Climate Change

Coastal crisis: It’s a race against time, and tide, for those living in Odisha’s coastal villages; here’s why

Odisha is fast losing its shoreline to rising sea levels. Its adaptation plans must not only be immediate but also foolproof

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Sunday 19 March 2023
Coastal crisis
Just in 15 years, Podampeta village of Odisha's Ganjam district has lost 200 houses to the sea and now resembles a ghost village. (Photographs: Midhun Vijayan) Just in 15 years, Podampeta village of Odisha's Ganjam district has lost 200 houses to the sea and now resembles a ghost village. (Photographs: Midhun Vijayan)

It is a race against time, and tide, for those living in Odisha’s coastal villages. Data with the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, Chennai, shows that 74 villages in the state are severely affected by shoreline erosion—the highest in the country.

A study paper published in the journal Spatial Information Research in June 2018 finds that almost half of Odisha’s coast—196 km of shoreline—has undergone erosion between 1990 and 2015.

A major reason for this is rising sea level, which is surging along the Odisha coast at a rate faster than the rest of the country. A July 2022 paper published in Applied Ecology and Environmental Research finds that sea level along Odisha has risen by 9.5 cm in the 50 years between 1966 and 2015.

The average sea level rise along the Indian coast during the period is 8.5 cm, shows the response to a query in Rajya Sabha in November 2019. Odisha has also been battered by the maximum number of cyclones in the country.

The government is well aware of the crisis, and has been implementing measures to stabilise select areas of the state’s coastline since 2012. In 2010, the Union environment ministry prepared an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan (ICZM) to be implemented on a pilot basis in Odisha, along with two other states prone to shoreline erosion—Gujarat and West Bengal.

The plan was to be implemented with Rs 896.37 crore financial assistance from the World Bank. But a 2022 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India states that “Inordinate delay in the preparation of this plan resulted in the implementation of pilot investment activities which did not emerge from the ICZM plan and thus, these activities could not complement the plan to this extent.”

In January 2023, Down To Earth travelled across some of the coastal areas of Odisha, only to find that the measures are barely able to check shoreline erosion of the state, leaving local communities and biodiversity exposed to rising sea levels and extreme sea level events, triggered by a combination of sea tides, waves and storm surges during cyclones. Most erosion control measures are either not suitable for the state’s highly dynamic shoreline or have implementation flaws.

In Pentha village of Kendrapara district, the geosynthetic tubes installed to check coastal erosion now resemble a seawallEngulfed by sea

The extent and severity of the erosion can be gauged at Podampeta and Ramayapatnam villages of Ganjam district. Located close to the Rishikulya river’s mouth (where the river enters the ocean), Podampeta is a site of extreme sea level events.

“Just six months ago, following a storm surge, a large patch of land, a metre from my house, was suddenly swept into the sea. Now, my house is on the line,” says C H Paindi, sitting on the doorstep of her worn down house. Paindi, in her 40s, recalls that the sea started moving closer to the village around 2007-09.

But since 2015, its tides are getting more aggressive by the day. So far, the sea has engulfed 200 houses. The remaining 100 houses stand in a dilapidated condition, giving Podampeta an eerie look of a ghost village. All the residents, except for two families, including that of Paindi’s, have shifted to a rehabilitation colony, New Podampeta, 2 km away.

The situation is worse in Ramayapatnam village, some 50 km south of Podampeta. Ramayapatnam is located near the mouth of Bahuda river. P Ganapathi, a 70-year-old resident, says the river mouth has been shifting towards the village in the past 14-15 years.

“Due to this, we are experiencing flooding triggered by tidal events and storm surges in last five to six years. Sometimes, seawater reaches our village,” says P Mohan Rao, another resident. Ramayapatnam has so far lost 47 houses to the sea.

R N Samal, scientific officer of Odisha government’s Chilika Development Authority, tells DTE that to tackle coastal erosion, the state government plans to deploy geo-synthetic tubes—a large tube shaped bag made of porous, weather resistant synthetic material filled with sand to withstand sea waves—along the coast of Podampeta and Ramayapatnam in the second phase of ICZM project.

While there is no clarity when this phase will be implemented, residents and analysts caution against mindless implementation of the technique.

Residents of Ramayapatnam village in Odisha's Ganjam district say the mouth of the Bahuda river is fast shifting towards the villageFaulty implementation

Odisha deployed its first set of geo-synthetic tubes in Kendrapara district after the super cyclone in 1999 triggered erosion along the coast of Pentha village and initiated submergence of nearby Agarnasi island, an active nesting site for Olive Ridley sea turtles.

Sarat Tripathi, sarpanch of Pentha, tells DTE that the village shoreline has since remained protected from sea waves. “But beaches on the north and south of Pentha are eroding rapidly. An island is also being formed 3 km inside the sea which is visible during low tides,” he says.

With a little prodding, Tripathi elaborates how the structure was set up: “After the geo-synthetic tubes were installed between 2012 and 2015, officials used small rocks in between and above the geo-tube to further strengthen it, and in 2017 placed bigger rocks on top of it for better support.” When DTE visited the site, it resembled a seawall made of rocks.

Hard-engineered structures like seawalls and dykes have often been criticised for their impact on the environment. Studies confirm that in several cases, when used as a stand-alone measure, seawalls have resulted in active or passive forms of coastal erosion.

In May 2022, the National Green Tribunal also directed all states and Union Territories not to raise or construct hard structures for erosion control. Yet in Arjyapalli Gram Panchayat in Ganjam, seawalls have been built along Gopalpur port.

Residents allege that the seawalls are responsible for the erosion of a 5-km coast along the village.

K Alleya, vice president of National Fishworkers Forum and president of the Gopalpur Port Mazdoor Union, says the erosion is a direct result of backwater construction for Gopalpur port with sea dykes, which started in 2009 and got completed in 2023.

“Earlier the fisherfolk would have their boats and nets on the beach, right next to the village. Now that the beach is no longer there, they dock the boats near the port, 1-2 km away from the village,” says S Namasai, a resident.

Seawalls along Gopalpur port in Odisha's Ganjam district. Residents of Arjyapalli village claim the seawalls have led to erosion of their beachPlan with caution

The combined impacts of a dynamic mouth, extreme sea level events, and cyclones play out along the Chilika, the largest brackish water lake in Asia whose rich biodiversity is created and nurtured by the delicate salinity gradient.

This gradient is maintained by the seawater flowing into the lake through the mouth and freshwater from 52 rivers and rivulets gushing into it from the opposite side. Intense storm surges during cyclone Fani in 2019 have opened four new mouths in Chilika lake.

While two of the mouths closed in April 2022, two others are still open. Such a sustained opening of new mouths has never happened before, say fisherfolk in adjoining villages. Besides this, says Samal of the Chilika Development Authority, a 80-m-long mouth that opened in 2001 has moved 7.2 km towards the north due to erosion.

This has altered the salinity gradient of the lake and affected its biodiversity and livelihoods of people who depend on it. In Arakhakuda village, located near the new mouths, Litusam Behera, a resident says, “Our fish catch has gone down by 70-80 per cent after cyclone Fani.”

Mayadhar Jena, sarpanch of Mirjapura village, located along Chilika, says the fish catch has reduced by 30-40 per cent. Families that depended on fishing for a living now plan to migrate to other states in search of livelihood.

Before Fani hit the state, a massive mangrove plantation was carried out under ICZM on the islets near Arakhakuda village between 2014 and 2019. Since roots of the mangroves act as tide breakers and its foliage a buffer for the swift winds of cyclones, mangrove restoration and regeneration is being used globally as an ecosystem-based solution to protect the coast from the impacts of climate change such as storm surges.

But since the 60 ha where Bhubaneswar-based non-profit Pallishree undertook plantation is not suitable for mangroves, it was carried out on a trial and error method. During cyclone Fani the mangroves were not mature enough and many of them were lost to the storm surge.

There is a difference between mangrove restoration and regeneration (done in areas that are conducive for mangrove growth but have lost them over the years to deforestation or other land use changes) and mangrove plantation (done in areas where mangroves have not existed before).

“Mangrove restoration and regeneration, if done in a scientific manner, can be a good climate change adaptation measure for coastal Odisha. But mangrove plantation should be generally discouraged as it may lead to disturbances in the local ecosystems and aggravate the impacts instead of mitigating them," says Sadhwi Sindura, programme coordinator at non-profit WWF-India, who works for marine conservation in Odisha.

As the state government prepares to implement the second phase of the ICZM project and also take up coastal adaptation measures under the Enhancing Climate Resilience of India’s Coastal Communities (ECRICC), a national project being funded and facilitated by the UN Development Programme, experts suggest that it must not repeat the mistakes.

Anvita Dulluri, analyst, climate change frameworks, Carbon Disclosure Project, Europe, who has extensively studied the impact of rising sea on Odisha coast, says: “Whatever measures are taken by the government along the coast have to keep the local communities involved in the decision making and implementation, otherwise the maladaptation such as in Pentha could occur. Their livelihoods also have to be taken into account before these measures are planned.”

The fact is coastal Odisha and its communities are fast losing their existence due to climate change, any action to mitigate the impacts or adapt to it should be immediate and foolproof.

This was first published in the 1-15 March, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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