A Cyclone-Hit Indian Hamlet Pins Its Hopes on a Sea Wall

Mary Sebastian lives in a fishing hamlet in India and fears many weather events that have been exacerbated by climate change, including cyclones, surging seas, flooding, and erosion.

KOCHI (India) (AP). Nearly two decades ago, Mary Sebastian, who had lived in her home for more than 70 of her years, was lifted on a chair by a policeman and carried through floodwaters up to her waist. She left behind a house that was now badly damaged. She never imagined she would be back.

Sebastian, who is now 85 years old, was overcome with emotion when she recalled her experience in the aftermath of Cyclone Tauktae that ravaged southern India back in May 2021. She returned to her tiny, tiled roof home and expressed her hope that the sea wall, which was being built on the coast in front of her home, would keep the raging waves from the Arabian Sea at bay.

She said, 'I think we now have a shield protecting the coast.' To stop the waves from hitting the coasts and returning to the sea.

She added, "Nothing like this had been here in years."

Sebastian, like many of the natives of Chellanam in southern India, is afraid of weather events that are exacerbated by global warming: cyclones and surging seas. He also fears flooding, erosion, and flooding. India is expected to be the most populous country in the world this year. Tens of millions live on coastlines, and are therefore exposed to severe weather events.

In India and other countries that are affected by oceanic storms and rising seas, building sea walls is a common adaptation method. Scientists and climate experts warn, however, that while they can provide a barrier for the sea to pass through, such structures only offer a limited amount of protection.

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: This article is a part of a larger series of articles produced as a result of the India Climate Journalism Program. The program was developed in collaboration with The Associated Press and The Stanley Center for Peace and Security, and The Press Trust of India.

In 2017, deadly tropical cyclones, like Tauktae, Ockhi, and others that formed in the Arabian Sea a few short years earlier, destroyed the hamlet, and exacerbated coastal problems. Since years, Chellanam has had small sea walls in different areas and the surrounding area to reduce damage.

According to K L Joseph (former president of Chellanam village council), coastal erosion and extreme waves affect at least 10,000-12,000 residents every year.

Joseph stated that Chellanam had tried other methods for protecting homes and people. For example, a large project involving geotubes was undertaken some years ago. The tubes are made from polymer and filled with sand. They can be laid along the coasts to provide a flexible barrier. Local news reported that some of the tubes had broken apart and were being washed into the sea.

Joseph said that the project had failed.

Sea barriers can provide less-than-certain security, but that's not the only disadvantage. The water will be pushed to the sea by a sea wall, and this could lead to higher waves on other coastlines. Sea walls can also be used to limit or remove a beach. The fishermen in Chellanam had to relocate where they docked their boats.

Joseph Mathew is a coastal protection expert from Kerala. He said that the loss of Chellanam’s beach would disrupt the ecosystem. As an example, the waves that hit the seawall will be pushed to the ends, causing higher surf and erosion in the affected areas.

He said that it denied a permanent eco-system for beach fauna. 'Creatures can't survive where the waves are constantly breaking.'

Chellanam has been the scene of intense protests for years demanding that the authorities find a permanent solution to protect its shores. Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurated last year a new coastal project which included a seawall made from concrete structures known as tetrapods, and a low barrier network called groynes.

The Chellanam coast, located about 20 km (12 miles) away from the port of Kochi, is dotted with piles of dusty granites (and tetrapods) weighing between 2,009 and 5,000 kilograms. Six T-shaped groynes are also being constructed.

A sign warns, 'STAY OUT OF SUSPENDED LOAD.' The image shows a stickman who could be crushed by a four-legged tetrapod.

Residents like Sebastian are now feeling more secure, as the majority of the first phase is complete. It covers a stretch of 7 kilometers (4 miles) from Chellanam Harbor to Puthenthodu Beach.

She and her family -- including a daughter-in law, son and two grandchildren -- still struggle with the painful memories of the cyclone which washed their savings and dreams away.

Esidor and his neighbors filled sandbags every year to create a fence around the sea barrier.

Juliet, his wife, recalled that all the furniture, silverware, and televisions were either destroyed or washed away in floodwaters.

She said, "Some noble people have given us their old televisions, utensils, and so on." Now, we can survive with what we have.

They tried to move out of the house, staying with family members or in shelters for a while, but returned when they could not afford to rent another home.

Behind the freshly painted plaster, the walls of this living room show signs of the destructive cyclone. There are cracks, fissures, and mudmarks.

There are many remnants and memories of the destruction that took place in this area.

Reetha, 55, who lives in the nearby Kandakkadavu Ward, is still recovering from the terrifying sight she saw after the cyclone struck.

I was stunned to see the waves carrying large granite stones from the old seawall and ton of water flowing directly into my house. She said, 'You may not know how many days it took us to clean up the filth and mud brought by seawater.

Hima Rose, 29 showed off her balcony garden where she has a hybrid mango tree, curry leaf plant, and other similar fauna in colorful pots.

She said, "This is just post-cyclone impacts." We don't wish to lose these beautiful plants to another cyclone or high waves. We decided to grow the plants on our balcony. We are lucky to have a house with two floors.

Rose told us that she invited neighbors into her home after Tauktae and provided them with shelter and food for a few days.

The construction of the sea wall in Kandakkadavu is nearly complete.

Children climb up the granite structures that slant downwards and sit on the tetrapods as the sun sets.

A cyclone-battered one-story house still stands a few meters away from the seawall. It is a constant reminder about the devastation caused by the cyclone and its sea surge.

The construction of a sea wall will be a priceless asset for those who cannot afford to leave home and work on the coast. However, it is not able to fix the problem completely, since workers are racing to finish the project before the next rainy season, which could arrive any moment now.

Sebastian, an elderly fisherman in his seventies, who gave only his first name, summarized the cautious optimism that many feel.

He said, "We will only be confident in the new seawall after another powerful cyclone such as Tauktae has hit the shore."