Small boat fishermen in Kerala are impacted by the whims of climate change, suffering from diminished catch and vessels that are ruined by turbulent waters
A sombre reminder of how climate change is stealing away people's livelihoods in coastal Kerala can be seen in this image of fishermen returning to shore with their catch in stark contrast to a graveyard of storm-devastated boats in south Chellanam.
A 2021 study published in the journal Climate Dynamics found that the frequency of cyclonic storms in the Arabian Sea increased by 52% between 2001 and 2019.
While the length of cyclonic storms increased by 80%, the number of very severe cyclonic storms increased almost three times between 1982 and 2000.
Due to the lack of options if their boats are wrecked by choppy waters or storms, coastal communities in Kerala that depend on fishing for their livelihoods are facing an unparalleled existential threat. In 2019, V. S. Podiyal, 56, of south Chellanam, went out to fish, but his boat sank because of choppy waters.
“When high waves started hitting, my boat flipped. There were 18 of us and we were rescued after four hours, but my boat was damaged beyond repair,” he said.
Rosemary, Podiyal's boat, is now surrounded by other wrecked boats in the "boat graveyard," with weeds poking through its rotting wood.
“There is no way to repair it and no scheme from the government to help us. If the equipment is lost, the government has no compensation scheme. Several fishermen are facing this problem," he said.
The man next to him, P. V. Wilson, is engaged in a different conflict. He, too, lost his boat to the water in 2021, and was compelled to stop fishing since he could not afford to buy a new one.
As Wilson looked at other boats returning to the shore with their catch, he said, "At times, I wonder how different my life would have been if I was still fishing."
"I had plans to send my children for higher education but after my boat capsized we had no savings,” a dejected Wilson added.
He continued, "My two daughters wanted to be teachers, but they had to forgo their education because I had no savings." Many small boat fishermen are unsure about how to continue using their limited resources in the face of uncertainty as the sea becomes unpredictable due to climate change.
“Earlier, the sea was not this rough, we knew the sea, we knew the waves but now the sea feels like a stranger, an unknown, unpredictable entity,” he said.
600 families make up Father John Kalathi's parish in south Chellanam, and he claims that fishing provides a living for 99 percent of them.
“But the situation is terrible for them because of climate change, weather, change in the sea and water. The fish catch is reducing, but the expense is very high for them to carry on fishing," he said.
"This community loves the sea, however, the sea does not love them back often," he added.
In addition, Kalathi claimed that loan shark debt traps are making matters worse for the fishermen. According to Kalathi, the majority of fishermen who lose their boats due to choppy waters are forced to take out high-interest loans from loan sharks to cover their needs, which puts them in a precarious situation. One of them is Podiyal, who obtained a Rs. 25,000 loan with a 10% monthly interest rate.
"Now that amount has risen to Rs 40,000 and I have no means to pay the loan back. I fear that the loan sharks would start threatening me soon," he said.
In an effort to lessen damage from extreme weather, the government, for its part, opened a separate cyclone warning centre in Kerala in 2018. Serving not only Kerala but also adjoining Karnataka and the Indian Ocean island of Lakshadweep is the India Meteorological Department (IMD) centre. There are currently seven weather warning centres around the nation. However, small boats are frequently badly destroyed by unpredictable heavy seas, thunderstorms, and lightning, in addition to extreme weather occurrences. IMD is attempting to broaden its early warning system to include smaller-scale meteorological occurrences that frequently affect small-boat fishers like Wilson and Podiyal, according to a senior IMD official.