A village island in Kerala is about to vanish

10 of the 13 wards in the village are partly submerged and life gets difficult by the day

By Reji Joseph
Last Updated: Wednesday 20 September 2017
Illustration: Tarique Aziz
Illustration: Tarique Aziz Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Children of Mundrothuruthu swim to their school. To prevent their school bags from getting wet, they wrap them tightly in a plastic cover, along with their lunch boxes and carry them on their heads. They also carry an extra set of school uniform so that they can put on dry clothes before entering the classrooms. The teachers reach the school, wading through the waters and commute through small boats. After school, the children know they have to return to their homes in time, as tidal waves ravage their village every evening.

Mundrothuruthu or Munroe is an island village in Kerala’s Kollam district, which is located at the confluence of the Ashtamudi lake and the Kallada river. With a total area of just 13.4 sq km, this island, comprising eight tiny islets, is inhabited by about 13,500 people. Due to the ferocious tidal waves, these islets are fast submerging and are about to vanish from the map. Already, over 430 families have abandoned their homes and fled to the opposite shore.

The journey to submergence

Mundrothuruthu is, in fact, a village panchayat consisting of 13 wards. The foundation of this island was built from silt and soil brought by the flood waters of the Kallada river. It took many centuries for this island to build. Soon, there was fertile soil; mangroves grew in abundance, and, their deep roots held the soil tightly and saved the land from erosion. In the midst of this strong fence of mangroves, a wide area was formed, which was suitable for cultivation. This attracted farmers from across Kerala, who began to settle in large numbers. They cultivated rice, grew coconut trees and processed coir thread, which was made from soaked coconut husk, and this helped thousands of women increase their household incomes.

Mundrothuruthu began to sink with the construction of the Thenmala Dam—built in 1986 on the Kallada river—which is believed to have disturbed the fragile soil balance of this area. Over a period of 15 years, the ground level went down by over one metre. Today, of the 13 wards, 10 are partly submerged.

The tsunami of 2004 aggravated the situation as it destroyed most of the mangroves. Earlier, the threat of tidal waves used to be mild and confined to about two months each year. Now it is a daily affair.

Due to the force of the receding tsunami waters, the silt and sand in the shore got washed away into the deep sea. As the depth of the shore waters increased, the force of the tidal waves from the deep sea became deadly. Some environmentalists attribute the reason for the sinking islands to climate change and say it could be due to rising sea levels.

Now every house is sinking in water—kitchens, bedrooms and toilets. Snakes, centipedes and scorpions enter the houses along with the flooding waters. All household items are placed at elevated points—beds are placed over bricks and stones. The tidal waves rise high at midnight and immerse their beds and utensils. The ferocity of the tidal waves has also weakened the houses; many are dilapidated. Babies sleep in wet cradles. Toilets have broken and human excreta can be seen floating around. Worse, people find it difficult to cremate the dead as most areas are waterlogged.

Cascading problems

The flooded island village has affected the village economy. All coir-making units have closed down and saline water has brought agriculture to a standstill. The only source of income now is the employment generation scheme or residents do manual work. Not surprisingly, no family from the neighbouring areas wants to marry their daughters in this island. There is no clean water and residents have to walk many kilometres to fetch buckets of water. The cascading effects have been catastrophic—villagers regularly complain of fever and diarrhoea and there are over 200 cases of cancer in the island. Getting to the hospital in time is a major hurdle as bus services have stopped due to frequent flooding.

A study by the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment and the State Disaster Management Authority found that the problem originated from the high tides connected with the spring tide. The team revealed that at the top of the delta, there is clay up to a height of two metres. Below, there is sandy soil, which is two to six metres thick. Under this layer, there is mixed soil comprising sand and clay up to a depth of 14 metres. Below this, there is sand. When spring tide coincides with the high tide waves, it results in coastal erosion and flooding. The tidal waves rise to a height of 2.5 to 3 metres.

Constant flooding and soil erosion are adding to the misery of the inhabitants of this island, who are living a life fraught with imminent danger. Unless the state government initiates remedial measures or relocates the residents, the ecologically fragile Mundrothuruthu will soon be gobbled up by the tidal waves and its inhabitants will disappear forever.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

This story was first published in the August 1-15, 2017 issue of Down To Earth magazine under the headline "That sinking feeling". 

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