In the early 1900s, the Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran wrote in a poem:
It is said that before entering the sea
a river trembles with fear.
She looks back at the path she has traveled,
from the peaks of the mountains,
the long winding road crossing forests and villages.
And in front of her,
she sees an ocean so vast,
that to enter
there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.
But today, in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram, it is the beach which is fighting the fear of disappearing forever, as the sea is continually pressed inward to the Shanghumugham beach due to natural and anthropological causes.
The 590-km coast of Kerala is one of the most densely populated land areas in the country. This coastline is exposed to high waves, rogue waves and Tsunami, which in turn results in rampant coastal erosion and consequent beach loss.
According to the fact sheet on coastal erosion related losses in Kerala, released by the Kerala Government, the coastline of Thiruvananthapuram district is the most prone to erosion out of the nine coastal districts of the state.
Rahul Rajan, a resident of Thiruvananthapuram says, “I grew up playing football on this beach. Some of my best memories have Shanghumugham in its background, but now there is no beach anymore.”
Current Plight of Thiruvananthapuram’s Shangumugham Beach Credit: Deccan Chronicle
A study titled, Impact of sea level rise and coastal slope on shoreline change along the Indian coast, by Prakash Mohanty, T. Srinivasa Kumar and Mahendra R. S. of the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) and R. K. Nayak of the National Remote Sensing Centre, reveals that Kerala has the second highest percentage (65%) of soil erosion, according to the results of satellite-derived Shoreline Change Rate( SCR). West Bengal is the most vulnerable with 70% erosion.
Coastal erosion has also led to large-scale displacement of fishing communities. The Cyclonic Storm Ockhi which hit Kerala in December 2017 exacerbated this displacement. Thousands of families have now moved to other parts of the city. In December 2019, the Kerala government launched the Rs. 2,450 crore ‘Punargeham Project’ to rehabilitate 18,685 fisher families living within 50 metres from the coastline. Every year, the coastal district administrations of Kerala are forced to open a number of relief camps.
Fishing families in Kerala have struggled with the effects of coastal erosion for years, with many forced to take refuge in relief camps after their houses are destroyed.
Chellanam in Ernakulam, 200 Kms from Thiruvananthapuram, has almost the same story to tell, of sea erosion and destruction of houses during the monsoon season. Chellanam witnessed floods and raid coastal erosion earlier in August, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of families were displaced in the process.
Given below are statistics related to coastal erosion in Kerala from 2002 to 2012, released by the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority:
What is coastal erosion?
Coastal erosion is the loss or displacement of land caused due to a rise in sea level, resulting in strong waves and coastal flooding.
Coastal erosion can be either be,
- A rapid-onset hazard (occurs very quickly, a period of days to weeks)
- A slow-onset hazard (occurring over many years, or decades to centuries).
What causes coastal erosion?
According to ‘Study’, an online learning platform, the natural causes of coastal erosion can be understood with an easy acronym, ‘HAACS’:
1. Hydraulic Action
When waves or flowing water are able to remove rocks and sediment from a coastline, it results in the first mechanism of coastal erosion , Hydraulic Action. Imagine a cliff, and picture air trapped in the cracks of the rocks that make up the cliff. As waves hit that cliff, the air is squeezed and may actually escape. This process weakens the rocks of the cliff, and results in the withering of rocks.
Attrition happens when rocks are brought onto the coastline and smash into the rocks that make up the coast. Waves washing up on the coast carry more than water – they can carry sand, rocks, and sediment, all of which can break down the rocks that are situated along the coastline.
Abrasion occurs when waves break cliff faces and subsequently abrade it. In this process, the scree from other wave actions break off pieces of rock from higher up the cliff face.
Corrosion occurs when the sea’s pH (below 7) withers the rocks of the cliffs. Limestone cliffs, which have a moderately high pH, are particularly affected in this way.
Solution is the process in which acids contained in sea water will dissolve some types of rock such as chalk or limestone.
Apart from these causes, there are many anthropological reasons which aggravate coastal erosion. Processes such as sand mining, building ports, deforestation etc can significantly impact coastal lines, resulting in gradual or rapid coastal erosion.
Let us take one of these anthropological reasons and do a quick thought experiment:
Imagine a coastal village in India with a population of 200 people, all belonging to the fishing community. A sand mining company ‘X’ has been continuously extracting sand from the beach for many years.
This would eventually result in the gradual eroding of land (or shore). Sea would claim the shore and obliterate the houses, boats and other belongings of the fisher families. Now these 200 people are out of shelter and employment.
Even the biodiversity of the place, like turtles that visit the shore to lay eggs every year, would be significantly bruised.
On the other hand, people who move to a relief camp face the uncertainty of moving back to their own homes as they might not exist anymore. The mining company, however, will shift its operations to another village.
This would create long-lasting environmental as well as social implications.
According to Vardhan Patankar, Programme Head of WCS-India's Marine Programme, a three-point checklist is essential to mitigate coastal erosion. Firstly, beach profiling – a simple survey used to study the contour of the coastline should be done in regular intervals to determine the rise in sea level. Secondly, Acts relating to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), which have undergone so many amendments in the past few years, should be strengthened and rigorously followed. Finally, one should think twice before planning to build anything on the coast, building any structure on the coast can lead to erosion. As Vardhan explains, “when we take a portion of the land from the sea, to compensate, it will take a portion from elsewhere along the coast.”
Written by Gokul G. K.
Illustrations by Radha Pennathur