Kerala Man From a Coast That Fights Climate Change Headed for Olympics

Antony who will represent India in Tokyo Olympics hails from Pulluvila, a village that is facing climate change.

6 min read
Kerala Man From a Coast That Fights Climate Change Headed for Olympics

Alex Antony is the first from his village Pulluvila in Thiruvananthapuram to make athletics his passion and succeed in a way like no one else has. Hailing from a coastal village, Antony, the son of a fisherman will represent India in the mixed 4x400m relay at the Tokyo Olympics 2021.

Antony recollects going to the sea with his father and playing on the sandy beaches, in his childhood. “A lot has changed for my family and me over time and I am so glad that the hard work has paid off,” he said.

Much has changed in the coastal village he grew up too.

What was once a small, beautiful sandy beach on which Antony used to play, is now a place where sand accretion is ongoing, thanks to a serious climate change crisis.


Pulluvila is in Danger

While Anthony is making us proud globally, his stardom has shone light upon an environmental crisis that has been encroaching and depleting the sands for years now.

Pulluvila is a village between Kovalam and Poovar in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, about seven kilometers away from the Vizhinjam Port.

The fishing village has been witnessing accretion or a kind of sedimentation that has altered the nature of the sea and impacted traditional fishing practices.

Pulluvila is a village between Kovalam and Poovar in Thiruvananthapuram.

(Photo: Google Maps)

“The consequences of accretion is that it creates waterlogged areas. Water pools are formed between sand banks and land, preventing fishermen from parking their boats here. Living here is quite difficult as many times we have noticed sea water coming out out the toilet bowls as the sanitation is all messed up,” said Joseph Vijayan, an expert on coastal communities in Thiruvananthapuram.

In the photo below, taken on 12 July 2021, it is evident that the sand of the Pulluvila beach is elevated. This is because the sea is constantly depositing sand here.

Pulluvila has been witnessing accretion that has altered the nature of the sea and impacted traditional fishing practices.

(Photo: KA Shaji)

Kerala's Fast Depleting Coastline

In 2017, the international journal 'Natural Hazards' published a paper ‘Impact of sea-level rise and coastal slope on shoreline change along the Indian coast,’ which stated that the second highest level of coastal erosion was occurring in Kerala. Other studies have also observed that the western coast of India was primarily stable except for Kerala’s coastline.

“More than 65 percent of the coastline in Kerala is eroded, 25 percent faces accretion and only the remaining five percent is stable. Erosion takes place only in sandy beaches and more than 90 percent of Kerala’s 580-kilometre coastline is sandy beaches.”
Joseph Vijayan, Expert on Coastal Communities in Thiruvananthapuram

More than 65% of the coastline in Kerala is eroded and 25% facing accretion.

(Source: Shoreline Change Assessment for Kerala Coast)

For the past five years, fisher folk in Kerala’s coastal villages have been protesting against the construction of the Rs 7,525-crore Vizhinjam International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport by Adani Enterprises Ltd, claiming that the unscientific dredging has affected the natural habitat.

Meaning, major erosion happens during the south-west monsoon (May to September) and minor erosion during the north-east monsoon (December and January).

High energy waves move the sediment and soil from the shore during this time and when the monsoon is over, low energy waves bring back the eroded sediment and soil. This natural process of erosion and accretion ensures that the beaches remain intact.

But due to the construction of the port, the sea no longer returns the sediments, thus making beaches disappear in some places and expands at others, activists allege.

Coastal erosion becomes a hazard where human activity is threatened by a temporary or permanent hold back of the shoreline. Coastal accretion is the opposite where the shoreline builds over time.

(Source: Shoreline Change Assessment for Kerala Coast)

The table shows the erosion and accretion zones along the Kerala coastline.

(Source: Shoreline Change Assessment for Kerala Coast)


The Case of the Disappearing Beaches

The consequences of accretion is that it creates waterlogged areas.

(Photo: Joseph Vijayan)

Scientists and fishermen pointed out that seawalls and breakwaters, which are embankments erected to prevent sea from encroaching land, prevent sediment deposits. This in turn prevent coastal areas from getting replenished.

The seaport has played a significant role in destroying houses in Valiyathura, Beemapalli, and Shanghumukham areas and the breakwater has prompted the waves to hit the shores harder, activists allege. The road linking Thiruvananthapuram city with the domestic terminal of the local airport via the famous Shanghumukham beach has been washed off.

"Soon, we will need to travel by sea to go to the airport and corporates are responsible for this. This is a serious crisis which needs to be attended to right away."
K A Shaji, Senior Journalist

The Case of the Missing Fish

An alarming depletion in fish wealth has been reported in the Arabian Sea in the last three years.

(Photo: Joseph Vijayan)

Fishermen have alleged that there is an alarming depletion in fish wealth in the Arabian Sea in the last three years.

“During my father's time, they could stack up the fish like stacking up grain after a good harvest. Earlier you needed about Rs 1,000, to go into the sea. Now it costs about Rs 6,000 and on many days we return with no catch. Fishermen can't quit this profession because the sea is our birthright,” said Robin Francis, a fisherman from Puthiyathura coastal village.

Earlier, in the months of July and August, fishermen in Pulluvila and adjoining areas said, they could get a good catch just standing on the shore.

“Earlier, even if you had to do deep-sea fishing you only had to travel for about five miles, but now you need to go 15 miles or more. These are small boats so they can't really travel as much and also there is a huge risk of the boats getting destroyed because of the heavy winds," Francis added.

Jackson, a fisherman and also the President of Kerala Swatantra Matsyathozhilali Federation said he is worried for the sea and the people who belong to the ocean. “Fishing communities have been altered. This is plain exploitation of the sea and marine animals. So fishermen have been pushed to opt for non traditional fishing practices that is not affordable at all,” he added.


'Cannot Fix Climate Change'

More than 65 percent of the coastline in Kerala is eroded and 25 percent facing accretion.

(Source: Shoreline Change Assessment for Kerala Coast)

Scientists have advocated for nature-based solutions, involving active participation of the coastal communities. A recent study by A Biju Kumar, Head of department, Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala, KV Thomas, retired chief scientist and others have flagged the possibility of coastal areas in the state witnessing an increasing trend of sea surge in the coming years, mainly due to the rise in sea surface temperature.

Many fishermen pointed out that the impact of the cyclone has also worsened due to the artificial barriers.

Joseph Vijayan explained that there are no easy solutions because this has systematically altered the natural process.

“First, stop approving construction that obstructs the flow of the winds and the water. Removing the granite rocks from the sea is a very difficult task. So the scientific remedy is that the sand from the areas where it is accumulated should be manually returned to the place where there is no erosion. This isn't a one time process as it should be done every year,” said Vijayan.

What nature was doing annually should be done manually now. But even this expensive process can’t fix the irreversible damage that has already been caused. But if you are adamant to set up a port with such artificial structures, then you should be prepared to do such minimal measures to do damage control.
Jackson, President, Kerala Swatantra Matsyathozhilali Federation

While Kerala is confident that Alex Antony will make India proud, he did not want to comment on accretion or climate change near his home.

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