Natural Disasters

Going under: Coastal Odisha under existential threat

In a warming world, governments are far from prepared to resettle people evicted by sea-level rise 

By Ranjan Panda
Published: Thursday 30 June 2022
istock photo

Bay of Bengal is the hotbed of tropical cyclones. Estimates show that eight of the 10 deadliest tropical cyclones in the world have originated here. Over the past few decades, cyclones in Bay of Bengal have not only become frequent, the region is also experiencing the largest relative increase of flood risk and seawater ingression.

Of all the states along its coast, Odisha, because of its geographic location, bears the maximum brunt of these disasters. So far, the state has lost 153.8 km, or about 28 per cent, of its coastline to seawater ingression.

Many coastal villages in Odisha are also experiencing increased levels of inundation due to storm flooding, accelerated coastal erosion, seawater intrusion into freshwater aquifers and encroachment of tidal waters into river systems.

All these have led to massive economic losses, repeated displacements of communities and disruption of life, forcing the poor, living on the margins of subsistence, into greater poverty.

In this article we analyse the preparedness of the policymakers and promptness of the government to resettle and rehabilitate these internally displaced people by climate change through the plight of villages in two blocks — villages of the Satabhaya area in Rajnagar block of Kendrapada district that have already been engulfed by the sea; and Udayakani and Tandahara villages under Astaranga block of Puri district that are on the verge of being engulfed by the sea.

Satabhaya: a reluctant relocation

The villages in Satabhaya area started facing coastal erosion in the early 1960s, probably because of changed sea wave patterns resulting from construction activities of the Paradip Port.

The process has accelerated in the past three decades. As the area kept shrinking rapidly, people shifted to safer locations inland.

Their constant fight resulted in the government agreeing to relocate one village, named Satabhaya, to another site about 12 kilometers away in Bagapatia, in the periphery of Bhitarkanika wildlife sanctuary.

The process of resettlement started in 2015 and Satabhaya village is considered to be the first village officially relocated due to sea ingress. But by the time resettlement process began in 2015 and completed in 2018, only 571 families were left in the village; hundreds of others had already shifted to escape the fast-invading sea.

The resettled families have been allotted 10 decimal homestead land and a paltry amount for construction of houses. Most residents have found this amount to be insufficient as they had to first fill the swampy lowlands before building a house.

There has also been a drastic reduction in food and nutrition security as the people have moved away from their traditional natural resources. Their livelihood opportunities have drastically diminished and most of the young people have migrated to Kerala and other states to earn a living.

Basic amenities such as drinking water, electricity and other facilities are being provided in the rehabilitation colony but the services are still inadequate. The residents have petitioned the government for a humane and dignified settlement with adequate compensation, access to local forests and income opportunities.

Udayakani and Tandahara: Next in line

The residents of Udayakani village have relocated thrice due to the advancing sea. According to the elderly people of the village, decades ago, the sea was a few kilometers from the village; now it is just 100 metres away.

The original village has already been engulfed by the sea, which started advancing faster since the 1999 super cyclone. It destroyed the coastline and the village residents were forced to resettle inland on paddy fields. They moved further inland in 2013 when seawater submerged their village during cyclone Phailin.

Then cyclone Fani in 2019 further worsened their condition. It made their land and water sources saline. The number of households in Udayakani has reduced from 56 to 35 over two decades as some well-off households have shifted to safer places.

Tandahar, the village adjacent to Udayakani, got its name from Tanda Ghara — tanda means sea and ghara means house — due to its proximity to the sea. Now it is on the verge of going to a watery grave anytime soon.

A year ago, the sea was around 500 metres away. Now it is at a distance of less than 100 metres. Before the 1999 super cyclone, major sea incursions had occurred only twice — in 1972 and 1982. Now, more than half of the village has already been submerged by the sea.

Inadequate policy support

As sea level keeps rising and cyclones intensify and become frequent in a warming world, residents of many such coastal villages are unsure of their fate. As of now, displaced communities do get compensated but only if evicted by a mine, a road, airport or any such projects.

Governments are trying to help these villages displaced by rising sea levels only on humanitarian grounds and under existing schemes. It’s time for the Union and state governments to rise to this new reality and formulate an all integrated rehabilitation and resettlement scheme for those displaced by sea level rise.

The existing policy measures do not compensate people whose history, geography and livelihoods have been taken away by the sea.

It is also time for the government to step up pressure at international climate negotiations so that the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters pay for all such loss and damage borne by the local communities. The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), concluded in Glasgow, Scotland, has moved an inch forward towards facilitating such a finance mechanism.

The G77 and China proposed the creation of a ‘Glasgow Loss and Damage facility’ during the negotiations on “loss and damage” at COP26. In fact, five philanthropies offered $3 million to kick-start finance for this facility, while the Wallonia region of Belgium committed a million euros ($1.13 million).

Unfortunately, this proposal was not included in the Glasgow Climate Pact. Instead the agreement has called for establishment of a “Glasgow Dialogue between Parties, relevant organisations and stakeholders to discuss the arrangements for the funding of activities to avert, minimize and address Loss and Damage associated with the adverse impacts of climate change”.

As the number of internally displaced people by climate change increases alarmingly by the year all across the globe, their adequate and humane resettlement depends a lot on such financing mechanisms and local policy measures.

Ranjan Panda is convenor of Water Initiatives

This was first published in Down To Earth’s annual State of India’s Environment 2021 report

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