Varkala Cliff: Why should it be preserved and what can tourists do?

Do not disturb the natural vegetation on the Varkala Cliff. It supports the soil consolidation of the formation. Photo: iStock/f9photos

Every monsoon season, Kerala's popular tourist spot Varkala Cliff erodes in various stretches, posing a safety challenge to visitors and residents. Following an incident of landslip, the Thiruvananthapuram district administration recently demolished a portion of the cliff near the Balimandapam on the beach to reduce the risk of further accidents. However, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) quickly stepped in to save the geo heritage site because the demolition could damage the cliff's stability. Why should the cliff be preserved? GSI Deputy Director General (Kerala Unit) V Ambili explains, in a conversation with Onmanorama:

'One of a kind feature in Kerala'
The 6.4 km-long cliff, formed during the Tertiary Period (around 2.58 million years ago), is divided into three sections - the North, South and Edava cliffs, explains Ambili. "This geomorphological (landscape shaped by geological process over a long time) feature is not seen elsewhere in Kerala. In 2014, the Central Geological Programming Board named it a Geo Heritage Site. India has just about 94 sites in total. Now, the process to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site Geo Park is also in progress. That's when such a demolition happened," explains the official.
'Protection methodologies submitted many times'
She says the GSI has submitted various directives to authorities on how to protect the cliff. Ambili recalls: "It was submitted in 2011, 2013, 2014 and even recently; a report was prepared after officials from various departments conducted a field visit here as part of an IIT Mumbai tourism project."

Why is Varkala Cliff fragile?
The cliff isn't made of hard, consolidated rocks and its basement rock is around 40 m under the formation, according to Ambili. “In our tropical, humid climate and monsoons, it tends to erode. It is imperative to reduce the weight we mount on the cliff. While we can't do anything about the existing buildings, we can at least avoid further constructions," she says.
The Balimandapam is quite close to the sea. "The bathrooms and toilets near it were constructed after demolishing a part of the cliff and therefore, the area will tend to cave in during monsoon. I wonder who permitted such constructions," says Ambili. To protect it from disruptions, at least 600 m from the edge should be made activity-free, she says. 

Use only designated pathways to walk on the cliff. Photo: iStock/Wirestock

'Tourists too can do their part'
If not for the beautiful cliff, Varkala would be just another beach, says Ambili, and gives a few tips that tourists can follow to do their part and protect the cliff:
1) Use only the designated pathways on the cliff to walk. Avoid risky, adventurous behaviour that some tourists resort to, by taking shortcuts to climb up the fragile cliff. Such actions damage the cliff. 
2) Do not disturb the natural vegetation on the cliff as it supports the soil consolidation.
3) Avoid venturing into the edges of the cliff, especially in big groups. Do not forget that the cliff always tends to cave in.
4) If possible, avoid parking tourist/visitor vehicles on the helipad ground. The cliff can't hold so much weight and it can be dangerous. Consider parking the vehicle away from the helipad entry point and walking to the cliff. 

Local leaders point to landslips
While GSI voices against demolition, local authorities opine a 3-metre slope can avoid further erosion in the area. Papanasam ward member Ajayakumar says, "I am not an expert, but my understanding is that higher officials including the Thiruvananthapuram collector decided to make a 3-metre slope to save the Balimandapam from further erosions. They had taken proper calculations too to execute it. When the coconut trees above it sway in the wind, the cliff can cave in further, if something isn't done. I don't know whether GSI officials have visited the site to understand the current situation well."

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