Meet the Keralan single-handedly salvaging India’s sinking shores.
Sea level rise and severe tidal floods are forcing residents of India’s Vypin Island to relocate to higher ground.
“The floods are occurring more frequently and lasting longer,” says T P Murukesan, who lives on the low-lying island of India’s western coast.
The last flood was chest-height for his young grandson. “Every flood brings waters this high, we just deal with it.”
In his raised home, white paint peels off the damp walls. But the retired fisherman has almost single handedly been buffering the impacts of the rising waters in his community.
Known locally as ‘Mangrove Man’, Murukesan has turned to planting the trees along the receding shores of Vypin in the Kochi region of Kerala state.
Mangroves are salvaging homes in Kerala
Murukesan says he has planted over 100,000 mangroves. He plants saplings on alternate days and does most of the work himself.
His dedication to the cause has won him praise, awards and the audience of senior politicians but not incentives beyond the immediate benefits to his home.
The mangroves he planted in and around the area in 2014 have grown into a dense thicket and are helping reduce the intensity of tidal flooding, he says.
Some help comes in the form of saplings from the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, a non-government organisation based in Chennai, India.
Despite the thousands of new mangrove trees, other factors like climate change mean tidal floods have become more frequent and severe in Kerala. Sometimes this has kept children from going to school and people from getting to work.
How do mangroves protect against rising sea levels?
Mangroves can provide natural coastal defences against sea level rise, tides and storm surges.
Thriving in saline waters, they help stabilise soil and protect beaches from erosion through their intertwined roots that clamp the ground together.
But along India’s coastline, as in other places around the world, these vital ecosystems are disappearing.
Murukesan grew up surrounded by abundant mangroves that separated islands from the sea.
“They protected our houses against floods, sea erosion and storms, used to be an inseparable part of our life, our ecosystem,” he says.
According to the World Meteorological Organization, global mean sea level rose by 4.5 millimetres per year between 2013 and 2022. It’s a major threat for countries like India, China, the Netherlands and Bangladesh, which comprise large coastal populations.
NASA projections show that Kochi might experience a sea level rise of 0.22 metres by 2050, and over half a metre by 2100 in a middle-of-the-road climate warming scenario.
India’s mangroves are disappearing
Mangrove cover in Kerala state has reduced from 700 square kilometres to just 24 square kilometres since 1975, according to the Kerala Forest department.
Ernakulam district, which includes Kochi, has lost nearly 42 per cent of its mangrove ecosystems, according to a study released last year by the Indian Space Research Organization and the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies. This includes major decreases in the southern Puthuvypeen area in Vypin.
“The construction of coastal roads and highways has severely damaged mangrove ecosystems in [Kerala],” says K K Ramachandran, former member secretary of the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority, a government body mandated to protect the coastal environment.
In Vypin “coastal flooding is a common occurrence now,” says Abhilash S, director of the Advanced Centre for Atmospheric Radar Research at the Cochin University of Science and Technology. “The sea level has risen and has damaged freshwater supplies. Sea erosion and spring tides have worsened,” he explains.
What help is there for Keralans threatened by sea level rise?
Fishing families living within 50 metres of the shore get a financial assistance of 10 lakh rupees (€11,000) through a rehabilitation scheme run by the Kerala government. Only few of those not covered under it have means to relocate to safer places.
Some fishing families shift to government shelters in the monsoon season and return after it ends. A few have built stilt houses that stand on columns to fight tidal floods.
Murukesan knows the sea is rising, but it’s the backwaters that make him more anxious. In the state of Kerala, these networks of canals, lagoons and lakes parallel to coastal areas are unique ecosystems that help provide a buffer to rising sea levels.
But these backwaters have become shallow due to the silt deposited by heavy floods. During heavy rain, the water inundates the island.
“We are caught between the sea and the backwaters. They are likely to swallow the island in some years.
"Many families have left… but I am not going anywhere," he says. “I was born here, and I will die here.”