Monthly Archives: November 2010

Save the coasts from experts


coast sinking cartoon

Three of our recent stories are closely interconnected. The World Meteorological Organization has reported that greenhouse gases that warm up the globe have reached the peak level since the pre-industrial times. A story by veteran journalist Darryl D’Monte talks about local concerns in Mumbai, where our office is located – scientists say the city could face coastal erosion and other hazards associated with climate change. Another story by Ajith Lawrence from Thiruvananthapuram talks about the problems associated with a common solution for coastal erosion – sea walls.

While there is worldwide concern about the gradual rise of the sea level and subsequent loss of the coasts, policymakers in India are resorting to hard solutions. They build sea walls, evict local people from the coasts and generally put in place techno-managerial quick-fixes. That is the bane of policy making in this country. Technocrats and bureaucrats believe they can manage impending disasters. It is an elitist notion that views people on the first mile of disasters as helpless victims, who need expert management of their environment and livelihoods. More often than not the problems these experts set out to address become worse.

The conundrum requires careful examination of the interrelated issues involved. First of all, in the face of global warming, as environmental features and natural hazard patterns shift, coasts become vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme weather events and changes in livelihood patterns. The UN climate panel predicts a temperature rise of 1.3 degree C to 6.4 degree C by 2100. Scientists project different scenarios of warming and associated impacts that include a global sea level rise of 18 to 59 cm by the end of the century. It could be even worse, some environmentalists argue – but there is no hard evidence for such fears.

In India, there has been sea level rise of 1.06 to 1.75 mm a year over the past 40 years as scientists at the National Institute of Oceanography have reported. A 4 cm rise in the sea level may not appear to be much – but its impact on the coast could be severe, exponential, speaking mathematically. For, coasts are not vertical terrains – but gradually slanting landscapes. So a single centimeter rise in the sea level could mean, in some cases, disappearance of 10 cm of the beach or close to even a metre. Then the coast erodes further as more sand is taken away by the waves.

Erosion of the coast is now widely found in east and west coasts. Houses and boats and entire hamlets could disappear. Such shrinking of the coast has happened in Pondicherry over the past few years – it was not sea level rise per se, but erosion worsened by a few unscientific structures on the coasts and in the sea. When the ocean moves landwards and the shoreline recedes – it is as simple as that.

What makes the future scenario even more fearsome is the possibility of intense storms, projected as a result of climate change. That could make wave attacks severe. Rising sea level can also amplify the impact of the waves and flooding. Besides, scientists have reported a rise in the frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events and an increase in the number and proportion of cyclones in the Indian Ocean that cross a wind speed of 200 km per hour.

Here is the significance of the story about seawalls – they do not always protect the coast. Instead, they often contribute to the erosion by destroying or degrading the shores. They  prevent the natural process of beach building. And they contribute to erosion on their sea-facing side and at their beginning,  the end and the gaps in between.  The waves are strong – they need a place to give vent to their fury.  Eventually the wall sinks in the coastal sand and water in the natural processes of the waves, tide and sand deposit. Then more stones need to be laid. It is an unending process. The walls protect a stretch behind them – so they are popular among many local communities. But they just shift the problem in time and space. There is no sound scientific basis for much of the walls that have been built and allowed to sink .

At the same time more roads, industries and tourist resorts damage natural coastal barriers such as sand dunes. So coastal communities are facing attack from the sea and from the land, their space ever shrinking. Sandy beaches are necessary for their survival – for shore-based fishing, mending craft and gear, fish drying and safe landing and launching of catamarans and canoes.

The latest news is about geo-tubes or giant sand-filled sleeves that replace the granite walls as the story from Mumbai suggests.  They are softer, allow the water to seep in, absorb the impact of the waves and tides and allow sand deposit and growth of organisms on them. While coastal erosion is a major problem and anything might be better than the sea walls, scientists still fear that such new, largely untested technological interventions here could simply shift the problem from one spot to another. It remains to be seen how geo-tubes that have been introduced in some parts of India, including in the Kovalam beach of Thiruvananthapuram, actually work.

Our concern is that traditional means of livelihoods are being undermined and people living on the coasts are seldom consulted before the government and other agencies introduce  such techno-managerial interventions. There is a need for a paradigm shift in climate adaptation and disaster ‘management’ strategies that are being promoted in India – and elsewhere. The stress should be on promoting the resilience of local communities, instead of making them even more dependent on external, expensive technologies of dubious merit.

Seawalls take away Kerala’s commons

sea wall

A sea wall in northern Kerala that takes away a large share of the beach (Photo: Monsoon)

By Ajith Lawrence

THIRUVANATHAPURAM  (AlertNet) – In this tourism spot, fishermen who still look to the stars and the location of church spires to navigate their catamarans are finding their livelihoods hit by a government move to protect their hamlets.

Seawalls meant to check erosion of Kerala’s coast – a problem expected to worsen with climate change – are further shrinking the rare natural beaches left.

Thanks to seawall building, only a quarter of the sandy shores in the region remain freely available for traditional fishing activities, a recent study found.

Critics of the building effort see the walls as a part of a move to favour big boats, harbours and businesses in the place of small-time fishing. But the region’s left-leaning state government says the work is purely aimed at protecting an increasingly at-risk population.


“Building sea walls is to save the fishing community and the coast from being washed away by the unprecedented sea erosion caused by climate change,” said the Kerala state fisheries minister, S. Sharma.

Many local people in fact demand seawalls as protection against coastal erosion, a particular risk during the region’s annual monsoon rains, when the adjoining Arabian Sea gets rough.

“There is no other way except building protective measures,” said George Mercier, a member of the state legislative assembly from Kovalam. Mercier has introduced a mix of measures to protect the beaches in his constituency, which is a world tourism hotspot and a money-maker for the state.

Today sand bags, rubble in net cages and granite breakwaters protect the beaches of Kovalam, a favourite of tourists who bask near its lines of coconut palms. Elsewhere, granite walls – several metres tall – protect coastline.

Scientists fear that these structures prevent beach building and leave little space for shore-based fishing, mending nets and parking boats. They also prevent safe launching and landing of the region’s ubiquitous catamaran, an old-fashioned fishing craft made of floating logs tied together, fishermen say.

The shoreline protection systems in effect mean poor and elderly fishermen can no longer work, they say.

Well-built and weather-beaten, Shanthappan Arogyam, 65, finds the region’s sea walls a frustration. Hailing from Pozhiyoor, a scenic southern village between the sea and Kerala’s famed backwaters, he used to spend his days in the sea in his catamaran.

But now, “there is no more sandy shore to land the catamaran,” he said. The seawalls have also resulted in sea-churned stones collecting near the shore and creating a hazard for fishermen, he said.

“You never know where these rocks lie down there,” Arogyam said. Nets get torn and the fishermen’s feet risk becoming trapped, he said.


Kerala has 180,000 active seagoing fishermen and a large share of them still use small canoes and catamarans. Affordable outboard engines are becoming more and more common, but over 10,000 small craft still operate with no engine.

Fishermen with limited means use only such simple boats; others fish straight from the shore with lines.

With or without an engine, small craft need sandy shores – an increasingly rare feature, the fishermen say.

“Beach building has come to a standstill over the last 10 years,” said Dr. N.P. Kurian, head of the marine sciences and fisheries section of the Centre for Earth Sciences Studies in Kerala.

He blames rampant sand-mining for construction as the key reason, and too many seawalls as a contributory factor.

Kurian explained that seawalls often create erosion around themselves.

“It is an external body that cuts the natural force of the waves, and their ability to bring in sand,” he said.

Fishermen of Kerala have gradually been losing their sandy shores for a variety of reasons – development projects, conservation efforts, tourism, and protective seawalls and other barriers. A new study by the Centre for Resource Management Studies notes that of the 590 kilometres (370 miles) of coastline in Kerala state, 438 kilometres (275 miles) have become inaccessible to traditional fish workers due to such developments.

Altogether, the loss of shoreline threatens almost 2 million fishermen in the state, said D. Sanjeevaghosh, a former Kerala government fisheries official who now heads the study group.

Scientists are concerned that projected sea level rise as a result of climate change could lead to an exponential rise in coastal erosion, as well as submergence of coastal land and islands, said C.K. Rajan, former director of a centre for monsoon studies at the Kochin University of Science and Technology.

Critics of the seawall building effort says they suspect a different agenda behind efforts to block off the sea – one that favors big enterprises over their own small ones.

But the Marxist-led state government insists it has only the best interests of the fishermen in mind.

“There is no politics in it except to save community people from the wrath of climate change,” said K. Rajendran, the state revenue minister.