Posted on April 5, 2022
Ninee-year old Hasain Sina’s T-shirt was about the same shade of blue as the tarpaulin stretched taut across the broken roofs. He picked his way through a narrow rubble-strewn lane lined by the husks of modest homes. They looked as though they had been sliced vertically by some gigantic scalpel, their inner lives and private spaces thrown open to the world.
Sina walked past one of these houses, whose face had been sheared off by the sea. From within the three walls that still stood, a woman waved at him and went back to her morning chores. Sina waved back cheerily.
There were jagged edges everywhere, in this settlement in Ullal, on the coast of Karnataka: in broken foundation stones sticking out of the earth like broken bones, in roofs caved in and swaying in the breeze, in the nails and tiles that paved the little lane Sina walked down.
The child already seemed intimately familiar with the destruction and the bounce back – the rhythm of these lives by the sea.
As we walked, he told me how much he thought it costs to rebuild these homes and pointed at the few that had been able to afford it. Extended family, he was beginning to realise, had homes in faraway places that one could escape to when the sea got really violent.
At the settlement’s sea-facing mosque, he described how it had been resurrected after a rich benefactor from a nearby town decided to step in. He was particularly excited by its coat of whitewash, so different from the moss-laden concrete and exposed brick around it.
His own home, just a few hundred metres away, lay damaged by the sea.
In recent months, he has drawn comfort from a giant new seawall that stretches the length of this settlement, half-a-dozen metres from their homes.
The wall stands about eight feet tall and, from where we stood, ran as far as the eye could see in both directions.
Seen from the sea, it is a haphazard mass of tetrapods that looks like a game of three-dimensional Tetris gone wrong.
It was completed by the Karnataka government in 2019 with technical and financial support from the Asian Development Bank, and is the latest move in a decades-long battle against coastal erosion.
“This is good work,” said Abdul Rashid, who is Sina’s neighbour and on most days is a labourer on fishing boats, at the lower end of the seafaring hierarchy. He has had to rebuild substantial portions of his house thrice without insurance. Insurance companies refuse to cover these houses because of their hazardous siting. Rayappa, the municipal commissioner of Ullal City, said he has tried pushing insurers to extend coverage to them, but without success.
Ullal’s new, reinforced seawall arose from a graveyard of lesser projects built and destroyed over a decade. As the monsoon sea advanced to consume houses and roads, the government lined the shoreline repeatedly, first with rocks, then rocks again, and then very large sandbags. Every monsoon, the winds picked up, the waves grew violent and these defences were dismantled by the sea. “It is such a powerful hit,” said UT Khader, the four-time MLA of the area. “These huge stones are flying around like footballs right at the houses.”
The new seawall, with deeper foundations and many more layers of defence, is a reprieve for elected representatives and government administrators, pausing decades of local dissatisfaction. “There was a lot of pressure earlier,” said Khader, “but now it has reduced.”
This story is playing out across Karnataka’s coast and in many Indian states. A mix of unscientific coastal development and climatic change, seen here as rising sea levels and more frequent cyclones, has made coastal erosion more widespread and unpredictable.
According to separate government studies, between a third and 46% of India’s coastline has seen varying degrees of erosion in the last three decades. Over a fifth of Karnataka’s coast was eroded between 1990 and 2016. A 2019 paper that studied erosion in different parts of the state’s coast found that Ullal was the worst hit: since 1990, it had lost the most land to the sea, at the rate of 1.3 metres a year.
As pressure mounts, these quiet coastal settlements are being shaped by a new brand of politics driven by climate impacts. In the problem of erosion, local politicians see a new arena for competition and recognition, particularly because these vivid scenes of devastation are annually plastered across local papers, and television and mobile screens.
Seawalls are politically attractive because they are concrete, visible symbols of state-sponsored safety. The government is therefore frantically building more of them. Seawalls already cover between 10% and 15% of Karnataka’s coast. Reports suggest that over two-thirds of neighbouring Kerala’s famed coastline has already been walled.
Scientific wisdom, however, has moved decidedly against seawalls in recent years.A new landmark report on climate impacts and adaptation from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, repeatedly warns against seawalls, except in instances where they are part of a long-term plan. It warns that they can lull communities into a false sense of security as sea levels rise, apart from being expensive and hard to reverse. They are also known to transfer erosion to other parts of the coast.
But keeping the coast intact without seawalls would mean reaching into the innards of Karnataka’s remarkable growth story, and making politically damaging changes to how it manages areas as varied as its seaward trade, construction, rivers, and bureaucracy. For example, letting rivers flow undammed would allow their sediment to recharge beaches, but would jeopardise promises made to increase the state’s highly-scrutinised summertime water supply.
Climate adaptation is often seen as technocratic work, involving prediction and planning, but Karnataka’s coast is proving that it is equally about politics. It foreshadows the challenges India will face in responding to the IPCC’s new report, which calls for urgent and extensive adaptation to climate impacts across the country.
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