Kochi | Nearly two years ago, Mary Sebastian was hoisted on a chair and carried by a policeman in waist-deep floodwaters, leaving behind her now damaged home where she had spent more than 70 years of her life. She never thought she would return. So, when Sebastian, now 85, recently recounted her experience during Cyclone Tauktae, which hammered parts of southern India in May 2021, she became emotional as the memories came rushing back. Having returned to the same tiny, tiled-roof home, she expressed hope that a sea wall being erected on the coast just in front of her house would check raging waves of the Arabian sea and keep her safe.
"I feel that at least now we have a shield to protect the coast," she said. "To stop the waves suddenly hitting the shores and sending it back to the sea." "Nothing like that had been here for years," she added. Like many native dwellers of Chellanam, a fishing hamlet of 40,000 people in Kerala, Sebastian is living with fears of many weather events exacerbated by climate change: cyclones, surging seas, flooding and erosion. Tens of millions of people in India, this year expected to become the world's most populous nation, live along coastlines and thus are exposed to major weather events.
One common adaptation technique, in India and other countries hit hard by rising seas and oceanic storms, is to build sea walls. While they provide a barrier that seas have to get over, scientists and climate adaptation experts warn that such structures can only provide so much protection.
Deadly tropical cyclones like Tauktae and Ockhi a few years before, in 2017, formed in the Arabian Sea, devastated the hamlet and aggravated the existing coastal issues. For years, different parts of Chellanam and surrounding areas have had a patchwork of small sea walls and other methods to try and reduce destruction.
At least 10,000-12,000 residents are affected by the coastal erosion and extreme wave issues every year, according to K L Joseph, former president of Chellanam's village council.
Joseph said Chellanam has tried other methods to protect homes and people, such as a large project some years ago involving geotubes. Laid along coastlines, tubes made of polymer are filled with sand, thus providing a barrier that is flexible to accommodate waves. But parts of the tubes broke apart, with local news reports recounting how chunks were washed out to sea.
"It failed," Joseph said of the project.
Less-than-certain protection isn't the only downside of any kind of sea barrier. Erecting a structure to keep waves in check simply means the water, pushed back to sea, will go somewhere else, potentially creating higher surf in other parts of nearby coastlines, which may not have sea walls. Sea walls also limit, or altogether remove, a beach area. Fishermen in Chellanam have already had to move where they dock their boats. Joseph Mathew, a Kerala-based coastal protection expert, said the loss of the beach will disrupt Chellanam's ecosystem. For example, waves hitting the sea wall will be pushed toward the ends of the wall, creating higher surf, and thus erosion, in those areas.
"It denies a permanent ecosystem for beach fauna," he said. "Creatures cannot survive in a place where waves break constantly." For years, Chellanam witnessed intense protests demanding that authorities provide a more permanent solution to protect the shores. Last year, Pinarayi Vijayan, the state's chief minister, inaugurated a new coastal protection project that included a sea wall made of concrete structures called tetrapods and a network of groynes, low barriers built from the coast into the sea.
Today, heaps of dusty granites and tetrapods, weighing between 2,000 to 5,000 kilograms line broken pathways and vacant plots near the Chellanam coastline, about 20 kilometres from the port city of Kochi. A chain of six T-shaped groynes is also under construction.
"DANGER. STAY OUT FROM SUSPENDED LOADS," warns a sign with an image of a stickman potentially being crushed by a tetrapod. With much of the first phase of the new sea wall completed in a 7-kilometre stretch from Chellanam harbour to Puthenthodu Beach, at least for now residents like Sebastian feel more secure. She and other family members living with her — a son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren — are still processing painful memories from the cyclone that washed away their savings and many dreams.
In the aftermath, there was nothing but some chunks of previous sea barriers and a fence of sandbags that her son, Esidor Rajan, and some neighbours had filled every year.
All the furniture, silverware and their television were either washed away or destroyed in flooding, his wife Juliet recalled. "Some noble people gave us their used television, utensils and so on," she said. “Now, we are surviving with this." The family tried to leave the home for good, spending stints with extended family or in relief shelters, but ultimately returned because they couldn't afford to rent another place.
Today, freshly painted walls of the living room have cracks, fissures and mud marks behind the plastering, subtle remnants of the destructive cyclone.
Memories and remnants of destruction are all around the area.
Reetha Maria, 55, a resident of nearby Kandakkadavu ward, has yet to recover from the frightening sight she came across after the cyclone hit.
"I was shocked to see waves carrying huge granite stones of the old sea wall and tons of water gushing directly to my home. You may have no idea how many days that we took to clean the stinking mud and filth brought by the seawater," she said.
Hima Rose, 29, showed her balcony garden, where a hybrid mango tree and curry leaf plant among some other such fauna, are planted on colorful pots. "This is nothing but post-cyclone impact," she said with a smile. "We don't want to lose our darling plants to yet another cyclone and high waves. So, we decided to grow them on the balcony. Luckily, we have a two-story house." Rose said that after Tauktae, she welcomed neighbours to her home, providing them shelter and food for several days.
Today, construction work on the sea wall is almost complete in Kandakkadavu.
As the sun sets in the evenings, children climb the slanting granite structures and sit atop the tetrapods.
An abandoned one-story house, battered by the cyclone, remains standing just some meters (yards) away from the sea wall, a constant reminder of the harrowing aftermath of the cyclone's sea surge, displacements and relief camps.
For those who can't afford to leave their homes, and live and work along the coast, the construction of the sea wall is priceless but not a complete fix, as workers race to finish before the next monsoon, which could be any day now.
Sebastian, a fisherman who is in his late seventies who only gave his first name, summed up the cautious optimism many are feeling.
"We can be confident about the new sea wall only after another mighty cyclone like Tauktae hits the shore," he said.