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As the sea level rises due to climate change and the land turns more saline, farmers in Tamil Nadu on India’s Bay of Bengal coast are forced to give up rice cultivation

With the arrival of northeast monsoon in Tamil Nadu in November, farmers start planting their crops, mainly rice, but villagers along the coast are forced to wait till January (Photo by Nidhi Jamwal)

The northeast monsoon is here and farmers across the southern state of Tamil Nadu are busy planting their crops. But, there is a lull in Elandarmade, a coastal village at one edge of the Cauvery delta in Cuddalore district. Sea level rise and salinity ingress have turned large tracts of agricultural land in the village into wasteland, making it difficult for the 120 families to grow their traditional crop of paddy. Most farmers own only 1-4 acres of land.

“About 12-15 years ago, we used to have three cycles of paddy crop in a year. October used to be a busy month for us as we used to plant paddy,” narrates Annadurai Patteswami, a farmer from Elandarmade in South Pichavaram. “But for more than a decade now, no one in the village has been able to grow paddy in October. Our paddy cycle has shifted to January because seawater submerges our land for a large part of the year.”

To address seawater intrusion and salinity ingress, ever year villagers create an embankment, but the structure is unable to keep the sea at bay and breaches regularly. “The rate at which the sea is coming close to us makes us believe that soon it will engulf our entire village. Our farming has already gone kaput,” laments K. Kannan, 55-year-old secretary of the local farmers’ association. According to him, villagers have been demanding a permanent cement embankment from the public works department (PWD) to keep the village safe from the sea. But, no action has been taken on that front.

“We have no option but to go to the other villages to work as farm labourers or do masonry work. Sometimes we get work under MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that ensures 100 days of work per year to all poor rural households). But, it’s been three months and we have no work under it, too,” complains Kalyani Ramalingam Amma, a resident of Elandarmade. Men from the village regularly migrate to Chennai or the neighbouring state of Kerala to make both ends meet, she adds.

Vulnerable coastline

India has a coastline of 7,516.6 km, of which 5,422.6 km is in the mainland. Tide gauge readings from four Indian ports from 1993 to 2012 show the sea level has risen by 4.8 cm, which is about 3.2 mm per year. By 2050 and 2100, sea level is projected to rise by 16 cm and 32 cm, respectively, warned V. Selvam, executive director of Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. He was speaking at a recent media workshop on climate change, climate justice and resilience in the Bay of Bengal region that was organised by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and The Third Pole, a sister portal of India Climate Dialogue.

Sea-level rise in 4 Indian ports between 1993 and 2012. Source: Paper presented by V. Selvam during a media workshop on climate change, climate justice and resilience in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu.

Sea-level rise in four Indian ports between 1993 and 2012. Source: Paper presented by V. Selvam during a media workshop on climate change, climate justice and resilience in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu.

Climate change-induced sea level rise is a major threat to the country as the 73 coastal districts (out of a total of 593) have a share of 17% of the national population, with nearly 250 million people living within 50 km of the coastline, reads a 2017 report titled A report on Problems of Salination of Land in Coastal Areas of India and Suitable Protection Measures by the Indian government’s Central Water Commission.

“More than seven million coastal families of fishers and farmers are affected due to the rising sea level. The most vulnerable areas are the Mumbai coast, Kutch region, southern Kerala and Lakshadweep islands in the west coast; and the Ganga delta, Cauvery delta, Krishna and Godavari deltas in the east coast,” informed R. Ramasubramaniam, principal coordinator of the coastal systems research team of the Swaminathan Foundation.

The southern state of Tamil Nadu, which has the third-longest coastline in the country and 13 coastal districts, is vulnerable to the rising sea. The state has 591 fishing villages along its coastline.

According to a 2017 research study conducted by the Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation Research at Anna University, Chennai, on an average the coastline of Tamil Nadu will face climate change-induced sea level rise of 4.51 cm to 4.94 cm by 2025. The districts most vulnerable to sea level rise of 4.94 cm are Thiruvallur, Chennai and Kanyakumari. Cuddalore district, where Elandarmade village is located, is projected to face a sea level rise of 4.74 cm by 2025.

Another 2010 research paper — The potential impacts of sea level rise along the coastal zone of Kanyakumari District in Tamil Nadu, India — reveals that approximately 13 sq. km of land area in the district would be permanently inundated due to sea level rise, which would result in loss of land, alteration of the coastal zone and also affect the coastal ecosystem.

Increasing salinity

There are several physical impacts of sea level rise. For instance, submergence of low lying areas, inundation of seawater in non-saline areas due to altered tides, increased salinisation of soil and water, coastal lands turning into wasteland, and loss of livelihood to fishers and farmers.

The coastline of Tamil Nadu will face climate change-induced sea-level rise of 4.51 cm to 4.94 cm by 2025 (Photo by Nidhi Jamwal)

The coastline of Tamil Nadu will face climate change-induced sea-level rise of 4.51 cm to 4.94 cm by 2025 (Photo by Nidhi Jamwal)

Three decades ago, in 1988, data on coastal saline soils was calculated, which came out with a figure of about 3.1 million hectare saline soil along India’s coastal tract of West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It included about 0.57 million hectares of salt affected area under mangrove forests. Since then, this figure has not been updated though coastal salinity has increased rapidly.

“In spite of coastal areas facing increasing salinisation of land and water, there is no updated comprehensive data on coastal soil salinity in the country. The last such national level data was collated in the 1980s,” said Selvam.

Another 1981 Report on Development of Coastal Areas Affected by Salinity by the erstwhile Planning Commission has estimated about 100,000 hectares area in the coastal belt of Tamil Nadu faces salinity problems. Updated official record of this is not available.

“Various states follow their own methodology of calculating coastal saline soils, thus there is no uniformity in estimating the affected area. The Indian government must come up with a uniform methodology of making such calculations so that we have a realistic estimate of coastal saline soils in the country; and prepare an action plan to address the challenge,” Selvam told

Threat to water security

Apart from loss of land and livelihood, salinity ingress is a threat to water security of coastal areas. “Apart from land, our groundwater has turned saline, too. There is only one well in the village which still has sweet drinking water. Other water sources, including hand pumps and piped water supply, are saline,” lamented Kalyani Ramalingam Amma. “We don’t know till when this well will be able to support us.”

For 120 families in Elandarmade village, there is only one well that has non-saline water (Photo by Nidhi Jamwal)

For 120 families in Elandarmade village, there is only one well that has non-saline water (Photo by Nidhi Jamwal)

According to Kannan, the villagers have approached the local authorities to help support the farmers adapt to the changing living conditions in the village. “We have requested the PWD to construct a cement bund between the village and the sea to stop seawater intrusion and save out paddy fields. But, the department says it will construct a cement bund only if we plant casuarina on our lands along the coast. But, we want to continue growing paddy.”

There are reports that point out problems with engineering solutions like cement embankments and seawalls. “Seawalls and other coastal engineering structures end up obstructing this littoral drift (annually a net sediment flow of about 0.5 million cu m from south to north) of sand and sediment, and thus cause erosion on the northern side and accretion on the southern side of the structure… these coastal engineering constructions often lack scientific studies and are based on an inadequate understanding of beach dynamics,” reads a 2008 report, Policy Brief: Seawalls, by UNDP and the Bangalore-based think tank ATREE.

According to Selvam, the Swaminathan Foundation is working with the local fishers and farmers to address the salinity issue in coastal villages of the state. These include restoring mangroves, popularising an integrated mangrove-fishery farming system and promoting cultivation of salt tolerant crops. “We are trying to revive cultivation of traditional saline tolerant paddy varieties such as pokkali in Kerala and kagga in Karnataka. Kagga variety has been cultivated in over 2,000 hectare area,” informed Selvam. Transgenic rice varieties showing improved tolerance to salinity have also been developed using genes isolated from mangroves, he added. Halophytes, which are salt-loving plants, are also being experimented with. These include Salicornia brachiata (bio-salt, bio-fuel, edible oil), Sesuvium portulacastrum (Green, salad) and Suaeda maritima (fuelwood).

“We have approached the local Krishi Vigyan Kendra to help us save our farming, but haven’t received any real support. Government officials come to collect data and information, but nothing comes of it,” said Kannan. “The only thing coming closer to us is the sea.”

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