, huge tides continue to wash away the coast that many depend on for their life and livelihood. “The breakwater construction as part of the project will come to around 3,100 meters of which more than 600 meters has been completed. But even this has not stopped the huge tides,” the minister said.

Arguing that it’s not practical to build breakwaters everywhere, Mercykutty told TNM, “The government plans to install geotubes as it would be the most effective measure. The project to bring in geotubes has been prepared as per a study by the National Institute of Ocean Technology.”  In August, KIIFB approved Rs 18 crore for the construction of 700 meters breakwater using geotubes in Poonthura, with Kerala Coastal Development Department expected to carry out the work in consultation with National Institute of Ocean Technology this month. 

Additionally, the minister noted that a French agency has come forward with a proposal to install geotubes using a new material as an experiment for one kilometre on the coastline. “If the CM approves it, the French agency’s work will also begin in September. By next year, we will be able to see the effect of geotubes and whether it proves to be a success for the government on coastal protection.” 

However, experts in the field have countered the government’s claims on the effectiveness of geotubes. 

Why seawalls, geotubes aren’t the answer

Dr Thara noted that geotubes have proven ineffective in the past. Additionally, the sand for filling geotubes is usually mined from the coast. “The question is from where is this sand sourced? This is very crucial because the sand of the seashore need to be used, as sand is not available anywhere else. When sand is used for this, it would also end up destroying the seashores,” she said.

“Experiments with geotube seawalls have been successful only in small beaches where the waves are not strong. National Centre for Coastal Research had experimented in Goa; but the tubes were broken in six months. When the tubes were broken, the residues of it would also go into the sea,” Dr Thara said. 

Dr KV Thomas, a former scientist at the National Centre for Earth Science Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, doesn’t advocate seawalls, geotubes or breakwaters for the conservation of the coastline. The scientist laid out his argument in an article published on Alakal, a fortnightly published by the National Fishworkers’ Forum. 

Human intervention in the form of mining, construction of ports, breakwaters and seawalls create instability on the coast, experts say. At the same time, weather depressions have also had a huge impact on the coast. Changes in the sea and the coast would greatly affect different regions in different ways. 

During monsoons, both the sea and coast undergo quick and dramatic changes. The land of Kerala has a length of 590 kilometers and in the past, 540 km of it was rich seashore.

The natural process is that 30 to 40 meters of the seashore would be washed away during the monsoon season and would return to its normal state after the monsoon, though there will be variations as per the strength of monsoon every year. 

Sand mining and dredging impact the availability of sand on seashores, which in turn distorts the balance of the shores and destabilize them, says Dr Thomas, who adds that the rough sea and coastal erosion are the natural outcome of all this. He also observes that constructing breakwaters for whatever purposes would hinder the flow of sand into the shore.

Are sandy shores a better option?

Experts are urging the government to use sandy shores or beaches instead as a natural way to protect the coastal regions. 

It has been now realized globally that sandy shore is the most effective and natural protection for shores. Hence a policy that focuses on maintaining and regenerating the shores has to be formed, Thomas said, stressing the need to protect sandy shores ('sandy shore' is 'sandy beach' which is the natural morphology of any coast except headlands. The size of beach sand and slope depends on the wave climate of the area).

“The protection of seashore began in 1890 by constructing groins in Chilakpur. But the situation is such that the protected regions like Poonthura and Valiathura have to be protected again. The biggest drawback is that we don’t have a policy for coastal protection. A policy should be conceived that would focus on protecting sandy shores. Also a detailed study for the same should be done. National Centre for Coastal Research proposes to study the entire coastal stretches of the Country for shoreline changes and coastal process. Kerala is one among the priority areas considered for the study,” he said.

“Since the impact of human intervention and climate change is different in different coasts, the project to protect different segments should also be different .Discussions should be carried out with stakeholders prior to prepare detailed project report (DPR),” Dr Thomas said.

 Like Dr Thomas, Dr KG Thara also keeps the view that different coasts should be viewed as different segments. She stands for methods like submerged aquatic vegetation, organic sand fencing, which has been effectively implemented in other countries, among others

Artificial reefs using bamboo are most effective for preserving the coast, while organic fencing is effective in resisting waves. Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu, where zero casualties were reported even during Cyclone Ockhi, is the classic example of resisting with various types of vegetation fencing.

National FishWorkers Forum President T Peter told TNM that the government should talk to the fishermen community who have knowledge of the behaviour of the sea before implementing any project for coastal protection. 

The need to preserve the coastline for livelihood

Meanwhile, hundreds continue to suffer without homes and no end in sight to their hardship. 

Rehabilitation has remained a major challenge for these families as many are unable to find land within the Rs 10 lakh funding provided by the government. What’s more, moving away from the water, which has been their source of livelihood for generations, is not an option.

“The government is offering us Rs 10 lakh to buy land. Where will we buy land with that amount anywhere near Valiathura? Since the area is near the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport, the price of land is very high there. And we cannot go too far as our livelihood is fishing. We can’t leave our fishing nets, boats on the shore and live in a faraway place,” said Asha, who is living at the school relief camp.

Many currently living in the camps allege that dredging and other construction work at the Vizhinjam port, the ambitious port project by Adani Enterprises, has caused high tides and devastated the coast.  

As per the Fisheries Department, as many as 18,685 families are living in the coastal regions of the state, 50 kilometers from the sea. There are 4,660 houses in Alappuzha and 3,339 houses in Thiruvananthapuram, data shows. 

“Eighty percent of the people live in coastal areas of Kerala and the state is vulnerable to more than one natural disaster. Hence there shouldn’t be any construction works in 50 meter distance from the sea,” Dr Thara said.

The recurring plight of the people have been extensively reported, but a solution to their woes remains elusive.

Also Read: Adani’s port project in Kerala capital might be threatening ancient coastal villages

All pictures clicked by Sreekesh Raveendran