South India's Drought Part 4: Water crisis in Tamil Nadu is a manifestation of climate change, say experts

Editor's note: Firstpost will cover various aspects of the near-calamitous situation in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. This is the fourth article from a nine-part series of ground reports on the ongoing water crisis in south India. In this piece, the author writes about the effects of global climate change and extreme weather events that Tamil Nadu has been facing.

Tamil Nadu is proud of its Marina Beach, the second longest beach in the world. The state is also unique in other ways – with a coastline covering 1,076 kilometres, it is one of the most important coastal regions in the country.

The state is touched by the influence of two seas. To its east lies the Bay of Bengal and to its south, the confluence of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. While the vast coast has been key to Tamil Nadu’s historical trade, it is now also making the state vulnerable to climate change.

What does the sea have to do with drought in the state? Everything, say experts. The drought being suffered by the state this year is largely a manifestation of climate change and the sea brings with it additional impact of climate change.

“Anything to do with the sea, the probability of Tamil Nadu being influenced by it is higher, simply because this is the only state in the country to have the influence of two seas,” said Jayshree Vencatesan, trustee, Care Earth Foundation.

 South Indias Drought Part 4: Water crisis in Tamil Nadu is a manifestation of climate change, say experts

Cooum river meets the sea at Marina in Chennai. Photo courtesy: Sandhya Ravishankar

And with the seas’ influence come a variety of problems. With global warming and the melting of glaciers, rise in sea level is evident. Climate change has meant that there is a sudden spurt in the number of severe cyclones that are hitting Tamil Nadu, like Vardah in December 2016. Change in sea temperatures immediately also affects fragile ecosystems – like the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay – rendering the state more vulnerable to the invasion of the sea.

The State Action Plan for Climate Change (SAPCC) report of 2015 has red-flagged many of these issues. Of particular interest is the study of the sudden increase in the intensity and frequency of cyclonic storms affecting the state.

“Situated along the eastern coast of India, Tamil Nadu has been hit by about 32 cyclonic storms between 1891 and 2006, of which 30 were severe cyclonic storms. The total number of cyclonic storms hitting the Tamil Nadu coast increased to 44 by 2011, a sharp increase by 37.5 percent between 2006 and 2011,” observes the report.

“When it comes to climate change in forest areas or hilly areas, the degree of certainty with which we can say what will happen is difficult,” explained Sudarshan Rodriguez of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “However in glacial areas like the Himalayas, the effects of global warming and climate change are more evident. If you look at places like Delhi or Gujarat, or forest or hilly areas (unless it is glacial), it is very difficult to say how climate change will impact. But as far as coasts are concerned, it is much clearer,” he said.

Kovalam beach near Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu. Photo courtesy: Sandhya Ravishankar

Kovalam beach near Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu. Photo courtesy: Sandhya Ravishankar

A 2012 study published in scientific journal Elsevier done by Anna University and the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation shows the sharp rise in sea levels in Cuddalore district, prone to flooding and cyclones, urging immediate intervention by the government. The study observes: “Agriculture, mangroves and aquaculture are the three major resources which are at high threat to SLR (Sea Level Rise). Out of 20 hamlets of social communities that depend on these resources, nearly, five fishing hamlets and six farming hamlets and one fishing and farming hamlet may be at high-risk to 0.5 m and 1 m SLR. The results of this study throw a light on urgency to respond to accelerating SLR.”

If sea levels rise, the northern part of the state is at greater risk due to its wide flat beaches. “The wider the beach, the wider the coastal regions and more the impact,” explained Vencatesan of Care Earth.

If sea temperatures rise as a result of climate change, the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar would be damaged, perhaps even irrevocably, say experts. “Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar areas consistently stay warm due to the Gulf influence. Any change in temperature will impact this area considerably. These are not areas that follow the normal temperature gradient,” said Vencatesan.

Rodriguez agrees. “In coastal areas like Tamil Nadu, you’re able to see a much clearer pattern – as temperature increases, we can see the coral reefs leaching in Great Barrier Reef and Gulf of Mannar, for instance.”

Rising sea levels are also eroding the coastline of the state at a rapid rate. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Isro and the Ministry of Water Resources, 281 kilometres of the Tamil Nadu and Puducherry coastline has already been eroded by the sea.

Lack of data is proving to be a big boon or a disadvantage, depending on which lens the state government is looking through. Lack of data on the effects of ports and industrial zones situated along the coast, the risks that the sea brings to these – risks apart from pollution, the erosion of the coast – no comprehensive study has been done by the state government to ascertain the extent of damage and take preventive measures for the future, say experts.

“Natural buffers along the coast are too few now. Wetlands, mangroves, mud flats, estuaries, creeks, traditional salt pans and traditional agriculture areas are all buffer areas – now none of these exist,” said Vencatesan. “Tamil Nadu experiences coastal influence even 10-13 kilometres inland. In this state, the coastal influence is much more than it is normally believed to be. Therefore the impact, whether it is positive or negative, will also be felt inland,” she warned.

But a headless state government, seeking to cling on to power with as little governance as possible, is not likely to read the writing on the wall, at least for the next four years. Without political will and vision, Tamil Nadu will be much damaged in various ways, unless immediate and long-term measures are implemented.

Part 1: Five states face severe water crisis made worse by the onset of summer
Part 2: Chennai slum dwellers forced to beg for water, authorities remain helpless
Part 3: Parched lands in Nagapattinam lead to distress migration
Part 5: As Karnataka reels under severe water crisis, residents brace unofficial rationing


Updated Date: May 02, 2017 14:22:15 IST