On the coast of eastern India’s Odisha is Satabhaya village, or what remains of it. Once a thriving cluster of seven hamlets with more than 300 square kilometres of land, Satabhaya now comprises two hamlets and 150 square kilometres of land. The rest lies submerged under the Bay of Bengal and the village is vulnerable to complete immersion.
The villagers of Satabhaya are among the first victims of anthropogenic coastal erosion in India and their grim suffering is unparalleled. Farmers and fishermen with paltry means, the villagers find their homeland unsafe to inhabit. The encroaching sea has gobbled their agricultural lands and increased the soil content in the remaining land, making it unsuitable for their livelihood. Houses lie exposed to coastal storms and storm surges. Villagers have been forced to shift homes, sometimes nine times, to escape sea waters. The intruding sea has also contaminated groundwater, endangered water security and put villagers at greater risk of disease. No less devastating is the loss of a 125-year-old high school, temples, a palace and ancestral lands that have been passed down for generations, along with invaluable cultural ties attached therein.
Coastal erosion and constant sea ingression have thus imperilled the lives, livelihoods, health and identities of the villagers of Satabhaya. Unfortunately, other coastal communities in Odisha could very likely face the same perils. Of Odisha’s 436 kilometre-long coastline, 200 kilometres is prone to coastal erosion. Unchecked, it will put numerous impoverished local communities in dire risk. These communities will be forced to migrate inland to cope with the crisis.
Neither domestic nor international policies provide for the resettlement and rehabilitation of such persons internally displaced by climate change. The villagers of Satabhaya were only able to secure a government resettlement program after sustained demands and media scrutiny. Government relocation plans were announced in the 1990s but no progress was made for 2 decades. In 2011, a resettlement colony was announced to be set up in Bagapatia.
However, Bagapatia falls within the limits of Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary, a notified protected area with restrictions on human activity. Any proposed human activity involving the use or diversion of any part of the sanctuary mandatorily requires clearance from the National Board of Wildlife. The resettlement colony received clearance in late 2017 and Bagapatia was excluded from the classification of ringed out villages of the sanctuary. However, as agriculturalists and fishermen, the villagers of Satabhaya may not be allowed to freely pursue their means to livelihood in such close proximity to the sanctuary. Notwithstanding, the villagers’ livelihood activities will likely adversely affect conservation efforts in the sanctuary.
Coastal erosion is considered an inevitable natural phenomenon influenced by waves, currents, tides and wind. However, anthropogenic factors can exacerbate coastal erosion, such that it exceeds the natural shift of the shoreline. The anthropogenic activities that exacerbate coastal erosion include reckless industrialisation, construction of artificial structures, mining and destruction of natural protective barriers such as mangroves, sea grass beds and coral reefs. The rapid coastal erosion affecting Satabhaya is largely attributed to industrialisation along the coastline and the consequent depletion of mangroves.
The government has responded to the anthropogenic coastal erosion in Satabhaya and other high-risk areas by constructing a ₹335 crore, 505 metre-long geo-tube sea wall under the World Bank-supported Integrated Coastal Zone Management program. The geo-tube sea wall, a marvel of soft engineering, is expected to protect the coast from strong sea waves. However, the sea wall has caused various environmental issues involving forest clearances, compliance with coastal regulatory zone regulations and the transportation of materials. The sea wall will also disturb the natural habitat and nesting areas of the endangered Olive Ridley Turtles that breed along the coast of Odisha. Furthermore, the effectiveness of the sea wall is limited and the erection of the sea wall is a reactionary measure that fails to address the primary cause of coastal erosion.
Two key solutions must be adopted to address the coastal erosion plaguing the villagers of Satabhaya and similarly affected communities in Odisha.
First, the Coastal Regulation Zone Rules must be implemented bona fide to fulfill their intended purpose of protecting coastlines, regulating development activities along the coast and ensuring livelihood security to local communities. Irresponsible industrialisation is the primary cause of anthropogenic coastal erosion in Odisha. In 1991, the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification was issued to check and regulate rapid industrialisation. However, the planning and implementation of CRZ Rules have been hindered by conflicting development aspirations, lack of local political will, poor transparency and weak enforcement. Fortunately, these are issues that can be addressed in a democracy through mobilisation, demands for adequate political representation, community participation in decision-making processes, administrative reforms and legislative interventions.
Second, a mangrove regeneration program must be undertaken with the aim of sustainable co-management of mangroves with local communities. Not only do mangroves protect coastlines from erosion and sea ingress but they also sequester carbon. Mangroves act as a barrier from storm surges and extreme weather events such as cyclones. The 1999 Odisha Super Cyclone wrecked less damage in Kendrapara district due to the extensive mangrove coverage protecting the coastline. Mangroves raise the soil platform and support a highly productive ecosystem of fish, prawns, crabs, tanning materials, medicinal plants and other commercial plant products that provide food security and income generation capacity to local communities. Mangrove regeneration programs have also been successful in reducing the salinity of groundwater. Thus mangrove regeneration is key to combating coastal erosion and its effects. The Integrated Coastal Zone Management program includes mangrove regeneration efforts but it needs to be accorded the foremost financial and administrative priority.
The issue of coastal erosion must be accorded the highest political will and be addressed at the earliest. The villagers of Satabhaya have little time to save themselves and their heritage from the relentlessly encroaching sea.