Gone with the Waves

As the sea eats into the coast of south Gujarat, fishing villages are ruined.


Villagers with bricks retrieved from their old homes in Danti.
Photo: Dionne Bunsha

Danti is being invaded. More than half the residents have already fled this sleepy fishing village. But it isn't guns and troops that they are running away from. The sea that they revere and fish in has swallowed up the village, making people retreat further back every year.

Only the poorest remain on the edge of the village, with just a sea wall for protection. On one side of the wall are lashing waves. And, on the other are ramshackle, makeshift huts. No one here has permanent brick homes. They have to rebuild every year, after the waters rush in over the wall. The ocean knows no boundaries.

Govindbhai Tandel is the first to face its fury. His hut lies at the tip of the village, closest to the seafront, unprotected even by the stone wall. Govindbhai is back home after eight months at sea on his fishing boat. He returns to Danti in Valsad district during the monsoon, when it's too rough to go out to fish. But there's no rest at home. His family is hard at work filling their porch with sand, trying to elevate the entrance to prevent the tide from coming in. There's not much they can do. Water will flood their home anyways. It's only damage control.

"We have moved back three kilometers in the last 20 years. Our original village was out there – 3 km in the sea. You can't even see it now," says Govindbhai. "Three village wells have been submerged. We've relocated the school thrice. I've shifted home thrice so far. Can you see out there? That's where my last house was," he says pointing to a distant spot in the sea.

The village is long gone but lives on memory. As we walked around the village, most people pointed to various landmarks – all in the water. Nostalgia is the only thing that remains. During low tide, the beach is a hive of activity. Families are hard at work, trying to salvage bricks from the ruins of their old homes.

Salvaging the remains of homes that were submerged by the sea
Photo: Dionne Bunsha

On the sea shore is a brick wall with an arch - the remnants of Damentiben Tandel's house. "It broke three years back. Since then, we have kept moving and rebuilding every year," she says. "When the water comes in every monsoon, it's knee-high. Then, we have to put our kids on the roof in the pouring rain. We don't have the money to buy land and move out, so we remain here."

There's often water in their homes, but none to drink. "Our wells are in the sea. We get drinking water from the tap once every week or 15 days. Otherwise, we have to buy water. Tempos come here and deliver. It's Rs 30 for a barrel that lasts one day," says Damentiben.

Danti is on the coast of south Gujarat, one of the most industrialized areas in the country. It's called the 'Golden Corridor', but has some of the country's worst polluted spots like Ankleshwar and Vapi. Close to Danti is Dandi, the site of Gandhi's historic Salt March. This coast is now colonized by chaotic and toxic industrialization.

A house ravaged by the sea at Kaladra in Bharuch district.
Photo: Dionne Bunsha

"The fish have gone further out in the sea because of pollution. And, the water has come further in, so we have suffered. We can't go very far in our tiny boats. We used to get 400 to 600 fish in one night . Now we barely get a hundred," says Shantibhai Tandel, a small fisherman. He has shifted back six times and is now in his seventh house. "I want my kids to study. The only thing is we can't afford donations for their education or bribes to get them a job. If they are lucky, they will find a job, otherwise they will have to stay here, continue fishing and face the hardships." Sandwiched between the sea and salt pans, there's not much further back they can retreat.

Many from the village have moved to other towns or to Dandi 12 km away in the last 7-8 years. But like Mahesh Hari Tandel, those who moved for safety still yearn for the sea. "My boat is still in Danti and I feel I have to go there everyday," he says. "When my father was alive, we shifted our house four times. After he died, our house broke twice and then we moved here. After we lost the mangroves in the last 15 to 20 years, many people had to migrate to big port towns like Mumbai, Porbandar or Veraval to work. Earlier, we could survive by fishing closeby and in the mangroves."

Jayantibhai Rathod repairs his fishing net at New Kaladra, where he resettled after the fishing colony at Kaladra was submerged 15 years ago.
Photo: Dionne Bunsha

No one knows for sure why the sea is eroding the coast at such an alarmingly voracious pace. One of the reasons could be a rise in sea level due to global warming. Without even knowing what 'global warming' means, villagers along this coast are 'environmental refugees'. Though they are barely surviving, they are facing the brunt of reckless consumption in more affluent places. Ironically, most of these villages haven't been provided electric meters. People illegally tap electricity from the power cables that run above their homes. They don't know what global warming means. Many of them could not explain why the sea was advancing. Some fishermen guessed that it might be "because there are more storms in the sea."

Geologists from the M.S. University, Vadodara are studying the Gujarat coastline part of an all-India study by the Space Application Centre, ISRO. "Our preliminary observations reveal that the seawater has shifted in by 10-15 meters in 10 years, and at places it has moved around 80 meters horizontally," says Dr Nikhil Desai, who is heading the survey of the Gujarat coast. They are comparing recent satellite images with older Survey of India maps prepared in the '60s, and have observed that the coastline of Gujarat is changing shape.

Several places along India's 7,500 km long coastline are experiencing similar erosion. In the Sunderbans, two islands have already vanished from the map displacing 7,000 people. Twelve more islands are likely to go under due to an annual 3.14 mm sea level rise, which will make 70,000 people refugees. Five villages in Orissa's Bhitarkanika National Park, famous for mass nesting of Olive Ridley turtles, have also submerged, and 18 others are likely to go under. India is one of 27 countries identified by the UN as most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming related sea level rise.

"Observations suggest that the sea level has risen at a rate of 2.5 mm per year along the Indian coastline since the 1950s. A mean sea level rise of between 15 and 38 cm is projected by the middle of the century along India's coast. Added to this, a 15% projected increase in intensity of tropical cyclones would significantly enhance the vulnerability of populations in cyclone prone coastal regions," according to Dr. Murari Lal, a renowned climatologist engaged in research related to climate change vulnerability analysis in India. Dr Lal has been one of the lead authors of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports for over 15 years, which collates research about climate change from scientific work across the world.

Children help in raising the level of Govindbhai Tandel's house in Danti as the family braces itself for the onslaught of the monsoon.
Photo: Dionne Bunsha

"No local studies have been done in India to measure the precise impact of global warming. But, in the last decade, several factors have contributed to the loss of coastal land due to sea level rise," says Dr Murari Lal. "Arctic ice has melted three times faster than predicted by the IPCC in 2001. Sea level has risen twice more than projected by the climate models. Stronger surface winds and storms have resulted in higher waves, which reach further inland. Human interventions like the removal of mangroves, reclamation and construction along the coast have also led to faster erosion of the coast."

"Sea rise due to global warming could be just one of the reasons for the erosion along the Gujarat coast," says Dr Desai. "Local factors could also be responsible. Neo-tectonic activities - shifts in the level of the sea bed - could also cause the sea level to rise. If there are disturbances in sediment budgeting along the coast, the amount of deposits from rivers, it could also affect the water level." Their study will determine which of these reasons is driving the changes along the coast.

Further north, at the estuary of the river Narmada, Kaladra village in Bharuch district is also being nibbled away by the sea. Several houses are half-broken, hanging on the edge of a cliff of sand that can cave in at any point. A sea wall built twenty years back is now a relic of the past. A road constructed two years back (at a cost of Rs 30 lakh) has been cut like a cake by the lashing waves. "The poorest are the most directly affected by this. Most families here are in a dilemma. They can't afford to shift but they cannot stay here either," said Dr Desai.

A road built two years ago near Kaladra village has been eroded. A sea wall (in the foreground) offered little protection.
Photo: Dionne Bunsha

Kaladra too has been half-abandoned. The Rathod fishing colony here was washed away around 20 years back. They resettled in 'New Kaladra', just a little higher up the estuary. The fisherfolk have been here for long, but their houses are still temporary. Here too, there's no escape from the advancing water. "For around six days every monsoon, the water is waist deep. Then, we bring our boats to the doorstep, and fill all our stuff in it," says Jayantibhai Rathod, a fisherman.

An eroded road in Kaladra.
Photo: Dionne Bunsha

When fishermen are forced to run away from sea, when they don't want their sons to continue their trade, its time to start worrying. "This is a land of sand so you can never tell when it will shift," says Shantibhai Tandel from Danti. "We will keep moving back as far as we can. Then, it's in the hands of destiny." It's total surrender to the forces of nature. But how much of nature's fury has been due to the recklessness of other men? The people of Danti and Kaladra are too busy surviving the onslaught of the sea to dwell on the actions of others. It's the last thing on their mind as they sit on their rooftops in the pouring rain.


- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: http://www.ipcc.ch/

- Reducing risks to cities from disasters and climate change by Saleemul Huq, Sari Kovats, Hannah Reid and David Satterthwaite, Environment & Urbanisation, Vol 19 No 1, April 2007.http://www.iied.org/human/eandu/documents/EU19_editorial.pdf

- India’s National Communication to the UNFCC

Frontline, Jul. 14-27, 2007 Also available here