Coastal villages of India’s eastern peninsula regularly face threats posed by rising sea level, with more than 24 tropical cyclones having struck the region over the past two decades.
With each passing year, their intensity and frequency are enhanced. More than 23 million people have been affected, and experts project some 8 million more people eventually will be forced to relocate.
Odisha and its coast vulnerable
Odisha state, blessed with a wealth of natural resources and minerals, is home to one of the most resilient forest management communities in the world. Its 480-kilometer coastline borders the Bay of Bengal, and its beaches and temples attract tourists and researchers from all over the world. It is however, one of the most underdeveloped and vulnerable states in India.
But the Bay is known for the cyclones that batter the coasts. Coastal Odisha residents have witnessed horrific extreme weather events, from the Cyclone of 1971, the Super Cyclone of 1999, and Cyclones Phailin and Hudhud that struck in 2013 and 2014. Since the 1999 Super Cyclone, Odisha’s coastal regions have been facing erratic rainfall and more cyclones and floods, and now an advancing sea that is threatening the salinity of water for drinking and for agriculture. The sea is swallowing villages, paddy cultivation has been wiped out, and fishermen face dwindling catches as fish populations decline.
According to the Red Cross, nearly 7,200 villages and 20 towns and cities of Odisha are increasingly at risk from extreme weather events along the coast line: 106,800 households and 58,000 people within about 15 miles of the coast will face direct risks from cyclones and sea-level rise fueled by increasingly warmer atmospheric temperatures.
Sea-level rise now has become a constant worry for families along the coast. Rapid urbanization has led to enlargement of natural coastal inlets and dredging of waterways for navigation, port facilities, and pipelines, exacerbating saltwater intrusion into surface and ground waters. Areas protected by mangroves, deltas, low-lying coastal plains, coral islands, sandy beaches, and barrier islands are less likely to be harmed by sea-level rise than built-up areas. However, these areas and resources are already under stress, as sandy beaches erode and sand dunes disappear primarily because of reduced supplies of freshwater and sediments in coastal estuaries.
Villagers in Satabhaya to become climate refugees
In 1971, the sea encroached into the seven hamlets of Satabhaya and devoured three of them. The sea has not let up since in this coastal zone, whose villagers live in constant fear. According to the Regional Centre for Development Cooperation (RCDC), the village of Satabhaya, once composed of seven hamlets, is now at the mercy of the sea.
Prior to 1970, the sea was nearly four miles from the village, which now has only a solitary sand dune standing protecting it from the rising water.
The massive cyclone that struck the village in 1971 resulted in 1,000 deaths and loss of 2,000 acres of agricultural land and of a royal palace. Those who survived the cyclone found their livelihoods of farming and fishing suddenly shattered.
“People started to migrate after the cyclone of 1971,” says Brindaban Moi a villager of Satabhaya who was displaced from Kanpur. He continues:
Our lands were very fertile. We never needed chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The land provided us with all our food needs and more. The fishermen hauled in huge catches and we earned a lot from selling the fish in the nearby villages and to fish wholesalers who visited the village. Our village has a fresh water table that we tapped through tube wells. Today we have lost much of our land to the sea; what is left has turned saline and we had to abandon them.
Brindaban reports also that “In 2011 many more families relocated from the hamlet, leaving only a handful behind as the sea was getting aggressive by the day. They have now settled in the newly formed hamlets of Barahipur, Magarkanda and Rabindrapalli around the older hamlet of Balisahi, which is what remains of the original Satabhaya, as this place has a sand dune that offers some protection from the sea.”
“Mercifully the super cyclone of 1999 did not claim any lives,” Brindaban says. “The people, scared from the 1971 experience, had evacuated to safer places. Two from our village who had migrated to Paradip for work lost their lives. Our relatives who have migrated to other states assumed we all were dead.”
Relocating the victims
Then-Chief Minister Biju Pattnaik in 1991 tried to develop a forest area called the Sunei‐Rupei Forest to resettle the people. But the project, opposed by the federal Forest and Environment Department, never took off. After another two failed attempts in 2004 and 2008, the foundation stone of the Satabhaya Resettlement and Rehabilitation Yojana at Bagapatia was laid in June 2011, with a goal of completing the resettlement a year later.
When that deadline passed, villagers began an indefinite fast, which prompted the government to act and quickly acquire 133 acres of land. However, private landholders maintained the rights to more than 48 of these acres, and those forced to part with their land refused to withdraw the compensation money paid into their bank accounts, and they have since reclaimed their lands, leaving the villagers in limbo.
In Pentha, menacing sea level rise and dreadful erosion
Those living in the village of Pentha, in Brahmansahi have suffered a similar fate. In 2014, Cyclone Hudhud lashed at their village. With huge waves covering the entire beach and the road washed-away, sand bags offered scant resistance. The villagers had no choice but to leave.
Such crises are not new for Pentha villagers. Advancing seas have consumed more than 50 acres of land over the past decade. The rising sea has also led to increased salinity of soil and drinking water sources. Rice saplings do not survive in saline water, and villagers now struggle with crops infested with pests.
Meanwhile, the sea continues to advance. Villagers recall that the sea in the early 60s was about 1.2 miles from the village. Now, only 160 feet separate the sea and the village, and waves now lap the boundary wall of the Baruneshwar Shiva Temple at the outskirts of the village.
During the super cyclone of 1999, 36-foot waves totally washed away the remnants of a mangrove forest that had existed along the coast. Villagers had to learn to adapt to the changing conditions, and the government, in light of a huge sea surge, began responding to the threats. Those efforts were of little avail, however, as the stacked sand bags and boulders could not keep the sea away and waves tore through them, villagers recall, as if they were plastic toys.
Almost a decade later, the state government announced a Geo-Synthetic Tube Wall project for Pentha. At an estimated cost of about $6.1 million, the project, a multi‐layered wall with geo‐tubes packed with sand, is intended to protect 56 coastal villages.
The villagers, however, are unconvinced. What if the currents change, as they are bound to, and another area becomes vulnerable? The sea is now constantly pounding the embankment. Villagers point at boulders jutting out from the sea and lying scattered all over the beach indicating the immense power of the sea.
The huge cost of the wall is another concern. Could the amount have been well spent by assiduous mangrove plantation in the area? Villagers mention how the nearby village of Praharajpur’s mangrove planting initiative spared the community a pounding of Cyclone Phailin in 2013. Their concerns that the advancing sea could render all efforts futile leave them painfully aware that they soon may have to relocate further inland.
They worry too that events now in Satabhaya and Pentha in coming years may spread to the entire coast of Odisha. Currently, 21 villages within 15 kilometers of the sea are considered vulnerable to coastal erosion, sea level rise, and other consequences of climate change. Kamal Mishra, PhD, of OSDMA points to current predictions that future tidal surges could threaten regions up to 62 miles inland from the coast, given the flat topography of the land.
In that case, residents across the entire coastal region and up to 60 miles from the inland may soon feel the pains and uncertainties now plaguing the populations of Satabhaya and Pentha.
Ritwajit is an international research consultant on climate change, urbanization and sustainability issues in Asia, Africa, and Europe. He adapted this article from reports he was involved with while working with the Regional Centre for Development Cooperation in Bhubaneswar as a program manager dealing with adaptation on the western coast of Odisha.