Ganjam: E. Kamama, along with her husband and two children, was fast asleep when--at around 2.30 a.m. on an October night in 2019--a wave washed away the front wall and door of her two-room concrete house.

Kamama and her husband had painstakingly saved Rs 5 lakh to build a little home, some seven years earlier, in Ramyapatna village in the Chikiti block of Odisha’s Ganjam district. “We woke up when we heard a loud sound, we could see the sea right in front of us,” Kamama recalls. “There was no wall left. We knew our house was gone…”

Kamama’s village has 410 houses; hers is amongst the 46 houses that have been washed away by strong tidal waves from the sea in just the last three years.

Tidal surges have become a recurring phenomenon in the area, during the pre-winter and monsoon seasons. Less than 500 metres from the shore, in an area once lined with parallel lanes of concrete houses, all that remains is the wreckage of abandoned homes.

E Kamama's house was damaged in 2019. She sits on the remnants of her house which has turned into rubble.

The coastal district of Ganjam, situated on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, is prone to extreme weather events, including cyclones, drought, floods and erosion.

The frequency and magnitude of erosion in these areas has also increased in recent years--a phenomenon attributed to increased frequency of cyclones and floods along the coast, and this in turn is due to markedly rising temperatures.

Floods have occurred in the years 1990, 1995, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2018--noticeably, the frequency has been escalating through the 2000s.

Rainfall between the peak rain months of July and September has been erratic, show data from 2009 to 2022. It ranged from 225.96 mm of rain in 2017 to more than double of that (458.59 mm) in 2019. The number of rainy days in Ganjam ranged from 55 days in 2015 and 2020 to 78 days in 2012.

Summer temperature, as well as the annual temperature, though fluctuating, is increasing, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said, based on data from the Gopalpur weather station they provided. The data are similar for Ganjam weather station, an IMD official who did not want to be identified said.

This pattern exists for all of Odisha too, according to an IMD official from Bhubaneswar, Umashankar Das. “There has been an upward trend in temperatures in Odisha and also for Ganjam. Until the 2000s the mean temperatures were maintained but after that there has been a rising trend.”

Rising temperatures result in creating cyclonic weather patterns which in turn cause tidal surges; uncertain rainfall creates drought conditions. Almost all the 22 blocks were affected by drought in 1996, 2002 and 2011 while four blocks were impacted in 2009, and 16 blocks in 2015.

Ganjam, thus, gets the worst of both worlds.

Phailin, classed as a “very severe cyclonic storm”, made landfall on the coast of Odisha, near Gopalpur in Ganjam district, on October 12, 2013. The observed storm surge was up to about 3.5 metres above normal, flooding large areas in the districts of Ganjam, Puri, Khordha and around Chilika lagoon. In the Ganjam District of Odisha alone, about 90,000 houses were partially or fully damaged along the coastal areas.

“In the recent past, the Ganjam coast has witnessed multiple low depressions and has been the landfall site as well,” said former Director of IMD Bhubaneswar, Sarat Charan Sahu. “In cases where there are no landfalls, the depression still touches the coast and recurves towards other land areas. The topography of the district has pushed it towards a vulnerable situation.”

A recently released District Disaster Management Plan for Ganjam notes that due to erratic rainfall, all the blocks in the district are considered vulnerable to drought.

As part of a series on climate hotspots, IndiaSpend is documenting climate change and its impacts on the most vulnerable from across the country. In this story, we look at the impact of rising temperature, frequent cyclones and coastal erosion of the fishermen of Ganjam. You can read the first part of the series here.

Odisha coast prone to erosion

The coastal state of Odisha has recorded 28% erosion along its coast, and is the only state with an accretion rate exceeding 50%. Erosion implies loss of land and removal of sediments along the coastline, while accretion is the opposite phenomenon where sand accumulates along the coastline.

A shoreline change analysis carried out along the 450-odd km of the Odisha coast shows that erosion has occurred along 144 km of the coast, while 99 km of the coast records accretion. The rest of the coastline, some 208 km, is relatively stable.

The southern coast of Odisha, which consists of Ganjam and Puri districts, has witnessed erosion along 57 km of the coast and accretion along 30 km, the analysis further states. The Gopalpur coastal region in Ganjam witnessed significant erosion during the period 2000-2014.

According to a report by the Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), there is a northwards sand movement. This, along with factors like low elevation, makes the coastal area prone to flooding, cyclones and further erosion.

Changing climate, tidal waves lead to repeated ingression in south Ganjam

The impact of erosion is most visible in Podampeta village of Ganjam block and in the Ramyapatna village of Chikiti block, approximately 45 km apart. While the erosion is due to man-made interventions or coastal development projects closer to the sea in Podampeta, the phenomenon is natural in Ramayapatnam, where it has worsened after Phailin. Studies show that such erosions are influenced by natural factors such as waves, winds, tides, near-shore currents, storms, sea level rise etc.

“Along with low depression, there is also an increase in sea levels due to global warming as suggested by multiple reports,” Sahu, the former IMD Bhubaneswar director, said. “This has also led to an increase in the sea wave height. This, combined with factors such as condition of the soil and topography of the location, makes the area prone to erosion.”

Pratap Mohanty, an oceanographer from the Department of Marine Sciences, Berhampur University, who has been studying erosion along Odisha’s coast for over two decades, says that maximum erosion along the eastern coast is natural.

Explaining how Ramyapatna witnesses erosion as a natural phenomenon, he says, “The erosion along the coast is determined by longshore currents or the parallel current to the shoreline. The longshore current transports sediments back and forth from the sea, influenced by the velocity of the waves.”

He explains that in Ramayapatnam, which is located to the north of the Bahuda River, the river acts as a natural barrier to longshore transport. The Ramayapatna stretch is classified as a high erosion zone in the ICZM Shoreline Management Plan. Erosion of lesser intensity has also been recorded in Aryapalli village of Chatrapur block of the district.

“When there is a flow from the river to the ocean particularly in monsoon season, there are geomorphological developments that happen over the years, like a spit (growth of a sand dune) formed due to accumulation of sediments,” Mohanty explains. “Due to the south to north current flow, the spit starts to grow towards the north. In that case the river mouth changes its position. At whatever place the river mouth now opens, erosion will happen to the north of it. In the case of Ramayapatna, it is on the north of the Bahuda river and the Bahuda spit is growing at a very fast rate. At times we have measured the spit to be 5 km, which has led to severe erosion,” he added.

“It takes more than a year or two for an erosion to be triggered by a cyclonic storm--for instance, during Phalin. But erosion at regular intervals due to tidal surges are restored mostly annually.”

Rampant erosion leads to loss of home, livelihood for the fishing community

A rehabilitation colony built 1.5 km away from Ramayapatna Village. Few have moved into the colony as most villagers continue to live in their village on rent, nearer the sea, and their livelihood of fishing.

The 410 households in Ramyapatna depended on marine fishing until a few years ago. However, frequent cyclonic depressions, sea ingression and tidal surge has resulted in lack of fish catch, communities living near the coast say, and consequent seasonal migration.

A rehabilitation colony with 300 houses has been built approximately 1.5 km from Ramyapatna, but only eight families have shifted there. Many of the others have migrated in search of livelihood, while others have preferred to remain in Ramyapatna despite the risks involved.

One major reason is poor planning. Fishing communities live in close proximity to the coast for a reason. Living at a distance from the beach makes it difficult for the fishermen to go out into the ocean before dawn, as is their usual practice. Further, it is the women of the family who handle the catch their men bring in, and get it to market--and again, proximity to the beach is essential.

L. Syandarama, with her daughter, stands a few metres from her house, of which there are only remnants after the destruction by cyclone Phailin in 2013. She now lives in a one-room rented home.

L. Syandarama (35), whose house was washed away by Phailin, now lives in a rented one-room accommodation hardly 200 metres away from the remnants of her house. Her husband abandoned the family five years ago, leaving her to fend for herself and her children. "My husband caught fish from the sea, and I sold them,” she says. “But after he left, I had nowhere to go, no option but to continue selling fish to provide for the family."

Most government documentation tends to be in the name of the male member of the household. In the absence of her husband, Syandarama is not sure whether her family has been allocated a house in the rehabilitation colony--but, she says, even if she has a house there, she will not move. “The landing site for the fishermen is close by here,” she points out. “I can go and bid for the fish catch and sell them. The colony is more than a kilometre away. Walking from there every day to the landing site is not possible."

Her problem, and that of others like her, is based on the fact that there is no timetable for the fishers. The boats go out to sea early in the morning; the time of their return depends on how successful the day has been--if the nets fill quickly, they return early; if it doesn’t, they return late. So, for women like Syandarama, proximity to the beach is vital so they can see the returning boats and rush to the shore to bid for the catch.

For those who have shifted to the rehabilitation colony, life takes an entirely new course. L. Korlama (52) moved to the colony a year ago, after realising that it was impossible to pay rent and provide for her family. Theirs was among the first houses to be washed away in the aftermath of Phailin.

Initially they survived in rented accommodation, but after her husband’s death in 2020, Korlama along with her son and daughter-in-law moved to the colony. Korlama, who sold fish for a living, has stopped going to the coast. Her son and daughter-in-law migrate to other cities looking for work. "I am unable to walk all the way to the sea to buy fish in the auction,” she says. “My son provides for me."

The colony has access to electricity, but the families depend on nearby villages for drinking water. Meanwhile, the people of the region face fresh challenges in the form of declining fish catch and disappearing species.

L. Korlama moved into a government rehabilitation colony, with her son and daughter-in-law, as they were unable to afford rent in the village, closer to the sea. Their home was washed away in the aftermath of Cyclone Phailin in 2013. Her children migrate away from home for work.

A. Artharinath, whose house is closest to the shore in Ramyapatna, says that the annual income through fishing has been constantly declining. “In October this year, the sea was right at my doorstep,” he says. “When the sea is extremely close, or when it recedes to the farthest extent, there is little or no catch. We can look at the waves and gauge what the day looks like (in terms of fish catch). There are months when there is no fish at all. Towards the end of September, the fish catch reduced drastically. Our income dipped. At such times, we are forced to look for mason work in Ganjam town.” He earns between Rs 60,000- 80,000 annually through fishing.

"There are certain species that fetch us good prices, like Ilish (Hilsa) or Pomfret. But now it's a wonder if any of us manages to catch these species. It is as if they have disappeared from the sea," another fisherman, L. Loknath, said.

Species productivity and fish growth are already changing, thanks to changing climate and aquatic systems, with consequences for fishing and farming yields, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said.

The district administration has been trying to persuade villagers to move to safer locations. “We are undertaking measures to mitigate any further impacts,” said Keerthi Vasan, Project Director, District Rural Development Agency (PD - DRDA), Ganjam. “With respect to the colonies, while we understand the reluctance of the villagers, considering their livelihood, we still have been pushing them to shift to safer locations.”

A fish collection centre built by the state government in 2015 was partially damaged in 2019. It is now used by fishermen to repair their fishing nets and rest.

The state government has roped in expert agencies to undertake mitigation measures. Apart from rehabilitation colonies being set up, a proposal to build a guard wall to prevent entry of the sea water into these villages was also approved.

“In 2019, the proposal was made but after a recent visit of a team of scientists, we have initiated the tendering process for the same. Work on the structure will be initiated soon,” said Joydeep Panda, Superintendent Engineer, Water Resource and Drainage department, Ganjam.

In November 2019, K. Murugesan, Director,-Climate Change Cell, Forest and Environment Department, issued a letter approving the proposed project of constructing a concrete sea wall on the village side in Ramayapatna to protect the village and its infrastructure, followed by launching an apron on the sea side of the wall along with artificial sand supply to the eroded beach.

“The proposed protection measure consists of one 1.3 km length retaining wall and 190 m long groynes. The sea wall will be located 25 m away from the border of the village Ramyapatna. The height of the retaining wall will be 2.8 m with a base width of 2.8 m and a wall width is 0.6 m".

In August 2022, after a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the state government and the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), which is part of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, for coastal protection, a team of scientists recently visited the village to assess the site and suggest topographic surveys.

The site visit and recent satellite imagery shows shoreline erosion of 10 m on the southern side and 60 m on the northern side of the village. The resulting report recommended that “WRD may carry out the construction of seawall as per the alignment approved by Odisha Coastal Zone Management Authority (OCZMA) or by modifying the seawall alignment considering the present coastline without changing the latitude positions of seawall mentioned in the OCZMA approval.”

This, however, is a short-term fix with long term consequences. Seawalls and groynes exacerbate the problem, rather than mitigate it, because any construction that projects into the sea further impedes longshore currents. Typically, any seawall, groyne or other construction abutting the sea or projecting into it sees accretion to one side and accelerated erosion to the north. In the case of this region, since the current is south to north, a projection will create accretion to the south side, and severe erosion to the north.

This is why experts are pushing for soft measures to tackle the situation. Some of the measures as suggested by the ICZM include maintaining natural flow of sediments through artificial sand supply, sand bypassing and plantations along the affected coastline.

“Hard structures will also be at risk of damage in case of periodic erosions like during cyclones,” Mohanty said. “Hard structures can be dangerous and should be the last resort. We should always go for soft measures like artificially filling in sand at the affected spot or plantations.”

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