Climate Change Takes its Toll on South Indian Fishing Communities

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Earth Island Journal, Kerala, India

A year after Cyclone Ockhi tore through the region, Kerala families struggle with fear and uncertainty

Delby Selvaraj and Emmelita Denson have much in common. They are neighbors who grew up and live near the Arabian Sea in southwest India. They each have three children. And they both remember vividly the last time they saw their husbands.

The fishing industry makes up a big part of the economy in southern India. Fishers there are beginning to experience the impacts of climate change / Credit: Mary-Rose Abraham

“He was at the beach and stopped back home to drink some water,” remembers Selvaraj, 36. “He was standing at the door and didn't come inside. I didn't know at the time that it was the last glass of water I would give him. Then I watched him walk away. After that, I have not seen him.”

Denson’s last memory is the conversation she had with her husband as he was getting ready to go out. He told her to borrow money from Selvaraj so they could buy a new dress for their daughter’s birthday. And he refused the meal she packed for him, saying that he would return soon.

Their husbands, Selvaraj Paulpass, 38, and Denson Nambicross, 45, were fishermen from Poonthura village in India’s Kerala state. On the evening of November 29, 2017, they went out to sea together in a wooden boat, set to return early the next morning with their catch.

The powerful cyclone “Ockhi,” which travelled from the southwestern reaches of the Bay of Bengal near Sri Lanka northward through the Arabian Sea and along the west Indian coast, trapped hundreds of fishermen at sea with severe winds and torrential rain. More than 200 people were killed in India and Sri Lanka. It’s estimated that more than 10,000 homes were damaged.

“Around 2 in the morning, I couldn't sleep,” Denson, 39, says of the early hours of November 30, her voice halting as she cries. “There was some sort of trouble in my mind. In the morning, after the kids went to school, I went and stood by the sea. It was all men there, no women. And I asked what was going on. They said a lot of wind came and none of the boats returned.”

Denson’s husband was never found. Two weeks later, Selvaraj’s husband’s body was recovered from the water more than 350 miles north.

Emmelita Denson's husband was out fishing when Cyclone Ockhi hit. He never returned. She hopes that her children (pictured with her) will not have to fish for a living when they get older / Credit: Mary-Rose Abraham

Ockhi was an unusual storm. It took an uncommon path and struck India’s western coast. The eastern coast is hit more frequently. It also wreaked more havoc at sea than the average storm.

“Ockhi is a freak system in that it rapidly intensified within a few hours,” explains Dr. Abhilash Sukumarapillai, an atmospheric scientist at the Cochin University of Science and Technology in Kochi, Kerala. “Usually, most of the mortality happens when the storm makes landfall. But in this case, the system was a disaster in the ocean itself.”

Severe storms like Ockhi are predicted to hit the region more frequently in the years to come. In fact, just two weeks before Ockhi, Dr. Hiroyuki Murakami of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Princeton University published research in the journal Nature Climate Change predicting an increase in the number of cyclones over the Arabian Sea after the annual summer monsoon. Murakami and his colleagues pinpointed “anthropogenic warming” linked to greenhouse gases as the likely culprit. Though several factors contribute to cyclone development, these storms are sustained by energy from warm ocean water. As the oceans warm, cyclones therefore will have more energy. And the Arabian Sea is warming. In fact, it’s warming by 0.5 to 0.6 degrees Celsius every decade, faster than the global average rate of 0.11 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, more frequent storms are just one likely impact of climate change in the region. Dr. Shyam Salim, principal scientist at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Kochi, has been studying the effects of climate change along India’s southwestern coast for the last decade. Many of these impacts relate to fisheries. Warmer water is less ideal for the growth of phytoplankton, the basis for the marine food chain. A decrease in the amount of phytoplankton can ripple through the entire food chain, so fish stocks are moving elsewhere in search of food. In addition, warmer water contains less dissolved oxygen. And as oceans absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the water becomes more acidic.  

Salim and his team have found that warming waters have driven sardine further north and mackerel from the surface to the sub-surface, while breams have shifted their breeding to the cooler months. Salim says that because sardine catches have decreased, the seafood-loving population of Kerala is paying double the price of chicken for the nutrient-rich fish. Depleted fish stocks also cause local fishermen to travel further in search of fish. Combined with greater competition from mechanized boats, this means the traditional fishermen who form the majority of Kerala’s fishing industry must spend more time at sea.

“When I go and stand by the front door, I can see the sea close by...Then my mind is troubled because it was the sea that took him away.” - Emmelita Denson 

But as in other places, climate change is not the only factor to consider. Cyclone Ockhi significantly eroded many beaches and the surging water damaged homes. But before the storm, erosion was already a problem in Kerala because of coastal development. In southwestern India, the summer monsoon eats away at the shoreline, while the sands are restored in the following months. But structures erected along the 330 miles of Kerala coastline have long interfered with this natural cycle. Meant to stem erosion, seawalls of enormous granite blocks — now lining more than 60 percent of the coast in Kerala — actually contribute to erosion by preventing the natural restoration of sand and sediment. Breakwaters jutting into the ocean have a similar effect. This is aggravated further by extreme events like Ockhi.

A July 2018 report from India’s National Centre for Coastal Research studied shoreline movement along the country’s coasts using satellite data from 1990 to 2016. In those 26 years, the country lost about a third of its shoreline to erosion. Kerala had one of the highest levels among all states, with a 45 percent loss. The study also noted gains in some parts of the shoreline through a process called accretion. Kerala increased its beach area by 21 percent.

Joseph Vijayan, a social activist who was born and raised in Poonthura, remembers when his village had a beach. It was so broad that fishermen repaired their nets on the sand, spread anchovies out to dry and older fishermen threw nets into the water from the beach in a method called shore seine. It served as a playground too.

“I still cherish [that] in my younger age, I used to play a lot in the beaches,” says Vijayan. “My friends and all, we used to play beach football (soccer).”

Breakwaters erected out into the sea in the early 1970s protected the local fishing harbor from the force of waves. But the barriers also altered currents, and to their north, hundreds of homes in Poonthura were destroyed as the water moved closer and the beach eroded. Today, there’s just one small section of beach left in Poonthura. The rest of the village is edged by a seawall over which waves crash when the tide is high. Vijayan says it’s actually the seventh seawall to be constructed there, as new boulders are brought in to replace the ones that sink into the sea.

Poonthura is protected from the ocean by a seawall. Meant to stem erosion, seawalls of enormous granite blocks — which now line more than 60 percent of the coast in Kerala — actually contribute to erosion by preventing the natural restoration of sand and sediment / Credit: Mary-Rose Abraham

But Vijayan believes there is an even greater threat than erosion, one that puts at risk the fishing harbor and villages like his on the north side. A large transshipment port is under construction next to the harbor. It will require a breakwater stretching nearly two miles in length. Vijayan has filed legal cases to block the development.

“An artificial port with dredging and breakwaters will definitely cause erosion,” says Vijayan. “So in my opinion, my own village, even with all the seawall … constructed there, it will all be destroyed.”

In addition to environmental activists like Vijayan, several people from regional fishing villages are helping their communities bear the impacts of climate change and development. Some of these people have come together in the group Friends of Marine Life, a UNESCO-funded group of citizen scientists who are conducting studies on how warming temperatures and building projects are impacting the coastal ecosystem. Their team includes several certified divers who documented damage to the seabed off the coast as a result of dredging for the port. In addition to research, Friends of Marine Life is working to educate local communities on climate change and its likely impacts.

“Our traditional culture and knowledge, our economic well-being, all depend on the sea,” says Dr. Johnson Jament, a member of the Friends of Marine Life who was born in Poonthura and grew up fishing with his father. “I feel that I have a connection with the ocean. I see myself as one of the children of the sea.”

But Jament says that though fishermen consider the ocean as their mother, Cyclone Ockhi introduced something new to the fishing families: fear. Jima Rose Marypushpam, a 21-year-old social worker who grew up in a fishing village, repeatedly hears of this fear as she documents the stories of the families affected by Ockhi, especially the fishermen who were caught in the middle of the storm. 

“Now, even when there is a small wind, they are afraid,” Marypushpam explains. “And they urge the other fishermen in the boat to go back to shore. If they turn back, they won’t catch as many fish and it impacts all of them. So they are reluctant to take these men with them.”

For the families who no longer have a fisherman at home, there is a similar feeling of fear for the ocean.

“When I go and stand by the front door, I can see the sea close by,” says Denson, whose home is just steps away from the water. “Then my mind is troubled because it was the sea that took him away.”

But she is more worried about managing the expenses for her family. The government gave each family who lost a fisherman during the cyclone compensation of 2 million rupees ($29,000). But they can only access the interest on that money as a monthly income. Denson says half the money pays for rent and she must somehow stretch the rest to pay for food, clothing, and school expenses for her children.

She and Selvaraj are pinning their hopes on the government’s promise of jobs to the women whose husbands were lost or disabled. And they want their children to do well in school so they do not have to fish as their fathers did, particularly as the job becomes even more dangerous and uncertain.   

“We’ve never had a storm like this in Kerala,” says Selvaraj. “Since Ockhi, I haven’t gone to the water. I won’t let my kids go to the water either. My brother is still going fishing because he knows only that job. But for my kids, I want them to be educated so they don’t have that fate.”

This story was produced under the EJN Asia-Pacific Story Grants 2018 with the support of Sweden/SIDA.