Climate Change

Climate change in India: Sinking chain of atolls in Lakshadweep

Coastal erosion and El Nio are slowly eating up India's most vulnerable archipelago

By Abdul Salam
Published: Thursday 01 November 2018
While the average rate of sea level increase over the 20th century was between 1.3 and 1.7 mm per year, the rate has doubled since 1993, says IPCC's the fifth assessment report. Credit:

I have lost almost half of my land in the past 20 years, but the government does not even have data regarding how much land is being lost and how much is being added,” says M M Hassan, resident of Androth, one of the 11 inhabited islands in Lakshadweep. His neighbour Fatullah Thangal says it is a desperate situation on the island that is fast going under the sea. “Just like that, within 20 years, around a third of my land has been swallowed by the sea. I can see it go, but I am helpless,” says Thangal. The story is equally harrowing for the 64,000 people residing on the chain of islands, where the slow invasion of the sea is more real than numbers could describe.

The archipelago has already lost one of the uninhabited islands, Parali I, realised RM Hidayathulla while working on five uninhabited islands of Lakshadweep for his doctoral degree. In his thesis, published in July last year, he says Parali I, one of the 36 islands in Lakshadweep, had an area of 0.032 sq km in 1968, but today it is “completely eroded”. Apart from Parali I, net erosion was highest in Parali II (80 per cent), followed by Thinnakara (14.38 per cent), Parali III (11.42 per cent) and Bangaram (9.97 per cent). Even the Fifth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in two parts in 2013 and 2014, unequivocally states that sea level rise and associated coastal erosion is the most widely recognised and serious threat posed by climate change. It says while the average rate of sea level increase over the 20th century was between 1.3 and 1.7 mm per year, the rate has doubled since 1993.

The rate of rise has followed a similar pattern around Lakshadweep too, where the sea level rise has been up to 0.6 m in the past 20 years. For the island, where the average elevation is 1-2 m above sea level, this is alarming and could imply complete submergence. It has lost 5 per cent landmass between 1989 and 2006, suggests ISRO’s Shoreline Change Atlas in 2014. The situation is particularly bad in the southeastern and southwestern islands of the group, the atlas indicates.

Erosion is not the only challenge for the island, which is on top of corals. El Niño events of 1998, 2010 and 2016 have weakened the coral colonies, warns a study published in Springer in September. The report, “Coral reefs respond to repeated ENSO events with increasing resistance but reduced recovery capacities in the Lakshadweep archipelago”, suggests that absolute coral cover has reduced by around 40 per cent during the period. The deteriorating health of Lakshadweep’s reefs is disastrous and requires careful planning for development and infrastructure.

This realisation, though, is yet to be acted on by the administration. A 2014 report submitted by a panel led by Justice R V Raveendran to the Supreme Court says there has been flagrant disregard to the fragile ecosystem of the island in the developmental priorities and projects that have been undertaken on the islands. The report adds that poorly planned infrastructure and coastal embankments have increased erosion. “Lakshadweep’s landmass depends on sediments of sand and gravel that are transported and deposited, mainly during the southwest monsoon, from other places. Human construction has altered these flows and this is compounding the effects of climate change,” says Idrees Babu, a scientist with the Department of Science and Technology of Lakshadweep in Kavaratti.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's October 16-31 print edition under the headline 'On a losing streak')

(This is the last article in a six-part series on climate change in India. Read the first here, second here, third here, fourth here and fifth here)

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