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How global warming threatens Kerala's unique coastline

'God's own country', as the southern Indian state of Kerala is often called, has some of the most rich and biodiverse coastlines in the world but global warming threatens this ecological asset in an unprecedented way.

A file image of the Kerala coastline.

Kerala, a state in the southwestern part of India, is at a high risk of coastal vulnerability. The state’s vulnerability is due to its unique geographic location. Kerala is situated between the Arabian Sea in the west and The Western Ghats in the east. The coastline of the state spans 592.9 kilometres from North to South and the state has 9 coastal districts. Climate change has a significant impact on the coastal vulnerability in Kerala. The rising sea levels, floods, stronger storms and coastal erosion are all putting the coast at risk.

So what exactly does one mean by coastal vulnerability? The term refers to how vulnerable coastal areas and towns are to the environmental, climatic, and natural threats. It analyzes the risks and consequences that sea level rise, storm surges, erosion, and other coastal hazards have for coastal areas.

Due to its location along the coast of Southern India, Kerala is particularly susceptible to natural disasters and the effects of climate change. In the year 2021, natural disasters like landslides and floods caused $100 million in damages and several other fatalities. The intensity and frequency of weather events have increased over the years due to climate change, which poses a threat to the coastal areas.

In a study by the National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) it was found that 15 kilometres of the state's coastline are at risk of erosion. The Coastal Vulnerability Index, a tool used by experts to assess the vulnerability of coastal regions, has highlighted that certain coastal areas in Kerala, such as Kannur, Kochi, and Alappuzha, face a significant level of risk. These districts are vulnerable to a number of coastal problems, including erosion, sea-level rise, strong tidal waves, potential tsunamis, and other natural disasters. While, 53 per cent of the coastline of Kerala is in the highly vulnerable category.

As the sea levels are rising, coastal states like Kerala are in danger. The rising sea levels can cause coastal erosion, flooding, high tides and the influx of saltwater into freshwater sources. According to the NASA Sea Level Projection Tool, Kochi, a city in Kerala, might likely see a 0.58-metre sea level increase by 2100.

Coastal erosion is a persistent issue in Kerala. Heavy rainfall, a sand-filled coastline and the destruction of mud deposits in the sea are all natural causes of erosion in Kerala. A number of human-made factors are also responsible for the erosion. Due to the continuous urbanization and deforestation, the coastline is eroding. A report by the World Bank has shown that between 1925 and 2012, the area's forest cover decreased by more than 44 per cent while the settlements only grew. Construction along the coast and deforestation can all accelerate erosion, thus resulting in land and property loss.

An example of this is the Shanghumukham beach in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, which has almost disappeared. The beach area has significantly decreased due to coastal erosion along the Thiruvananthapuram coastline.

Kerala has a major marine fisheries sector, which has been an important source of employment and livelihood for the state's coastal population. The fishing community in Kerala, which is highly dependent on the state's coastal resources for its livelihood, is significantly impacted by coastal vulnerability. The fishing operations are disrupted by climate change. The equipment of the fishermen like boats and nets are also vulnerable to coastal disasters which can harm or completely destroy them. Replacing or maintaining these can be expensive for the fishermen which can have an impact on their income. As the fishing communities live near the coastal areas, their houses are at an increased risk of being damaged or destroyed by rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and floods which will cause them to be displaced and lose their property.

The coastal fishing communities have long relied on marine ecosystems as their main source of income. The vulnerabilities along the coast can disrupt the marine ecology, which can alter fish behavior and migration patterns, thus impacting the community negatively. The coastal vulnerability does not only impact the fishing community but the marine biodiversity as well. Kerala is home to a wide variety of coral reefs, mangrove forests, estuaries, seagrass meadows, and sandy beaches. Coastal vulnerability can cause habitat loss and degradation, salinity intrusion, species displacement and migration, coral bleaching, food chain disruption, and the loss of essential ecosystem services.

Kerala is one such state in India which has the highest population density. Due to the high population density and a long coastline, coastal regions are home to a significant number of people. Thus they are more exposed to the risks associated with coastal hazards such as rise in sea-level, floods and storms.

A major tourist attraction of Kerala is the coastal regions. Tourism is an important source of revenue for the state and the coastal vulnerability can have a significant impact on the tourism sector.

Kerala’s coastal vulnerability is a major concern which needs immediate attention. Kerala must implement a comprehensive strategy that incorporates sustainable development practices, strict disaster preparedness, and active engagement in global climate mitigation efforts in order to protect its coastal communities, rich biodiversity, and essential economic assets.

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