Kollam: For the residents of Alappad, a coastal village in Kollam district, sea erosion is a fact of life. Situated on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the TS Canal, the village is disappearing fast as every year the sea swallows another chunk of land.
For Alappad, which had borne the brunt of the massive 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and last year’s cyclonic storm Ockhi, the future is far from certain and the speed at which the village is disappearing is catching its residents by surprise.
As per the lithographic maps prepared in 1955, Alappad had covered an area of 89.5 square kilometres, but the total area has shrunk to just 8.9 square kilometres now. Over the past 63 years, 80 sq km of land has been eaten up by ever-rising tides and is now out at sea under several feet of water!
The phenomenon continues, despite coastal defences that include concrete seawalls and timber groynes – long structures sticking into the sea to prevent the beach being washed away by tidal waves.
The threat looms large
Some decades ago, there were many houses, places of worship, leisure spots and playgrounds even beyond the shoreline to the west where a sea wall exists now. The erosion has wiped out most of them. The local authorities had built high stone walls to keep the waves at bay, but they were damaged in many parts by the relentless impact of the waves.
The distance between the sea and the TS Canal is shrinking dramatically, and in certain areas the two lie at a distance of less than 50 meters.
Alappad was battered by the tsunami on December 26, 2004, causing death of people and destruction of property. The village accounted for the maximum number of casualties and displacements in the state. Currently, there are around 7,500 families in Alappad. Of the 2,000 families who had been relocated after the tsunami, a majority returned to the island when the water receded.
Concerns over sand mining
One of the major mining sites of the Department of Atomic Energy's (DAE) public sector endeavour, Indian Rare Earth Limited (IREL), which is engaged in the mining and processing of mineral sands, is situated at Vellanathuruth in Alappad panchayat. About three-fourths of the total area in Vellanathuruthu have been devoured by the sea.
Likewise, rapid erosion and rising sea levels are increasingly threatening the existence of Ponmana, coming under the Ponmana grama panchayat, where a mining site is developed and maintained by the Kerala Minerals & Metals Ltd (KMML).
The activists of the ‘Save Allappad’ forum allege that the reason for the attrition of the land is the mindless surface mining, or sea washing as they call it, by the IREL.
However, the panchayat authorities, including the president, are not ready to buy that theory. They argue that sea erosion is rampant in Shankumugham in Thiruvananthapuram district and many coastal areas in Kasaragod where no such mining activities are undertaken.
Scientific study urged
At the current rate of erosion, Alappad will be off the map within a few years, be it due to natural phenomena or man-made activities. The residents want the authorities to conduct a scientific study at the earliest to ascertain the cause for the onslaught of the sea because this can be seen as the beginning of a trend which is expected to grow exponentially.
“Rising sea levels are swallowing up land along the Alappad coastline at an astonishing rate and the main reason for it is the unmindful mining by the IREL,” alleged K C Sreekumar, of the Save Alappad Movement.
“In the past, there were several houses up to the west of the existing sea wall. Some of the temples have been rebuilt at least six times further away from the advancing shoreline. Several hectares of paddy fields have also been disappeared over the years. The main driver of this crisis is simultaneous dredging from both the seashore and the ocean,” he pointed out.
“The authorities claim that after separating out black sand containing titanomagnetite from normal sand, the latter is used to fill mined voids. If that is the case, where is the mine waste separated during processing since 1968? Truckloads of normal sand are being sent to unknown destinations in Ernakulum district on a daily basis. The IREL’s role is now limited to middleman activities,” Sreekumar alleged.
Echoing his concerns, Shajith Chandran, another activist attached to the Save Alappad Movement, said: “Our culture and identity have been eroded. We fear that our island will disappear soon if mining activities continue unabated. As the years pass, the village has seen the sea claim more and more land and we are quite literally living on the edge here. The community members who were relocated remain scattered now, resulting in loss of geographical and cultural identity.”
Alappad grama panchayat president P Saleena, however, stresses the need for a realistic approach by conducting a comprehensive and scientific study to ascertain the causes of coastal erosion.
“The grama panchayat stands firmly against the indiscriminate surface mining known as sea washing. The erosion can be controlled by installing pulimuttu (groynes) along the coast. Groynes between the stretch of Azheekal and Kuzhithura have helped avoid seawater incursion to a large extent. Such measures should be initiated in the southern part of the coast as well.
The seawall between Alappad and Vellanathuruthu was constructed twenty-two years ago. The authorities claim the work on strengthening the seawall is delayed due to non-availability of boulders. Fortification of seawalls will help in preventing further erosion of the coast and stop seawater incursion into the hamlet.
The allegation that mining is the lone cause for the existing situation is not entirely true. Mining operations need to be carried out without causing environmental degradation,” said the panchayat president.
A Valsan, district president of the Dheevara Sabha, however, begs to differ. “Sea washing is the triggering factor for the erosion. The breadth of the panchayat, which previously was around 2.5-3.0 sq kms, is only 20 metres at places like Kakkathuruthu.
Efforts should be initiated to reclaim the lost land along the lines of the schemes implemented in Willingdon Island to prevent Alappad’s remaining land from falling prey to the advancing sea, he demanded.
If the authorities concerned fail to act swiftly, it will not be long before Alappad is wiped off the map.