Ground report: Women bear the brunt of tidal flooding in central Kerala

Tidal flooding, a phenomenon that causes low-lying areas to flood during high tides, has become more frequent due to climate change, and the onus of cleaning up and after-care falls heavily on women.
Ramani Amma, at her house, affected by tidal flooding
Ramani Amma, at her house, affected by tidal flooding
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Scampering through the pile of rubbles on the ground, Dhanaja Santhosh leads us into the exposed room at the back of the house that is now without a wall. The stones and bricks that lay by our feet had once formed the wall of what used to be the kitchen. Dhanaja points to the broken fridge and the remains of the kitchen that the owners left behind before fleeing for life after the last round of tidal flooding brought down their wall. In ward 11 of Kochi’s Ezhikkara panchayat, this is not an unusual incident. Living with water in the house and fleeing when it gets too much has, for the people of Ezhikkara, become the norm in the last decade.

The water from the flooding contains salt, resulting in the ruin of metal furniture, walls made of concrete, and electric wiring. Homes have been destroyed, farms affected, and work doubled, with the onus of cleaning up and after-care falling heavily on women. 

Rubble of a collapsed kitchen wall in Ezhikkara
Rubble of a collapsed kitchen wall in Ezhikkara

“They had told me about their fears about the house, how difficult it was to go to the bathroom because the flushed-out water would come back inside with the flooding,” Dhanaja says, torn between worry and disbelief at what has become of the house. She is a resident of ward 4 of the panchayat who, having gone through similar troubles, decided to become a volunteer when a project was launched to deal with tidal flooding.

Tidal flooding, a phenomenon that causes low-lying areas to flood during high tides, was not so frequent in Kochi, which is now under an increasing risk of rising sea levels according to a recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. Earlier, tidal flooding took place only in the months of November and December, but several factors, climate change leading the list, have now made it a year-round occurrence. Water entered houses in coastal areas like Ezhikkara, a village in Ernakulam’s Paravur district. Other villages in Kochi like Puthenvelikara, Kumbalangi, and parts of Vypin, have all borne the wrath of tidal flooding. 

Suma Rajesh, a member of the Ezhikkara panchayat tells TNM that there are 14 wards in Ezhikkara, out of which the most affected are 1, 11, and 14. “Ward 11 is close to [Lake] Veeranpuzha from where the water flows into the houses. Four hundred families live there,” she says . 

Water outside the house of a resident in Ezhikkara
Water outside the house of a resident in Ezhikkara


Panchayat president Ratheesh tells us that his own pokkali farm (paddy) was affected when the water levels rose. “It is increasingly becoming difficult to farm, and water cannot be controlled. When tidal floods come, the water destroys the field, filling salt water everywhere. Earlier we could block it but now it crosses over to the fields. By evening, water would have entered all our houses too,” he says. 

Dr KG Sreeja, research director at Equinoct, an organisation that offers science-based solutions for climate change, says that tidal flooding does not get the attention it merits since it is not as dramatic and sudden as sea erosion or mudslides. “The problem grows gradually and has not yet crossed the threshold of a disaster,” she says.

However, the onus of the extra work – cleaning up, looking after the bedridden elderly, nursing children’s water-born infections – unsurprisingly falls on women. “Women’s lives are, as it is, weighed down by the stress of working for the house and the people around them. No one really recognises it when the load piles further up,” Sreeja says.


Data collection, the first step

Scientists from Equinoct, MS Swaminathan Foundation, and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, came together to work on a project to address tidal flooding in central Kerala. They have taken the example of the work done by the Community Resource Centre in Puthenvelikkara, in collecting data needed to make any major interventions.

MP Shajan, the coordinator of the CRC in Puthenvelikkara, says that several like-minded groups – such as the MS Swaminathan Foundation, Equinoct, students of SNMIMT Engineering College and VCS higher secondary school, and other social workers – came together to record the data. “How much water came to how many houses and at what time were recorded. We checked the rise in levels of groundwater, drinking, and farm water. We did flood mapping following the floods in 2018-19. In all of this, we involved the community, making them aware of the need for the exercise to deal with the situation,” Shajan explains. 

Ambika, a 72 year old MNREGA worker at Ezhikkara
Ambika, a 72 year old MNREGA worker at Ezhikkara

In a symposium organised in Thiruvananthapuram in May, former Finance Minister of Kerala Thomas Isaac spoke of the need for such a model village to start with, so that funds allotted by the government could be made use of. 

“To begin with, there was no data, no statistics, available at the panchayat or district level for us to conduct studies. We are not even certain when tidal flooding became a year-round occurrence. Some say that it happened after the 2018 floods of Kerala, but there is no data,” says Dr C Jayaraman of Equinoct, team lead and director of the project.

Onus falling on women 

When the scientists decided to replicate the Puthenvelikara project in other panchayats, they organised training for residents to make community videos, and do community mapping of affected areas. It is mostly women – workers of Kudumbashree among them – who took part in the training programme, which began with a session on climate change. Dhanaja Santhosh was one of them.

Another member of the expert team, Dr Manjula Bharathy of the TISS, organised the training of women, when they had a session in Mumbai, training them to document the days of tidal flooding with mobile phone cameras. Linta Benny, one of the trained volunteers, tells us she realised how many women go through this trouble only when she began recording the videos. 

“It mostly affects women. Girls and women can’t go to toilets, the dirty water comes back during the flooding,” Linta says, as she takes us to the house of Ramani Amma, a 62-year-old daily wage labourer, working under the MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme. Ramani’s house is surrounded by water at all times; the bricks of her wall, soaked by the striking salt water, have pushed out, ready to collapse. Standing at the back of her little house, facing the Veeranpuzha, she tells us how, when the tides come, water hits the kitchen straight, wrecking everything in there, and contaminating the food. Wiping a tear away, Ramani says that only she and her 40-year-old unmarried daughter live in the house. Photos of her late husband and son, who died early, hang on two walls.

Ramani Amma at the back of her house
Ramani Amma at the back of her house

The neighbours of Ramani have similar stories to tell. Radhamani, wrapped in her raincoat, is just back from work, waddling half the way because of the water clogging the path to her house. She shows us her dampened sari, wet to the knee. To the panchayat president Ratheesh who came with us, she asks when will it get better for them.

Ratheesh says that it is not easy to get things done when most of their houses are in the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), which disqualifies them from the government’s LIFE scheme, meant to provide funds to build homes for the poor. “We have presented a proposal to the government, to use cement and other construction materials that could withstand the salt water,” Ratheesh tells us.

Ezhikkara panchayat president Ratheesh
Ezhikkara panchayat president Ratheesh

Kumari, another resident in the area, shows us the water around her house where her grandchild plays and often falls. Children in these parts are often infected. One of the photos of a little girl stepping into the water outside her house, taken by her mother Anumol – who keeps a collection of photos of tidal flooding – made it to the cover of the Mathrubhumi magazine last year.

But Dr Jayaraman advises against making it a gender problem, although, he admits that is an undeniable aftereffect of climate change. It is a problem that affects land and people, houses, and property. “It is also a gender problem, but the solution should not be limited to dealing with that,” Jayaraman adds. 

His concern comes from the indifference that gender problems are generally treated with, and as such, the urgency of it may not be addressed.

Jobs affected too

In a documentary made on the subject, Climate Resilience - Life as Told by Women, Dr Sreeja explains the climate change part of the story – the increased carbon emission causing increased temperatures, 93% of which gets absorbed by the sea. “Any liquid expands when it is heated, so imagine what can happen if the oceans that cover 70% of the earth starts to expand. Global warming has resulted in ocean levels increasing by 4.9mm every year in the last 10 years. Studies show that the Arabian Sea is the most affected, the sea level increasing by 20 to 24 cm,” Sreeja explains.

Remains of a house destroyed by tidal flooding
Remains of a house destroyed by tidal flooding

Bindu Sajan, who made the documentary, recalls how shocked she was to find so many people living in these conditions, so close to the city of Kochi, that she has visited so often. “Sadly, all the hard work mostly falls on the women,” Bindu tells us. 

Apart from their added work in the house, women also have their jobs affected. Many of them work in shrimp factories, as daily wage labourers. “Women could not even go to fish, many used to live by fishing,” Ratheesh, the panchayat president, says. Few women travel for work, adds the panchayat member Suma, as she shows us how to work the nets for catching shrimps. 

Suma shows how to do shrimp fishing
Suma shows how to do shrimp fishing


Stretches of land bordered by lakes and canopies forming a distant periphery make these villages beautiful little escapades for holidaygoers, the residents say. But only those who live there know how hard it can get, they add.

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