Two floods a day: Kerala's Kumbalangi, India's first model tourism village, stares at a climate crisis


T R Joy built a house at Janatha Ferry in Kumbalangi in 1995 with a lifetime's earnings which he made while working in the Gulf. After living in the house for 26 years, Joy and his family members have now moved to a rented house a few kilometres away. They were forced out of their own house by floodwaters which now occupy the building. Joy, who works at a press in Kumbalangi, is one of the many victims of the frequent tidal flooding which makes life difficult for the people of the coastal villages in Kerala's Ernakulam district.

Kumbalangi, an inland fishing hamlet situated on the west of Kochi, is globally famed for its scenic beauty. The village was declared the first model tourism village in the country in 2003. Surrounded by backwaters connected to the Arabian Sea, tidal floods have been nothing new to the village. However, its frequency and severity have increased manifold in the recent years, making life difficult for many on the island. Local people blame visible causes like the levelling of the surrounding river for their plight, while experts cite Kumbalangi, along with several neighbouring coastal villages, as a case study on the impact of the overarching climate change.

Kumbalangi was declared the first model tourism village in the country in 2003. Photo: Onmanorama/G Ragesh

What is tidal flooding
Tidal flooding, by definition, is the temporary inundation of low-lying areas near a coast. It normally occurs through the combination of winds, offshore storms, and lunar phases. It is also known as sunny-day flooding, king-tide flooding, and nuisance flooding. The severity of tidal flooding has increased across the world as a result of climate change, along with other specific reasons.

The extent of the crisis
Local authorities say all the 17 wards in the Kumbalangi Grama Panchayat have been facing the threat of tidal flooding of late.

Joy's Tharayil house is located at the coastal edge of the second ward. “Tidal flooding (known as oruvellam in local parlance) has always been here. But it became too frequent in the past few years. We shifted to a rented house a year ago as this house became uninhabitable due to frequent flooding. Standing long in the water causes skin problems and other health issues,” Joy said, standing in the water which had inundated his house the previous night. He had come to show this correspondent the situation of the house, taking a break from his work.

The house had a 45-cm high foundation. Joy kept levelling the frontyard with soil and concrete over the years as the flood level kept rising. Now, three doorsteps have gone under concrete, but the water level is above them.

T R Joy in front of his house which he was forced to leave due to frequent flooding. Photo: Onmanorama/G Ragesh

Two houses in the neighbourhood have been raised by a few feet to prevent flooding. It is an expensive process. “My house can't be escalated as it is old. Nor can I sell the property since nobody would buy such a land,” Joy said.

A perpetually marooned plot too
His immediate neighbour Jeevan Paul faces a rather difficult situation. At 56, he lives in his perpetually flooded ancestral house, all alone. He has built an elevated pathway to reach his house through the flooded waters.

“My brothers have been asking me to leave this place and join them on the mainland. I can't leave this house,” Paul said, almost breaking down.

“The frontyard of this house had a white sand bed. Tidal water never breached the yard earlier. But the situation has become worse in the past four years,” Joseph, a friend and neighbour of Paul, said.

Jeevan Paul has built an elevated pathway to reach his house through the flooded waters. Photo: Onmanorama/G Ragesh

What exacerbated flooding
Both Joy and Joseph cited the natural levelling of the river bed (backwaters) over the years due to restrictions in removing sand and soil as the primary reason for the severe flooding of their areas.

A few kilometres away, Velikkakath Purushothaman, a resident of the second ward, shared the same concern. He is another victim of the frequent flooding. The frontyard of his house, some 50 metres from the river, was still wet from the previous night's flood when Onmanorama met him at his house at a noon. Garbage brought by the floodwater remained floating in the uncultivated paddy fields next to his house. Purushothaman, a local CPM activist who does odd jobs to make a living, had to cover his house with wall tiles as a quick fix to save his house from the water.

Tidal floods bring garbage from the backwaters to house premises and leave them there. Photo: Onmanorama/G Ragesh

“My family has been living here for the past 85 years. For the past five years, the tidal flooding has become very severe. Flooding has been occurring twice a day, almost everyday, since the past one year. If it continues to be so, this entire area will become uninhabitable soon. Earlier, only those who stayed close to the river had to suffer from the floods. Nowadays, the water reaches the land almost 2 km away from the river through drainage. Trees and plants in the area have dried up due to the high amount of salinity in the water,” he said.

P T Sudheer, the panchayat member who represents the second ward, said at least 22 houses in the ward have been facing the flood menace frequently. He said the flood situation became worse after the 2018 floods that ravaged Kerala.

Velikkakathu Purushothaman's house gets inundated often due to tidal floods. Photo: Onmanorama/G Ragesh

The panchayat authorities have raised the issue before state Irrigation Minister Roshy Augustine, seeking a permanent solution. An action plan should be made with a coordinated effort of the neighbouring panchayats and the Kochi Corporation, Sudheer stated.

Study reveals alarming trend
Panchayat president Leeja Thomas said the flood situation has become threatening for the lives and property of the people of Kumbalangi. The panchayat has assigned EQUINOCT, a startup, to study the tidal flood situation there and propose solutions. “The preliminary finding of the researchers is alarming. It is said that the volume of the floods is increasing so much so that life will become very difficult in Kumbalangi in the next five or 10 years. We are going ahead with the study and trying to find a permanent solution to the problem,” she said.

A house which has been elevated to prevent floodwaters at Janatha Ferry in Kumbalangi. Photo: Onmanorama/G Ragesh

She said a special gram sabha (village assembly) will be convened soon to discuss the matter.

Dr C G Madhusoodanan, CEO, EQUINOCT, said the rise in the sea level due to climate change is a main reason for the flood situation in the coastal villages of Kochi like Kumbalangi. “Usually there are two high tides a day in a gap of 12 hours. One of them will be higher and then the other. In areas like Puthenvelikkara, tidal flood occurs only once a day, but in Kumbalangi floods occur with both the high tides. It shows the region has become so vulnerable. Solutions could be found only with detailed studies and more importantly with the involvement of the affected people,” he said.

Kumbalangi, an inland fishing hamlet situated on the west of Kochi, is globally famed for its scenic beauty. Photo: Onmanorama/G Ragesh

Madhusoodanan said mechanisms for monitoring the flood patterns and flood mapping have to be set up in the coastal villages to understand the phenomenon better.

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