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Climate change is eroding Karnataka’s coast. It is more political and less scientifically fought.

Climate change is eroding Karnataka’s coast. It is more political and less scientifically fought.

Climate change is eroding Karnataka’s coast. The battle against it is more political than scientific

Nine-year old Hasain Sina’s T-shirt was about the same shade of blue as the tarpaulin stretched taut across the broken roofs. He made his way down a narrow, rubble-strewn street lined with the husks and modest homes. They looked like they’d been sliced vertically with a huge scalpel, their private lives and spaces exposed to the outside world.

Sina walked by one of these houses, whose faces had been eroded by the ocean. A woman waved at Sina from within the three remaining walls and returned to her morning chores. Sina smiled cheerfully.

In Ullal, a settlement on the coast in Karnataka there were jagged edges all around. There were broken foundation stones sticking out of earth like broken bones, roofs swaying in wind, and nails and tiles that paved Sina’s little lane.

The child already seemed intimately familiar with the destruction and the bounce back – the rhythm of these lives by the sea.

As we walked, I heard him tell me how much it cost to rebuild these houses and point out those who were able to afford them. He was realizing that extended family had homes in faraway locations where one could flee to when the sea became really violent.

At the settlement’s sea-facing mosque, he described how it had been resurrected after a rich benefactor from a nearby town decided to step in. He was particularly impressed by its whitewash, which is so unlike the concrete and brick moss-laden around it.

His home, only a few hundred meters away, was destroyed by the sea.

He has found comfort in a huge new seawall that runs the length of this settlement, just half-a-dozen meters from their homes, in recent months.

The wall measures eight feet tall from our position. It stretches as far in both directions as the eye can see.

It looks like a game three-dimensional Tetris gone sour from the water.

It was completed in 2019 by the Karnataka government with technical and financial assistance from the Asian Development Bank. This is the latest step in a long battle against coastal erosion.

“This is good work,” said Abdul Rashid, who is Sina’s neighbour and on most days is a labourer on fishing boats, at the lower end of the seafaring hierarchy. He had to rebuild large parts of his house three times, without insurance. Because of their dangerous location, insurance companies won’t cover them. Rayappa, Ullal City’s municipal commissioner, stated that he tried to push insurers to cover them but with no success.

Abdul Rashid, Hasain Singha, and Sameer, a friend, stand in front of a house that has been damaged by coastal erosion. The settlement was protected by a seawall constructed in 2019. Photo by Aditya Valiathan Pilai

Ullal’s new, reinforced seawall arose from a graveyard of lesser projects built and destroyed over a decade. As the monsoon surged to consume houses and roads, Ullal’s government began to line the shoreline repeatedly with rocks, rocks again, and large sandbags. Every monsoon the winds picked up and the waves became more violent, and these defenses were destroyed by the sea. “It is such a powerful hit,” said UT Khader, the four-time MLA of the area. “These huge stones are flying around like footballs right at the houses.”

The new seawall is a relief for elected officials and government administrators. It has deeper foundations and many more layers to defend against local dissatisfaction. “There was a lot of pressure earlier,” said Khader, “but now it has reduced.”

This story is playing out across Karnataka’s coast and in many Indian states. Unscientific coastal development has led to coastal erosion that is more frequent and unpredictable.

Separate government studies show that between a and a Dritte 46% of India’s coastline has seen varying degrees of erosion in the last three decades. More than a fifth Karnataka’s coast was erodedBetween 1990 and 2016. A 2019 paper studied erosion in different parts of the state’s coastUllal was the worst-hit: it had lost the most land each year to the sea since 1990 at the rate of 1.3 meters per year.

These coastal communities are under increasing pressure and are being shaped in new ways by a new kind of politics driven by climate impacts. Local politicians see the erosion problem as a new arena for recognition and competition, especially since these vivid scenes are regularly featured in local newspapers, television, and mobile screens.

Seawalls are attractive politically because they are concrete symbols that state-sponsored safety. The government is building more of them. Seawalls already cover between 10% and 15% of Karnataka’s coast. Reports indicate that more than two-thirds are from neighbouring countries. Kerala’s famed coastlineAlready walled.

In recent years, however, scientific wisdom has been strongly against seawalls. A landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on climate impacts and adaptation, has repeatedly warned against seawalls, except where they are part a long-term strategy. They can create a false sense security in communities as sea levels rise. They can also transfer erosion to other areas of the coast.

But keeping the coast intact without seawalls would mean reaching into the innards of Karnataka’s remarkable growth story, and making politically damaging changes to how it manages areas as varied as its seaward trade, construction, rivers, and bureaucracy. For example, letting rivers flow undammed would allow their sediment to recharge beaches, but would jeopardise promises made to increase the state’s highly-scrutinised summertime water supply.

Climate adaptation is often seen as technocratic work, involving prediction and planning, but Karnataka’s coast is proving that it is equally about politics. It foreshadows the challenges India will face in responding to the IPCC’s new report, which calls for urgent and extensive adaptation to climate impacts across the country.


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Ullal’s shore began eroding after the construction of A breakwater for Old Mangalore Port1994, about a kilometre north. The breakwater, a thin 200-metre strip of stone laid perpendicular to the coast, has been vital to the city’s growth. For almost three decades, it has sheltered ships from the storms and the lashing waves of the Arabian sea, giving the city’s post-liberalisation boomtime trade networks room to grow.

In the years since, regions south of the breakwater have eroded one after the other, like a wound moving down India’s west coast. Each new instance has been met with a wall. Reappear in an adjacent region.

This is because India’s coastline is a single, constantly evolving organism. Beach sand moves in long, unseen migrations along the coast each year (see an explanation video). HereWaves striking the coast at an angle propel the boat. An obstruction to this journey, such as a breakwater, can lead to sand pileups and a vacuum pocket on the other side, where erosion occurs. A seawall is often built to push erosion and the vacuum pocket to adjacent areas. The people living in this new pocket advocate for a seawall. The cycle continues until large sections of the coast become armoured.

“It’s like a gangrene that’s spreading,” said Parvez Ahmed, whose beach-front homestay now teeters over the sea, some of it already lost, just a few kilometres south of the Ullal erosion site.

Ahmed’s house is mere meters away from a brand new array of anti-erosion structures, which includes seawalls. (He requested that his identity be changed for this story.

Ullal’s shore began eroding after the construction of a breakwater for Old Mangalore Port in 1994. The new seawall is built with deeper foundations and has more layers of defense than the previous ones. Photo by Aditya Pillai

This process of erosion and seawall construction has been turbocharged in recent years. by more frequent cyclonesThe west coast. The last two decades saw 52% more cyclonic thunderstorms in the Arabian Sea over the 20-year period. These storms can batter the coast with greater intensity and sometimes erode in a matter hours as much land that would have been lost for months or years. These cyclonic storms also last longer than before, lent enormous energy by a rapid increase in the Arabian Sea’s temperatures, which is warming It is faster than the global mean.

All this is made worse by the fact that there will soon be a lot more water sloshing about the world’s oceans and crashing onto these fragile shores. In half a century, the sea level at Mangalore – one of Karnataka’s largest cities – would have Between 20 and 30 cmThese are the more likely scenarios for emissions. This is more than what is projected to happen in the more-discussed, vulnerable cities of Mumbai and Kolkata. These rising waters will be substantially driven – in a breath-taking example of planetary complexity – by The melting of ice in Greenland.


The best way to understand the climate crisis is to witness it in still-life, during calm moments after a storm passes. In the wake of Cyclone Tauktae which passed the Karnataka coast on May 20,21, pictures were shared via Whatsapp. They captured roads that were cut in half along their lengths, alarmed junior officials gesticulating wildly towards a raging ocean, a man wearing a red makeshift raincoat staring passively into a pile of rubble that once held meaning, men desperately throwing sand-filled gunny bags at the foundations to stabilize it before it fell into the sea.

This was a cyclone which did NotMake landfall in Karnataka. It began its journey northwards, some distance from its coast, but then quickly intensified, hugging Maharashtra’s coast, missing Mumbai by a hair, and finally landing in Gujarat. It was the fifth-strongestTropical cyclone was recorded in the Arabian ocean (satellite record began in 1998) At least 91 people must be killedThe country fought a second wave of Covid-19 that was deadly.

At the margins of this massive behemoth, Karnataka’s government machinery sprung to life to rescue and protect. Large boulders were thrown in fast-eroding places as part of emergency operations. “We took the Hitachi and JCB right into the water to put the stones,” said Ramdas Acharya, referring to backhoes that the government used in the operations. Acharya was an assistant executive engineer at the Port and Fisheries Department of Honnavar in north Karnataka. He recounted how temporary seawalls could be built in just hours, amid a rush of calls from officials and residents who were losing their homes and roads.

These days are when political tensions rise in areas that have suffered from chronic erosion.

Rayappa, Ullal City’s municipal commissioner, recalled a time prior to the seawall when officials were afraid of monsoon field visitors from agitated residents.

The local bureaucracy requested more seawall resources from the state immediately after Tauktae. According to government correspondence, within two weeks, officials from the Port and Fisheries Department in Udupi District, which was the worst affected by erosion, had compiled a list of 28 seawalls for four constituencies. The cost was Rs 100 crore. They argued that while temporary seawalls were designed to reduce immediate damage, they were too weak to withstand repeated onslaughts.

In a letter to the district commissioner on July 17, 2021, they also called attention to scenes of destruction plastered across local media and noted that residents were living “in a state of anxiety” because of the threat of further erosion as the monsoon intensified.

The funds have yet to be approved. Basavaraj Bommai (then home minister) and current chief minister asked the district administration questions at a press conference, a month after the cyclone’s passage. Forward the seawall proposal the central government. Only a few months earlier, the state’s fiscal management review committee had painted a bleak picture: A drastic shortfall in revenue as a result of Covid-19 restrictions and a massive increase borrowing to keep the government running. It also recommended that all schemes with a budget below Rs 20 crore be eliminated. It warned that weakening growth prospects could spill over into the next fiscal.

In a cruel twist of fate, Karnataka also suffered extensive flooding during the 2021 monsoon. August saw the government categorizing over a third of the state’s taluks as flood-affected. In December, the fiscal management review committee’s mid-year review sounded alarms about The threat to the exchequerFrom large flood-compensation programs that have become a necessity in the state.

It is a worrying preview of the stress on government as climate change becomes more prominent. The worst of the crisis will not come from large, stand-alone disasters but from the compounded effects of many – small and large, noticed and unnoticed. The IPCC’s recent report on the physical science of climate change predicts, with high confidence, that many regions are projected “to experience an Increased probability of compound events with higher global warming”.

These warnings are all too real in the coastal towns of Karnataka that were once immune from their cold anxieties. “We don’t have any more money for this,” sighed Uday Kumar, assistant executive engineer in the Port and Fisheries Department in Udupi, standing atop a large temporary seawall in Kapu when we met on September 30, 2021. “It should hold if there’s another Tauktae.”

He pointed at the low-lying area that was behind the wall, which was shaded by swaying palm trees. “But if the wall is breached, the water will flood that land,” he said.


SThe controversy surrounding eawalls is not only in India but around the globe. Engineering thought is advancing globally. The traditional insistence on hard infrastructure due to its cost and potential disruption of sensitive ecological systems is being overthrown. Instead, coastal management specialists are advancing. Please proposeProtect depleted beaches by artificially re-filling them with pumped soil, holding them in position with vegetation, and building artificial barriers at sea so waves don’t reach the shore.

This movement has received official support in India. Recent GuidelinesThe Asian Development Bank has drafted a national coastal climate adaptation document that was approved by the water ministry. It states that seawalls should be used only after 11 other options with less environmental impact have been considered. It predicts that as sea levels rise and storms intensify, the walls will have to be raised and broadened until they become “untenable”, all the while eroding adjacent beaches. Like many others Reports on solving erosionThe guidelines recommend a mixture of hard and soft approaches for walls in areas at immediate risk and for soft measures in areas that are expected to erode in the future.

However, this movement is underestimating the political appeal visible protection has. Seawalls are highly lobbied and popular along the coast.

Parvez Ahmed, for instance, has been organizing residents and businesses, petitioning ministers and arguing with local authorities for nearly two years. His newly renovated beach homestay is at the edge of an erosion rock; it is a nervous wait for the inevitable. It is a lovely house with Mediterranean colours, a blue roof and white paint against an Arabian horizon. He said that the Greek colors were most popular among Israeli tourists, but they never paid enough. The Rs 20 lakh renovation, bay windows and all, eventually started paying off with the Bengaluru “IT/BT crowd”.

He estimates that erosion began quickly and moved in at a rate 10 feet per year. The seawall, which is only a few years old, runs across his property. However, it is now in pieces and has not slowed the erosion. The postcard coconut trees in his backyard have fallen into the sea – shrivelled brown fronds lie motionless upon the seawall. The erosion line runs approximately six feet from his house.

“My house is going to fall next year, 100%,” he said.

Many homes along the Ullal coast have had their walls torn down by coastal erosion. These homes are not covered by insurance companies due to their dangerous location. Photo by Aditya Valiathan Pilai

The land was purchased before Independence. Ahmed’s grandfather made his money as a contractor building British railway lines and spent his savings buying this plot from a British tobacco trader. “The deed is in the most beautiful Kannada. They don’t write like that anymore,” Ahmed said. The fight ended for a while, and Ahmed was overcome with resignation. He talked about moving to the hills and starting a coffee farm. He kept coming back again to the eight homestay residents nearby, with which he sympathised. One is an alcoholic “of weak mind”, and Ahmed worries the relentless march of the erosion cliff will drive him over the edge.

The heart of seawall politics is the solid grey reassurance of seawall Granite. In the month after Tauktae, letters between local government departments capture visits to erosion sites by an assortment of politicians and administrators: Karnataka’s revenue minister; its home minister; the local MP; MLAs from three assembly constituencies; the district commissioner; revenue officers of various stripes; and an assortment of local leaders. Many called for permanent seawall construction immediately.

This is not surprising. A review of climate adaptation politics literature revealed that this is the case. Nives Dolšak and Aseem PrakashUniversity of Washington found politicians are more likely to choose hard infrastructure over all other options. This is because they are visible symbols of safety, and tangible demonstrations of their effectiveness. “If adaptation entails investment in less visible soft infrastructure and capacities, public support for such measures might not be forthcoming,” Dolšak and Prakash pointed out.

These findings were repeated by a senior bureaucrat at the Port and Fisheries Department who wishes to remain anonymous.

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He said that seawalls were a result of the pressure placed on elected leaders to show visible achievements in competitive constituencies within a five-year period.

“Everyone wants to have their projects. Overall, the system gets messed up,” he lamented.

A managed retreat is the least attractive option, where the shore is left to rise and people are resettled in the inland. A report from the United States government in 2011 discussed this issue. Get the government out of coastal protection, and letting nature as well as economics take their course. The paper is saturated with cold realism. “Because modern civilization has not faced a rapid rise in sea level, sometimes the best response may be to do something new,” it began.

Resettlement is impossible due to the nature of Karnataka’s coastal politics. Fishing castes are an important political force in the coastal belt; the coastline is dotted with tiny fishing hutments and the community’s presence permeates daily life. Each village has a road running parallel to the ocean. They are all called the same thing: “fishery road”. These narrow streets create a continuous stretch of coast along the coast, a hidden artisanal highway by the 8-lane.

“If they lose this place, they don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Lalaji Mendon, MLA from the Kapu constituency, the state assembly’s only fisher community representative and a former co-convenor of the BJP’s National Fishermen Cell. It is a competitive constituency, but Mendon seemed popular among his base that late-September afternoon on Kapu beach, as he huddled with a lifeguard (“Hello, Murali!”), his arm draped across the man’s back, as he shouted quick hellos to beachfront shopkeepers all addressed by name, and as he stopped for a long and familiar chat with the parking attendant, now turning the corner after a rough couple of years on the bottle.

He spent the day inspecting various seawalls that were not complete with government engineers. Tauktae was responsible for many new erosion spots, which prompted local officials to submit a request for Rs. 47 crore worth of seawalls. Mendon believed that fishermen didn’t want to leave their homes. “They don’t have an education and they don’t have a chance at another job,” he said over a lunch greatly perked up by the day’s catch. “We are all traditional fishermen,” he added. “We put some stones and try and rescue it.”


SMany of the causes of coastal erosion are beyond the control and reach of any one government.

Other causes are also possible to control, but are more difficult politically. Karnataka’s nine ports, for example, might disrupt crucial annual migrations of sand along the coast, but they have helped make it one of India’s richest states.

Such political considerations also lie at the heart of the state’s dam-building project, which has the unintended effect of damaging the coast. At the very least 25 small dams are currently being constructed on the state’s west-flowing rivers under a new government scheme to decrease Summer water shortage in the state’s three coastal districts, which is a politically charged issue. These dams keep river sediment from flowing into the ocean, which if unimpeded would have risen from the rivers to become the sand at the beach.

Coast erosion is worsened by reduced sand flow, which leads to the need for new seawalls. This then causes more erosion. This loop becomes a recursive loop that eventually becomes an ecological knot.

Dr KS Jayappa, Professor of Marine Geology at Mangalore University, has been studying Karnataka’s coastal morphology since the early 1990s. His Papers are a fascinating and detailed history of the state’s coast in a period of rapid and permanent change, told in the unemotional language of satellite images and formulae. They show the skeletal frame of Karnataka’s growth spurt – ports, harbours, dams – locking into place. But they also reveal the ecological costs of extracting the economy’s connective tissue: sand.

“The sand is like gold,” Jayappa said.

Sand is often mined at the river mouth, where it is most valuable. This can cause damage to beaches nearby. River sandbars, which are large, captive deposits that can be accessed easily, are often found in protected, ecologically fragile sections of the coast, known as Coastal Regulation Zones (CRZs). In CRZs, mining activities are prohibited or limited to small operations for local consumption.

Coastal sandmining took off during the construction boom of 2005-’06, as small towns and cities began expanding vertically and horizontally, and Bengaluru began its dizzying tech-fuelled rise, said Anil Kumar Sastry, a Senior Assistant Editor at The HinduMangalore and a regular commentator on regional environment politics. Sastry stated that hundreds of permits were given out in the mid-2010s. However, numbers fluctuated according to political pressures and the threat of judicial interference.

The state has a voracious appetite: There were Over 10,000 illegal sandmining cases have been reportedBetween 2018 and 2021, Karnataka

Just a few kilometres north of Ullal’s crumbling shores, the National Green Tribunal found serious procedural irregularitiesThe way the government issued CRZ mining permits. The way sand was being mined.

In 2018, several important figures in Udupi district’s construction industryDemonstrators gathered to protest the CRZ sandmining rules. The groups they represented sat at the heart of the local economy: the district’s lorry and tempo owners’ association, the district builders’ association, the painters’ association, the welders’ association, and even the interlocking tile layers’ association. A local MLA threatened a rebellion for more sandmining permit.

In 2021, the local Civil Contractors’ Association threatened to Stop all construction activityIf they are unable to get an uninterrupted supply of fine-grained, CRZ sand,

These political obstacles make it difficult to stop coastal erosion. The shores continue to erode and seawalls are being built. “They will not consider our views,” said Jayappa, reflecting on his many years of arguing for a more scientific, all-encompassing approach to the problem with the government.


TIt is time to rethink the problem because of its gravity. One of the reasons the issue has become so politically thorny is that the governance of the coastline is incredibly fragmented, suggested YK Dinesh Kumar, Mangalore’s Deputy Conservator of Forests and Regional Director for the Karnataka Coastal Zone Management Authority. He listed a dizzying number of institutions responsible for this narrow strip of land, including the Karnataka Maritime Board and district administrations, as well as the coast guard, police, and minor irrigation. Each stakes their claim to that stretch. Each sees in that stretch an opportunity to grow.

“We need one body to manage the coast,” argued Kumar.

He outlined the vision of an “umbrella institution” to create and implement policies dictated by scientific expertise rather than political expedience.

Sastry’s many years of covering coastal activities, from sandmining, to seawalls, have led him to the same conclusion. “You need unified command,” he said.

But such a solution could deprive many ministries their powers, revenue, rents, and income. More pragmatic solutions include the creation of an inter-ministerial committee, or coordination by the Chief Minister’s office, said Tharakesh Phayde, executive engineer for the Port and Fisheries Department and the official in charge of the district’s seawalls. Scientific clarity, on variables such as protruding breakwaters and sea-level rises, could come from “a common maritime thinktank consisting of all coastal states” because developments in one state have effects elsewhere, he noted.

With rapidly rising seas, such bold departures form decades of governance tradition are essential. Innovations in governance will be of little value unless they are carried to the very bottom of government where people actually experience the state every day. Indian local governments lack the ability to adapt to climate change. Extremely understaffedWith the exception of a few wealthy urban bodies, there are no connections to climate specialists.

Abdul Rashid, from Ullal, recalled a village panchayat official visiting the site to see the extent of the damage that had occurred in the years preceding the construction. In order to improve capacity, transparency would be required in the face widespread suffering and larger compensation schemes. Rashid claimed that the house-damage compensation bribe depended on how many others were bribing in the year. It was usually around one sixth of the Rs. 3,000 offered.

Change will take years and require concerted political action. In the meantime, the seawall has pulled those closest to Ullal’s violent sea out of a tailspin. “At least now we can sleep,” said Abdul. “I used to lay awake for three months straight in the monsoon. Can you picture that? That’s what you should write. That’s how you should describe this.”

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