The eroding shorelines of Thiruvananthapuram

Rihan Najib | Updated on February 14, 2020

Close watch: Coastguards prevent beachgoers from venturing into the waters for fear of an unexpected sea surge   -  RIHAN NAJIB

Thiruvananthapuram’s Shanghumugham Beach is shrinking by the day, as the sea is continually pressed inland by a combination of climate-related and man-made causes

On weekends, there is hardly any elbow room on Shanghumugham Beach in Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram. The smell of roasted corn hangs in the air, vendors mill around the walkway that leads to the beach, families lounge around a 35m-long sculpture of a reclining naked woman — ‘Jalakanyaka’ by Kanaayi Kunhiraman — that seems to strain against Kerala’s conservative ethos yet has come to be one of the most recognised landmarks in the city. It is a familiar beach scene.

The only problem is — there isn’t much beach left.

“Every year, I feel the sea is drawing closer,” says Indu, a 44-year-old Thiruvananthapuram resident who has been coming to Shanghumugham since her childhood. “The beach is so much smaller than it used to be. We would come here to get away from the congestion in the city, and now look how congested the beach has become.”

She points to a row of fishing boats lined up along a part of the shore usually reserved for people. The boats were moved after vast tracts of the Shangumugham shoreline were eroded following Cyclone Ockhi, which hit the Kerala coast in December 2017. A nearby road, which runs parallel to the beach, bears testimony to Ockhi’s fury — rope and traffic cones cordon off the traffic from long sections of the road that were washed away by the waves.

Damages: The road parallel to the beach was partially washed away by the waves during Cyclone Ockhi in 2017   -  RIHAN NAJIB


Even now, the waves are visibly rough — but they do not deter visitors. Beach-goers play a game of racing back to the shore before the water reaches their ankles, laughing aloud when the wave beats them to it. Others try to venture into the water, holding hands with their friends but lose balance when the wave pulls back into the sea. The whistles of coastguards pierce the air, instructing the crowds to move away from the water. Families with toddlers are turned away from the water.

Standing under a wide umbrella, Shishupal, a coast guard, watches his colleague admonish youngsters taking selfies with their backs to the waves. “Earlier, we would merely look on as people played and swam since the sea is quieter at this time of the year, but now we must strictly prevent them from going into the water,” he says. “We can’t trust the waves anymore. After the [2004] tsunami and Ockhi, we rarely see the sea calm.”

Shishupal has been working as a coast guard since the early ’90s and remembers how he would have to walk for about a kilometre to reach the sea in Shanghumugham. Since then, he notes that both the height and force of the waves have increased, not just during the monsoon months of June to September, when the sea is usually rough, but all through the year. “It’s getting harder to predict how the sea will behave,” he says.

Part of the notion of Kerala being ‘god’s own country’ is drawn from the abundance of its water resources. Bordered by the Arabian Sea on the west, Kerala has 44 rivers, 34 lakes, scenic lagoons, mangroves and estuarine wetlands, and also receives heavy rain during the monsoons. But having been battered by severe floods in 2018 and 2019, the state’s relationship with water is fast changing.

An article titled ‘Impact of sea level rise and coastal slope on shoreline change along the Indian coast’, published in 2017 in the international journal Natural Hazards, noted that the highest level of coastal erosion was observed in West Bengal. Kerala was a close second. Other studies have observed that the western coast of India was mostly stable, except for Kerala’s coastline. Of Kerala’s 590-km coastline, 63 per cent faces sea erosion.

The enforcement of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification is lax. Among nine districts observed to be affected by sea erosion in Kerala, the maximum (23 per cent) has been reported in Thiruvananthapuram. The state capital has a 35-km coastline, and is one of the densest districts in terms of population — factors that exacerbate the vulnerability of its people at the time of a natural disaster.

Cyclone Ockhi, for instance, threw into sharp relief the dangers faced by populous settlements along the coast. Houses and other buildings were washed away in areas such as Valiyathura and Shanghumugham, and families identified as vulnerable were offered ₹10 lakh by the state to relocate to safer areas. But many are loath to leave the coast.

“What kind of land will you get these days with ₹10 lakh in this city? Will it cover the cost of building a house? Who will pay for my transport back and forth from the shore?” asks Gilbert (59), a grizzled fisherman who lives further up the coast in Shanghumugham. His house faces the sea, separated from the beach by a narrow road. “Why are you coming now, when the sea is safe? Come in June and see what we have to live with.”

His neighbour comes out of her house on hearing Gilbert’s raised voice. She squints and points to a boat in the distance. “That’s where the sea would begin,” she says. “You’d have to walk that far to get to the sea.”

Gilbert also remembers the beach being a vaster expanse. “During the ’80s, there would be swathes of anchovies, sardines and other small fish drying under the sun. We would have dinner and lie down to sleep on the shore,” he recalls. “Now there are hardly any fish to catch, let alone to dry. And the sea is knocking at our doors.” He attributes the recent disturbances in the sea to the Vizhinjam International Seaport, which is currently under construction. The port is located about 18km further south from Shanghumugham beach. “Ever since the harbour came up, the waves have become rougher. Because of the breakwater in the harbour, the waves have nowhere to go and are hitting us harder.”

A nearly 310km stretch (close to 60 per cent) of Kerala’s coastline has been protected by seawalls, groynes and offshore breakwaters. Experts have long maintained that fortifications of this kind affect the flow of the currents around the shore, resulting in the intensification of waves to the north of the breakwater and subsequent erosion of that shoreline.

But the residents insist that fortifications are the only way they can save their homes. Gilbert points to a mark on the wall of his house, about a metre from the ground. “Last monsoon, the waters rose and came into my house till here. We told the government to put in seawalls but they said they didn’t have money.” Sacks of absorbent clay are lined up along the road in front of his house. “We have to make do with this instead of a seawall, but the only thing protecting us are our prayers.”

Barriers and prayers: Sacks of absorbent clay are lined up in front of houses that face the sea   -  RIHAN NAJIB


On the Observatory Hills opposite the Kanakakunnu Palace, where the office of the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority is located, Sekhar L Kuriakose, member secretary, clarifies that what is happening in Shanghumugham is not representative of what is occurring elsewhere along Kerala’s coastline which is beset by issues of rampant coastal regulation violations, destruction of adjoining wetlands and sea surges. “The erosion and accretion process is a cyclical one. Shanghumugham’s shore will erode as well as build up eventually. I wouldn’t call it a classic example of climatic variation,” he says. “Shanghumugham is an interplay between whatever is happening in terms of changes in the Arabian Sea, in terms of temperature regimes, wind patterns and the different anthropogenic factors — such as the Vizhinjam harbour, increased built-up area along the coastline, and so on,” he notes.

The average temperature in the Arabian Sea seems to be rising, he adds. Recent studies have attributed the rise in temperature to the rapid warming of the Indian Ocean, among other climate change signals, but the root cause of the rapid warming remains unclear. “If the temperature is increasing, it means the air will have more moisture and the sea will have more wind, and this manifests as rough waves,” he says. Recent studies also note an increase in wind velocity and wind-related disasters across the coast.

“Our construction practices are not wind-resilient, so we’ve been getting a lot of cases of rooftops being blown away and electric poles and trees falling on houses,” he says. He also adds that fish stocks have been dropping because of overfishing, degradation of marine environment, ocean warming and so on. As a result, fishermen are forced to go into deeper seas, adding another layer of vulnerability to a population at risk.

Even during Cyclone Ockhi, what began as a depression in the Arabian Sea quickly changed course and became a cyclonic storm, hitting the Kerala coast without warning. Fishermen who had already set out for the sea couldn’t be notified in advance. Even now, families in Valiyathura wait for news from their kin who went missing at sea back then.

Other experts have pointed out that seawalls and breakwaters interrupt the accretion of sediments along the coast, thereby preventing the coast from being replenished. Moreover, the intensive quarrying for rocks needed for such structures contributed to the denudation of hillsides in the Western Ghats, leading to an unprecedented number of landslides in Kerala’s hilly districts such as Wayanad and Idukki during the floods of 2018.

Furthermore, the dams in Kerala’s rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea have been faulted with preventing the flow of sediments to the coast.

The picture that emerges of Kerala’s many-layered vulnerabilities is dire.

Studies suggest that the sea level may rise by 15-38cm in Kerala by mid-21st century. “From a disaster manager’s perspective, it’s more like a cautionary note on a cigarette packet,” Kuriakose reflects. “We’re aware of the dangers. And we now know yet another cause for the danger.”

Back on the shore, Gilbert leans against a sack of clay and shrugs. “This beach is my home. The sea is my livelihood,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Published on February 14, 2020

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