The state of Kerala is situated along the south-west coast of India. It stretches along the Arabian Sea and is separated from the rest of the sub-continent by the steep Western Ghats. Kerala has a 580-kilometre-long coastal line and these coasts cover around 10-15% of its total area. Almost 222 fishing villages depend on this marine coast in terms of livelihood. Oceans have had an influence on the history of the state and people’s way of life in Kerala since ancient times.
Trade, through sea, was seen even in earlier centuries of the first millennium BC. Kerala has had frequent maritime interactions with the regions around Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Agriculture is considered the main source of livelihood in the state. However, marine fisheries and trade has also been a major sector of livelihood and economy since ancient times. In short, one may say that the economy of Kerala is based primarily on agriculture and marine products. Kerala has a unique development track and been ranked first in the UNDP’s ranking of states, the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index for India’s States, UNDP, 2019. Fisheries have a major role in the unparalleled development trajectory of Kerala.
The UNDP Human Development Report, 2007-08, shows that developing nations near the equator are much more vulnerable to a rise in the sea level. This means that coastal areas in India are more vulnerable to a sea-level rise. The role of climate change is more clear in this scenario and if it is left unchecked, it will severely affect those who are living near the sea and depending on the sea.
Climate change in Kerala has caused a variety of impacts on agriculture, human health, biodiversity, coastal areas and water crisis, and vary from region to region. Kerala’s ecosystem is a closed and fragile one. The emission rate of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the state is comparatively low. However, the shifting pattern of monsoon over the last decade is enough to prove the role of climate change in Kerala. The Arabian Sea on the western border of Kerala is getting severely affected by climate change and global warming. From 1904 to 1994, an increase in temperature by 0.5°C was observed on the surface of the Arabian Sea. Since 1995, the increase has been unprecedented.
There is ample evidence to show that the increase in surface-level temperature of the Arabian sea is due to the influence of carbon-related global warming and climatic change. A study conducted by ITM (Institute of Tropical Meteorology), Pune, on the increase in temperature between 1901 and 2007 in the north of Kerala (Calicut region) and the south of Kerala (Thiruvananthapuram region) asserts that there has been an increase in the annual average temperature of these regions in the last 100 years.
The average annual temperature in the north has increased by 1.02°C and in the south, it is 1°C. The increase in temperature during the last three decades is almost 0.4°C. Statistics by the Indian Meteorological Department indicates that there has been an increase in temperatures by 0.64°C over the last five decades across seven centres in Kerala. The increase in global temperature in the last five decades has been 0.7°C. This shows that the increase in the temperature level in Kerala has a similar pattern as that of the global increase in temperature.
In the case of rainfall pattern, there was a decline in rainfall from 1901 to 2007. The changes in rainfall along the western coast of Kerala has increased by 6-8% in the past five decades. The flood that occurred in 2018 in Kerala was an outcome of this increase in rainfall. By 2030, an increase of 8% can be expected in the months of June, July and August, and 19% the decrease in rainfall is expected in the months of November, December and January.
The change in physical ocean parameters, such as seawater temperature and current flows affect the number of marine fishes and the distribution of marine fish stocks. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that as sea temperature changes, the quantity of fish will change and the fish will move to different areas — some species would go extinct in particular areas, while some predators and prey in the food chain would move to different areas.
This would lead to a disruption in food chains. Wetlands and other low lying habitats where fish reproduce will be drowned by the rising sea and the inconstant weather may stop fishers from going to the sea altogether (Adger et al., 2003). The shifting pattern of EL Nino, due to climate change and the degradation of mangrove forest along the coastline, is a major threat to the marine environment of Kerala. The western side of the Arabian Sea is most vulnerable to cyclones. However, climate change, in the recent decades, has made the eastern part of Arabian sea vulnerable to cyclones as well.
The Ockhi cyclone, which happened in 2017 on the southern districts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, bears witness. Migration of fish species, the degradation of many marine ecosystems and the disappearance of the Ridley Turtle’s breeding sands were the aftermath of this cyclone. In Kerala, most of the fishing communities use the direction of wind, waves and the sight of flock birds for fishing. They observe nature and this traditional and local knowledge has given a strong foundation for the sustainability of their livelihoods. They are familiar with paru (rocky reefs) under the sea and the ecosystem present there. A change in climate can shift the pattern of wind and waves and the route of migratory birds. Nowadays, unpredicted climate can lead to the cyclones that gobble up coasts, houses and numerous species of fish, disrupting the existing ecosystems by newly migrated species.
These unpredictable events have made a severe impact on marine ecosystems, nature and commercial fisheries. In Kerala, most of the artisanal fishers are extremely poor, and socially as well as politically marginalised communities. Their capacity to adapt is poor and the small-scale (often migrant) fishers are highly vulnerable to climate impacts. This leads to a situation where fisher communities are suffering in terms of their income and social standards.
Due to climate change, vulnerability has emerged in the community. Vulnerability, as defined by IPCC, is a condition where the internal ability to cope, recover and adapt to climate stress lacks. According to the IPCC 2001, “vulnerability is the extent to which climate change may damage or harm a system it depends not only a system’s sensitivity but also its ability to adapt to new climatic conditions. The major impacts of climate change in marine fisheries are the changes in habitat brought about by the rise in sea-level, the frequency of extreme events such as cyclones, erratic catch and erratic revenue.”
Marine livelihoods are always the most affected by climate change. The strategies used to ‘combat’ climate change are technology gimmicks — they’re costly and do not take into account the vulnerabilities of the fishing community in Kerala. These methods create uncertainties in the ecology as well as livelihoods, and cast doubts on oft-proven data. This doesn’t pave recovery channels for these fishing communities. This keeps them locked in their contexts of vulnerability. The long term impacts of climate change on marine livelihoods have not been realised yet, to the horrifying extents they can be. Improvement in the primary stakeholder’s awareness by involving them in disaster-preparedness, management and mitigation planning can resolve these problems to an extent.