It is a calm forenoon on August 26 at Muthalapozhi coast some 40km north of Vizhinjam, where hundreds of fisherfolk have been protesting against the Adani port project for the past few days, asking the Kerala government to solve their various livelihood issues caused by the project.
The waves near the mouth of the Muthalapozhi harbour, the wide space where the Muthalapozhi lake meets the sea in between the far ends of two parallel breakwaters of the harbour, are placid, comforting.
Yet when engine-powered traditional fishing boats speeding from the sea reach the mouth, they slow down as if they have suddenly come into the presence of some mysterious force.
This is the spot where nearly 60 deaths have taken place since 2015, when the construction of the two parallel breakwaters was completed; the harbour was officially commissioned only in 2020.
The Fisheries Department figures show that 18 fishermen had died in boat accidents at the estuary mouth in 2018 alone.
Road to perdition
“We call this the mouth of death,” said Valerian, a fisherman and the district president of Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation.
When the sea is rough, especially during heavy rains or cyclones, the waves at the mouth can turn monstrous. They can rise up to dangerous heights and crash with vicious suddenness, hurling boats to the rocky sides of the breakwaters.
“Even experienced fishermen will find it hard once they fall off the boat as the strong opposite drift from the lake will violently toss them back into the sea,” Valerian said. Imagine a person losing balance and then falling on a fast-moving giant conveyor belt.
The wicked nature of waves is caused by the sand deposited by the sea at the mouth of the estuary. “This sand, if left untouched, will form into small hillocks under the water and it is by colliding with these hillocks that the waves rise high,” an engineer of the Harbour Engineering Department said on the condition of anonymity.
Mystery of the moving rocks
However, such sand accumulation happens in all estuaries. What makes Muthalapozhi different from other harbours, say Kollam harbour, is the instability of the breakwater structures.
In Kollam, because the sea has a coral bed, the structure is firmly rooted. Not in Muthalapozhi.
Standing on the north breakwater, Valerian said its height has dropped. “The rocks at the bottom have spread out into the ocean,” Valerian said. The breakwater has now acquired the shape of a wide trapezium, with rocks and concrete tetrapods spreading to the sides from the top. “The base of the breakwater, though invisible from here, is much wider. This has narrowed the channel (the waterway between the two breakwaters),” Valerian said.
The Harbour Engineering wing's engineer confirmed this unstable movement of the breakwater base. He said that with more rocks tumbling sideways into the bottom of the channel from both breakwaters, sand gets deposited on top of these rocks, further increasing the height of the sand hillocks formed underneath; sand mounds erected on a rocky base.
A rocky pact with Adani
A solution was agreed upon. Dredge the sand deposits and maintain the depth of the channel at a specific measure. When there was no response to the tenders floated to identify dredgers, Adani Ports was asked to take up the task.
In fact, regular dredging of the Muthalapozhi channel was one of the conditions set when Adani Ports was given free land near the southern breakwater for a 'load out facility' from where rocks it had sourced from various quarries and stocked at Muthalapozhi could be transported in barges to the Vizhinjam project site.
Fishermen complain that Adani Ports is not carrying out sufficient dredging activities in the area. Directing Adani Ports to carry out efficient dredging of sand from the Muthalapozhi estuary is one of the seven demands of the fishermen agitating at Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram.
Adani's spokesperson told Onmanorama that dredging activity was being carried out. “We have maintained the required depth of the water,” the spokesperson said. However, this year Adani Ports is yet to begin dredging activities. The work has been delayed even after the Harbour Engineering Department, finding that sand has accumulated after the rough season, had issued a letter in early August asking the company to begin dredging immediately.
For the fishermen, the harbour has not just created a death trap for them. They fear it threatens their very existence.
They say after the harbour came into existence, the entire stretch of coast from Muthalapozhi to Anchuthengu has been almost fully eroded.
“There is a bit of a beach left in Mambally. Otherwise, in most of the areas north of Muthalapozhi like Thazhampally, Poothura, Anchuthengu and Nedunganda there is no beach left. Even if there is some beach left in these areas, it will not be more than one metre,” said Alphonse, a fisherman in Anchuthengu.
Vanishing beaches and lost ways of living
One just has to move along the coastal road to realise the truth of the fishermen's lament.
The beach side presents a picture of devastation. At least half the beach side in this 5km stretch has been almost fully eroded. There are just walls of rocks that stand between the road and the sea. In certain areas, the misty froth of the waves fall on the windshield of vehicles.
In areas where the sea is a few metres away, the houses have been abandoned and look close to crumbling, like buildings in a ghost town. Belsy's was one of the rare houses along the stretch that was still occupied. She was drying fish in front of the house, on the roadside.
“Till five years ago, I used to dry fish on the sandy beach behind the house,” she said. The back portion of her house looked like a post-earthquake scene; just rubble and rocks. “Even 15 years ago, the beach extended till there,” Belsy said, pointing to a fishing boat bobbing in the sea some 200 metres away. “That was where we used to sit to enjoy some cool breeze,” she said.
A kilometre north, at Poothura, we found Annamma in front of her house on the other side, the lakeside. Half the road in front of her has been eroded. “We owned six rows of coconut trees on the beach side, where you now see only rocks and the waves. The beach extended beyond our coconut grove. My children used to run from here and by the time they reached the edge of our coconut grove they would be panting,” Annamma said. Now, thick watery mists from waves crashing on the rocks engulf our faces as we stand talking to Annamma.
Even in Mambally where there is some beach left, it is too narrow to even park boats. “Till about four years before we used to run pushing our boats for some distance before launching it into the sea,” said Vineeth, a young fisherman who was mending his net after a day's work.
Science behind fishermen's lament
The official stand is that erosion is the result of climate change. There is no denying the role of climate change in erosion but a first-of-its-kind multidisciplinary study by departments of Geology and Computer Science of Kerala University and National Centre for Earth Science Study, published in 2022, seems to confirm the fears of the fishermen.
It predicts that the major erosion activity will be in the coastal stretches that lie north of the under-construction Vizhinjam port and Muthalapozhi harbour.
“The hard shoreline protection structures like breakwaters and groynes bring relief at one end while unprecedented erosion occurs further up,” the study observes. The study gives the example of Perumathura, which lies just south of the Muthalapozhi harbour, and places north of Muthalapozhi.
Perumathura is where beach development is taking place. But north of the harbour, up to Anchuthengu, the coast is being eroded like never before.