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Coastal communities in India bear the brunt of climate change

Centre for Education and Documentation

08 / 2010

Mariamman was distraught when we met her in 2005. Her fishing village in the southern-most district of India, Kanyakumari was just recovering from the tsunami. “Another tsunami will come”, she said philosophically, “and it will cause even more unimaginable catastrophe”. While the Tsunami came without any warning, her intuitive bell tolls, as each monsoon, she sees the high tide chipping away at the banks.

Her counterpart as we go to the northern most point of India’s Western coast, the Kutch, already lives more than fifty kilometers from where she was born, as entire villages have been submerged over a long period. They, like many old women from the India’s 8118 km long coast line, have taken it stoically, as just another scene in the play of nature.

The stories are repetitive, though. Jayanta Basu of the Telegraph reported in 2009 that Ghoramara village, located about 150 km south of Kolkata, has lost almost 50% of their village lands to the rising levels of Hooghly river over three decades (1). This is the fate of 700.000 people from Malda and Murshidabad areas of Bengal who had to flee their villages submerged due to rise in sea level. Basu says that in another decade or so, West Bengal is likely to loose many more villages, along with their history and culture forever. Is this all because of global warming? If not, the evidence of ocean thermal expansion, ice-caps melt certainly means that the problem will only be compounded.

Impacts relating to the coast

According to a 1996 report by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), more than 5700 sq kilometers along the coastal region will be inundated and almost 7.1 million of the coastal population will be directly affected. Several coastal areas will be submerged and the Lakshadweep Archipelago will be wiped off the world map. Thousands of acres of land in the Kutch, Mumbai and South Kerala regions will be submerged. Deltas of the Ganges in West Bengal, Cauvery in Tamil Nadu and many other rivers will be lost. The coastline in Goa, Puri and Vizag have already receded to ridiculous levels due to sea-level rise, erosion, tourism and other human interventions.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), India is one of the 27 countries that will face the worst consequences of sea level rise caused by thermal expansion of ocean water due to global warming. According to estimates made by an IIED1 - led study by Dr Gordon McGranahan, et. al in 2007, India has the second largest population in the world, of 63 million people located in the Low Elevation Coastal Zone (LECZ)2 with an area of about 82,000 sq. km. This area is extremely vulnerable to inundation due to sea level rise.

Endangered ecosystem along the coastal belts

The rise in sea level is not just about inundation, or pushing back the coastline displacing millions in coastal areas and small-island communities. It will affect coastal cropland and impact biological productivity and diversity. Ocean circulation pattern, vertical mixing of waters, and wave patterns are also changing. With the warming up of cooler areas, geographical shifts in biodiversity will occur. Changes in plankton activity due to increase in temperature will affect the ocean’s ability to absorb or store carbon. This could go back into the system and boost climate change.

India’s coastal belt is home to some of the world’s most diverse & rich ecosystems, including mangrove forests and coral reefs.

Corals reefs are located in Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar and on Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar group of islands. They are dying slowly due to increasing sea temperatures and higher levels of dissolved carbon dioxide. According to Down to Earth magazine, 80-100% of coral reef deaths are due to bleaching, which is the expulsion of symbiotic, food producing algae by coral colonies and their discolouration. In 1998, one of the warmest years in India, massive bleaching of up to 90% of the coral reef occurred in the western Indian Ocean due to several climatic factors. Marine biologists have observed that the coral reefs are not able to recover for a long time.

Wetlands cover about 6 % of the earth’s total land area and are extremely water dependent. Climate change will cause decreased precipitation in wetland areas causing their shrinkage. This will cause decaying of organic matter which will release carbon into atmosphere. In India we have 29 wetland areas recognised under the Ramsar declaration. Among them are the Sunderbans in West Bengal and the Chilka lake in Orissa, which will be severely impacted by Climate Change.

The Sunderban wetlands are the largest contiguous mangrove ecosystem in the world. Spread over an area of about 9,630 square kilometers, the Sunderbans is subject to an average sea level rise of 3.14mm per year submerging its islands and mangrove forests. Research based on satellite imagery has revealed that a rise of up to 1 meter is expected to inundate about 1000 square kilometers in this region. In the past 2 decades, 4 islands in the region have submerged and more than 6000 families rendered homeless (2).

Mangroves in India cover an area of about 6700 square kilometers along the various estuaries, deltas, tidal creeks, mud flats and salt marshes along India’s long coast. These mangroves act as natural barriers and protect coastal habitations from cyclones and tidal waves which are increasing. It may be recalled that a large part of the damage done by the Tsunami of December 2004 was mitigated in the Pichavaram and Muthupet areas of Tamil Nadu due to their dense mangroves.

Cyclones and other extreme weather events

Global warming will cause an increase in the sea surface temperatures and this in turn will have impact on the frequency, intensity or tracks of cyclones hitting coastal zones. Studies suggest that with a rise in sea temperature by 2-4 °C, intensity of cyclones hitting the coastal areas can go up by 10-20%.

Marine Fisheries and Coastal Communities

There are 2100 marine fishes villages along the Indian coast. Dr. VV Singh, a Principal Scientist at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute told us 450 villages of these villages are vulnerable to the sea level rise. He presented these charts which showed the distribution of these 450 villages among the different coastal states of India, mainly Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.

The population of these fishing villages is also high, 500,000 inhabitants in Kerala, and 200,000 in Tamil Nadu, which indicates the extent of threat to traditional livelihoods.

Speaking at the pilot workshop on vulnerability of the Mumbai and Thane coasts to climate change, Dr. Singh pointed to a silver lining for the fisherfolk. He said that due to warming, the water line for 28 degrees has been moving northwards, as a result two varieties used by the lower middle classes the oil sardine (locally known as tarli) and Mackerel is now available along these coasts.

CED visited the fishing village of Nai a little further north of Mumbai. While the fishermen we spoke to were apprehensive of the climatic changes, their main issue was the pollution caused by the oil well off the Mumbai coast. They also resented the fact that the good fishing ground, located at the Bombay high oilfields, are now out of bounds for security reasons.

The more knowledgeable among them were able to relate to the fact that the cause of global warming, the increasing energy requirement and therefore the increasing take over of off-shore fishing grounds, is directly affecting their access to livelihood related sites – much like the plight of the Tribals in distant Orissa, whose forests have been sacrificed for mining of bauxite.

The tragedy is that the fishermen contributing the least to climate change, will be impacted the most. These include the fishermen who need to live close to the shore, and operate beach landing craft, many of them coming in the category of motorised boats.

Dr Singh while highlighting that trawling is the largest contributor to CO2 emissions. But fishermen were very receptive when talked about the extent to which converting to more efficient motors and using better oil can reduce their emissions, as well as reduce their costs on fuel, which has been increasing .


Approximately 60 million of people live in Low Elevation Coastal Zones (LECZ) in India. LECZ are regions which fall under 10 metres of coastal elevation. 50% of this population is in urban regions comprising approximately 31 million people.

A one-meter sea level rise will inundate 6000 square kilometers in India, of which Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai will be the major cities being affected. This would mean losses of billions of dollars in infrastructural, social, physical assets and capital. 125 million people are likely to migrate in the coming century of which 75 million will be from Bangladesh. The people from Bangladesh will most likely migrate to India, in addition to our own 50 to 60 million people who will be displaced due to sea-level rise, shrinking water sources due to CC in the densely populated coastal regions of India.

This distinct eco-system, with a distinct threat, and with 3 of the 6 major metropolitan areas situated within it, does not figure in India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change. Unfortunately, civil society can do little on its own, in the face of the scale of the problem.

1Jayanta BASU, ‘The Vanishing Village’, in The Telegraph, 22 February 2009
2Sahana BOSE, « Role of Indian Sunderban mangroves in mitigating climate impacts: an appraisal »

CED (Centre for Education and Documentation) - CED Mumbai: 3 Suleman Chambers, 4 Battery Street, Behind Regal Cinema, Mumbai - 400 001, INDIA - Phone: (022) 22020019 CED Bangalore: No. 7, 8th Main , 3rd phase, Domlur 2nd Stage, Bangalore - 560071, INDIA - Phone: (080) 25353397 - Inde - -,

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