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.