A hurricane-stricken Indian hamlet is pinning its hopes on a seawall
KOCHI, India (AP) — Nearly two years ago, Mary Sebastian was lifted into a chair and carried by a police officer into waist-deep flood water, leaving behind her now-damaged home where she had spent more than 70 years of her life. She never thought she would return.
When Sebastian, now 85, recently recounted her experiences during Cyclone Tauktae, which struck parts of southern India in May 2021, she became emotional as the memories flooded. After returning to the same tiny, tile-roofed house, she expressed hope that a dam being built right in front of her house on the coast would stem the raging waves of the Arabian Sea and protect her.
“I feel like at least now we have a shield to protect the coast,” she said. “To prevent the waves from suddenly hitting the shore and sending them back out to sea.”
“It hasn’t been like this for years,” she added.
Like many local residents of Chellanam, a fishing village of 40,000 people in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Sebastian lives with fear of many weather events made worse by climate change: hurricanes, surf, flooding and erosion. Tens of millions of people in India, which is expected to become the world’s most populous nation this year, live on coasts and are therefore exposed to major weather events.
A common adaptation technique in India and other countries severely affected by rising seas and ocean storms is the construction of levees. While they present a barrier that oceans must overcome, scientists and climate adaptation experts warn that such structures can only offer limited protection.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series produced under the India Climate Journalism Program, a collaboration between The Associated Press, the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and the Press Trust of India.
Deadly tropical cyclones like Tauktae and Ockhi that formed in the Arabian Sea a few years earlier in 2017 devastated the hamlet and exacerbated existing coastal problems. For years there has been a patchwork of small levees and other methods in various parts of Chellanam and surrounding areas to try to reduce destruction.
At least 10,000 to 12,000 residents are affected each year by coastal erosion and extreme waves, according to KL Joseph, former president of Chellanam Village Council.
Joseph said Chellanam has tried other methods to protect homes and people, such as a large project using geotubes a few years ago. Laid along the coast, polymer tubes are filled with sand, creating a flexible barrier to absorb waves. But sections of the tubes broke apart, and local news reports reported chunks being washed out to sea.
“It failed,” Joseph said of the project.
Less secure protection is not the only disadvantage of any type of sea barrier. Erecting a structure to keep the waves at bay simply means that the water being pushed back out to sea will flow elsewhere, potentially creating higher surf in other parts of the nearby coasts that may not have levees. Sea walls also delimit or completely remove an area of beach. Fishermen in Chellanam have already had to relocate to where they dock their boats.
Joseph Mathew, a coastal protection expert from Kerala, said the loss of the beach will disrupt Chellanam’s ecosystem. For example, waves hitting the sea wall are pushed towards the ends of the wall, causing higher surf and hence erosion in those areas.
“It denies a permanent ecosystem for the beach fauna,” he said. “Creatures cannot survive in a place where waves are constantly breaking.”
For years, Chellanam has witnessed intense protests demanding that the authorities find a more permanent solution to protect the coasts. Last year, state premier Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurated a new coastal protection project that included a dike of concrete structures called tetrapods and a network of groynes, low barriers built into the sea from the shore.
Today, piles of dusty granites and tetrapods weighing between 2,000 and 5,000 kilograms (4,409 to 11,023 pounds) line broken paths and vacant lots near the Chellanam coast, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the port city of Kochi. A chain of six T-shaped groynes is also under construction.
“WARNING. Stay away from suspended loads,” warns a sign with an image of a stick figure about to be crushed by a tetrapod.
With much of the first phase of the new seawall having been completed covering a 7km stretch from Chellanam Harbor to Puthenthodu beach, residents like Sebastian are feeling safer, at least for the time being.
She and other family members who live with her – a son, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren – are still processing painful memories of the cyclone that washed away their life savings and many dreams.
After that there was nothing but some chunks of former sea barriers and a fence made of sandbags that her son Esidor Rajan and some neighbors filled every year.
All of the furniture, cutlery and their television were either washed away or destroyed in floods, his wife Juliet recalled.
“Some nobles have given us their used TVs, paraphernalia and such,” she said. “Now we survive with it.”
The family tried to leave home for good, spending time with extended families or in temporary shelters, but eventually returned because they could not afford to rent another apartment.
Today, freshly painted living room walls show cracks, tears, and mud stains behind the plaster, subtle remnants of the destructive hurricane.
Memories and remnants of destruction are scattered throughout the area.
Reetha Maria, 55, a resident of nearby Kandakkadavu Municipality, is still recovering from the frightening sight she witnessed following the cyclone’s impact.
“I was shocked to see waves crashing huge granite boulders of the old seawall and tons of water pouring straight to my house. You may have no idea how many days it took us to clean up the smelly mud and dirt that the seawater brought with it,” she said.
Hima Rose, 29, showed off her balcony garden, which features a hybrid mango tree and a curry leaf plant among other plants of the species in colorful pots.
“This is nothing but the post-cyclone impact,” she said with a smile. “We don’t want to lose our favorite plants to another cyclone and high waves. So we decided to grow them on the balcony. Luckily we have a two story house.”
Rose said that after Tauktae, she welcomed neighbors into her home and provided them with shelter and food for several days.
Today the construction work on the dyke in Kandakkadavu is almost complete.
When the sun goes down in the evening, children climb the sloping granite structures and sit on the tetrapods.
An abandoned one-story house devastated by the cyclone stands just meters from the seawall, a constant reminder of the harrowing aftermath of the cyclone’s flooding, displacement and relief camps.
For those who cannot afford to leave their homes and live and work on the coast, the construction of the dam is priceless but not a complete solution as workers must finish before the next monsoon, which is now everyone day could be .
Sebastian, a fisherman in his late 70s who gave only his first name, summed up the cautious optimism many feel.
“We can’t count on the new dam until another powerful cyclone like Tauktae hits the coast,” he said.
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