Kochi and Bengaluru: The white patterns embedded on the front patio of Vilasini Surendranth’s house are pretty, almost like an artsy contrast to the maze of backwaters, rivers, undulating hills and acres of coconut and other trees beyond.
But Vilasini, 62, a daily wage labourer with a weathered face and dressed in a pink nightie, does not see the beauty of the white patterns: They are salt deposits, a reminder of a recent phenomenon that has flooded her two-room, mud-and-brick home and torn her life asunder here in the otherwise calm and bucolic environs of Puthanvelikara panchayat in northern Kochi, Kerala.
Twice a month over the last five years, about 300 families in Puthanvelikara have experienced tension and ill health from a previously rare occurrence—water from the sea, 13 km to the west, rushes in, raising and overwhelming the freshwater of the backwaters.
Homes are damaged and equipment, toys and vehicles ruined by saline water. The water lingers for up to a week, said Vilasini, and gradually seeps into the septic tank. Eventually, the sewage begins to overflow, mixes with the sea water and emits a foul odour.
The first few times, Vilasini’s grandchildren, now aged 12, six, three and one got diarrhea, wrinkled feet and leg cramps while playing outside. Now, they stay indoors and don’t venture out when the land is flooded. Sometimes, the family takes refuge in a temple nearby till the water recedes.
When we visited in April, the Surendranaths’ backyard was damp from the tidal waters that swept into their house in March 2023. Inside, plaster on the walls, with smiling pictures of her grandchildren, had peeled, and the floors were coated with a thin layer of salt.
The Surendranaths’ house sits on an island, surrounded normally by greenish backwaters. Access is via a rickety wooden bridge. A slightly elevated mud bund, set in place about a year ago, separates the land from water. The house is raised on a 2-ft concrete platform.
Despite these interventions, the water still inundates their land during high tide, which means it rises 1 to 2 ft above the normal level of the backwaters.
A 2023 report from Climate Central, an independent group of scientists,, predicted that if sea levels rose 1 m (3.2 ft), four Kerala districts, Thrissur, Kottayam, Alappuzha and Ernakulam, including parts of Kochi, which is in Ernakulam, could be underwater by 2050.
Another report the same year from the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, another nonprofit, warned that if global temperature rises 2 deg C above the preindustrial (1850-1900) average, sea levels may rise by more than 40 feet. This could cause “extensive coastal loss and damage well beyond limits of feasible adaptation”.
The first signs that this era of intensified global warming has arrived came on 17 November 2023, the first day the world experienced temperatures touching the 2-deg-C mark. On 21 November, ahead of the global climate change conference on 30 November, the United Nations warned that, without urgent intervention, the world was on course to warm by 3 deg C.
The Climate Central report previously quoted warned that the 12 months between November 2022 and October 2023, were the “hottest ever recorded” in 125,000 years.
“Not only was September the hottest month ever, it also exceeded the previous record by an unprecedented 0.5°C, with global average temperatures at 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels,” said the new UN report. “These records were accompanied by devastating extreme events, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned us are merely a meek beginning.”
Some of those meek beginnings are evident in the rush of seawater into northern Kochi’s homes. It’s called tidal flooding, which occurs when sea levels rise during high tide and barrel inland through deltas into low-lying areas. Such flooding is common enough in coastal areas and usually occurs in Kerala from October to December around new moon and full moon days.
But neither has tidal flooding been as severe and prolonged, nor has it struck at lives and livelihoods, as it is doing now.
Death Of A Farm
For 40 years, Vilasini’s family—her husband, two sons, their wives and her four grandchildren—made their living off small-scale agriculture and dairy farming. But the crops they farmed, cashewnut and guava, do not grow any more because the soil is now saline.
Such salinity and harsher living conditions has also been reported in other coastal states, with migrants leaving vulnerable coastal regions along the eastern coast, such as Ganjam and Kendrapara in Odisha and Sunderbans in West Bengal.
Leaving home is a possibility the Surendranaths have considered. “In a few years from now, the cracks in the house may become worse, and we may have to leave,” said Vilasini’s younger son Vipin, 38, who does odd jobs as a driver and fisherman and explained how his children could not go to school each time it flooded.
Vipin, clad in a brown lungi and a blue sleeveless tee shirt that accentuates his muscular arms, is something of a local hero.
He leads the local boat racing team and has won many state and district awards. Their living room is filled with his trophies. Having grown up in this 60-year-old ancestral house, passed down from his father’s family, Vipin, who studied till high school, said he felt dejected about the state of his home and the village.
The family’s six cows do not get enough fodder, and milk production had declined. Vilasini’s husband, Surendranath, 66, lost an arm in a factory accident about 34 years ago and has since been unemployed.
To support the family, Vilasini now does odd jobs as a worker for the national make-work programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
“This loss of livelihoods and land assets pushes the poor and vulnerable into greater poverty,” said Nihal Ranjit, public policy and governance expert and researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS), Bengaluru. “This has serious justice implications because those who have contributed the least to climate change are the ones suffering the most severe impacts.”
About 3.6 million people a year were displaced between 2008 and 2019 in India due to climate change, mostly from marginalised and vulnerable coastal communities, according to a 2021 report by Action Aid and Climate Action Network South Asia, both advocacy groups.
An additional 68 to 135 million people could be pushed into poverty by 2030 because of climate change, said a 2020 World Bank report.
“Globally, the 10 per cent of the population with the highest income accounted for nearly half (48 per cent) of emissions with two thirds of this group living in developed countries,” said the new UN report released on 21 November. “The bottom 50 per cent of the world population contributed only 12 per cent of total emissions.”
Global Warming & Local Construction
As sea levels rise globally, the experience of longer and more severe tidal flooding in Puthanvelikara and other regions of Kochi are in line with scientific predictions about a warming planet in general and Kochi and Kerala in particular.
Tidal flooding is now routinely evident in India’s coastal areas, where 14% per cent of India’s population, or 200 million, lives, said Ranjit. If sea levels rise by a metre, 169 sq km of the coastal region surrounding Kochi will be inundated, according to the 2022 Kerala State Action Plan on Climate Change.
“ Tidal flooding is on the rise due to sea level rise and changes in the wave and current dynamic along the coastal line due to unscientific developmental activities,” said Abhilash S, associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the Cochin University of Science and Technology.
The rate of sea level rise has more than doubled between 2006-2015, from 1.4 mm per year between 1901-1990 to 3.6 mm per year, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report released in June 2019.
The Kerala government has launched some relief measures. For instance, Punargeham, a State programme launched in May 2023 pays fishing families living within 50 meters of the shore Rs 10 lakh to relocate elsewhere, although it was criticised by a majority of prospective beneficiaries, according to this 2023 study.
The Surendranaths had heard of Punargeham, but they were not eligible, said Vipin. They had no government assistance, had reached out to the local panchayat for help but had received no response.
Shyni Anil Kumar, assistant professor in architecture and planning at the National institute of Technology, Calicut, said that coastal Kerala was dealing with the double onslaught of monsoonal and tidal flooding, partly due to climate change and due to infrastructure development, such as fishing harbors, docks which affect the flow of water.
Large deposits of sediment and silt due to dredging changes coastal morphology and erodes the seashore. “In some regions like Thiruvananthapuram, the seashore has eroded to great extent”, she said.
About a third of India's and Kerala’s coastline has eroded over the last 26 years. Anilkimar said coastal erosion would affect the tidal flooding, increasing the amplitude and frequency of tidal waves.
The Worst Is Yet To Come
A 2022 study published in the journal Environmental Research, predicted a two- to three-fold increase in sea level rise along the Arabian Sea coastline and the Indian Ocean if there is an additional 0.5 °C warming of the Indian Ocean relative to pre-industrial levels.
About 36 million Indians could lose their homes and livelihoods due to coastal flooding by 2050, if greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming were not reduced, according to a 2019 report by Climate Central. That isn’t currently happening.
Instead, “the world is witnessing a disturbing acceleration in the number, speed and scale of broken climate records”, said the new UN report previously quoted.
The highest globally averaged sea surface temperature was recorded in October 2023, which was also the warmest October on record. Globally, high-tide flooding is now 300% to 900% more frequent than it was 50 years ago, due to rising sea levels caused by global warming.
There is no official mitigation plan to counter tidal flooding or sea level rise. Ranjit of the IIHS said some adaptation measures include structural approaches like seawalls and levees, but these are expensive to build and can cost more to maintain and operate.
“These solutions also tend to be one-dimensional, protecting against a single mode of vulnerability and if not done in a sensitive manner can create further risks,” said Ranjit.
Mangrove forests that thrive in saline waters and offer natural protection against coastal erosion have been devastated in Kerala by roads and other construction.
“Similarly, widespread urbanisation of wetlands has severely limited their capacity to naturally absorb flood waters, further aggravating the impacts of tidal flooding,” said Ranjit.
No Govt Recognition Of Tidal Flooding
About 28,000 live in Puthenvelikara panchayat, which has roughly 8,000 households. Sitting at the confluence of two rivers, Periyar and Challakudy, the region was badly affected in the 2018 Kerala floods.
They received some support from governments and other organisations, but there was no support for tidal flooding, which affects their lives every day, said M P Shajan, a former panchayat member.
When we visited, the Surendranaths’ older son, Subin, his wife and two children were away at his wife’s maternal home. Three years ago in 2020, when Subin’s wife was pregnant with her second child, she fell in the flooded water. Their then nine-year-old daughter, Devananda was upset and wrote letters to the district collector to find solutions for the tidal flooding.
“No one is telling us what to do,” said Shajan. “Other than sermons and prayers, there is no other solace. There is a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.”
V D Sadheeshan a member of the Kerala legislative assembly and opposition leader said that tidal flooding “has become a serious issue in my constituency” after the 2018 flood because of its location between two rivers. The Kerala government, he said, “has taken steps to tackle flooding due to rain”, such as clearing canals, but they had no plan for tidal flooding.
After her daughter-in-law fell, Devananda was anxious every time the house was flooded, said Vilasini, who is worried about the future of her grandchildren and if they would have a home to live in. They cannot afford to leave this house and buy a new one, unless they sell, but no one is ready to buy it.
Several residents in the area, inhabited by farmers, fisherfolk and labourers, echoed these problems. There are cracks in many houses. Repairs take money and time. Women and children are the most affected because they cannot use toilets or kitchens until the water recedes.
One resident said her 11-year-old granddaughter had to wade through knee-deep dirty water whenever it flooded, to get to the main road to catch the bus to school.
Puthenvelikara’s Early Warning System
To draw attention to the plight of Puthenvelikara, Shajan began a community resource center (CRC) in 2019, urging residents to volunteer to create awareness and attempt to find solutions. Their efforts caught the attention of Equinoct, a Kerala research organisation.
In collaboration with CRC, Equinoct setup 19 tidal gauges in low-lying areas and trained the community to collect data. When this story was published, they were collating and analysing this data. Equincoct is also working with panchayat and district authorities to find solutions through community-led discussions.
Sadheeshan commended Equinoct for identifying vulnerable locations through tidal gauge measurements. Houses identified as vulnerable to flooding had received tidal flood calendars, said C G Madhusoodan, CEO of Equinoct.
“It’s a normal calendar where we have marked the possible flooding days—that is four days before and after full moon and new moon days,” said Madhusoodan. Residents mark the time and day and depth of flooding.
“From the initial data, we estimate that about 20,000 houses are affected by tidal flooding in Ernakulam district,” said Madhusoodan. “There are nine such districts in Kerala.” Extrapolating from the data they have from Ernakulam, he estimated that at least 100,000 houses across Kerala are likely to be affected.
As part of their efforts to document the impact of tidal flooding , Equinoct along with Manjula Bharathi, dean of the School of Habitat Studies at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, collaborated with Kudumbashree, a women’s self-help group, and the village panchayat. They created a coastal network of women collectives being trained to create a visual and historical narrative map of tidal flooding through their experiences and those of others.
Houses, Land Abandoned
While most in Puthanvelikera have no option but to deal with the floods, some migrate and return when the water recedes. Some have relocated to within the panchayat.
Sidharta Skutha, an Equinoct intern researching migration has noted several abandoned houses in Puthanvelikera. There is no clear data, but he estimated that 25 families had left for good because patches of their land appear almost permanently submerged. This, he added, could be happening in every backwaters panchayat.
Rising sea levels could, in the years to come, submerge entire villages, said Ranjit of the IIHS. For instance, nearly 16 villages were submerged in a single district, Kendrapara, in Odisha.
Vilasini said she hoped her home would not suffer the same fate. At the Kochi biennale in March 2023, Madhusoodan of Equinoct presented a short film on Puthanvellikera’s struggle with tidal flooding. At the screening, Surendranath’s granddaughter, Devananda, made a heartfelt plea for help.
“These continuous efforts to draw attention to the issue will hopefully bring some help from the government,” said Vilasini.
(Deepa Padmanaban is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist writing on climate change and environment.)
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