December 2018
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Mundrothuruthu: A Disappearing Fertile Island
(Author: Reji Joseph)

Mundrothuruthu is an island Village in Chittumala Taluk in Kollam District of Kerala State, India. It is today a village now on the verge of sinking, getting swallowed by water and disappearing from the face of the earth.

Mundrothuruthu, which is surrounded by the Ashtamudi lake, Kallada river and Puthiyar, has an overall area of 13.4 sq. kilometers and is inhabited by a population of 13,500 people settled in some 2314 houses situated here.

These dwellers are today struggling for their existence. There are eight islands here that have been formed amidst the waters through the gradual sedimentation of silt and fertile soil deposited there by the flooding waters from Kallada river.

The islets are however gradually disappearing from the map due to the influx of furious tidal waves attacking and eroding them.

Karthiayani, an aged widow residing in Pattamthuruthu of Mundrothuruthu narrated her pathetic grievances with tears in her eyes as under ' The floor and kitchen of my house are submerged in water. The walls have started crumbling by reacting with saline water around it. I am living here with my children immersed in kneedeep water. Ten coconut trees that I had in my small compound have been uprooted by the effect of the flooding waters. At this rate, not even a burial ground would be left available to us by the time we die. My children and I are now on the verge of getting swallowed into the river waters'

As a result of the attack of the furious tidal waves, similar to the deadly Tsunami waves that attacked the regions barely ten tears back, Kidapram North and South, Pattamthuruthu East and West and Nenmani South islets are also eroding and sinking, bit by bit.

It is after the December 2004 Tsunami tragedy that Mundrothuruthu region began to face the unprecedented attack of strong tidal waves, which instigated this natural destruction and the submerging of lands in the area. The lifelong pitiful lamentations of the residents in the islets of Mundrothuruthu, whose houses and agricultural lands have perished by submersion in saline water and marsh can be heard in high pitches just about anywhere here.

Mundrothuruthu is not confined as a small village, but is rather a village Panchayat consisting of 13 wards. Following the extermination of their longcherished abodes and land which they inherited from birth by the unprecedented attack of tidal waves, over 430 families have already abandoned their homes and fled to the opposite shore. As the area of the lake expanded, the the land portion began to shrink. However, a few residents still remain in their abodes in spite of the dangers of the floods for sentimental reasons.

They have to keep their heads up like snakehoods or tragedy reminding memory pillars. They enter the rooms of their houses stooping down before damaged doors and by crawling or swimming. There will be saline water below their chests. By the increased influence of saline water, the ground levels of roads have also gone down two or three feet below the former ground level.

To enter the house of Kannittayil Narayani, situated in Kidapra ward, you have to wade through hipdeep waters. This house was once an old bungalow. Around it, there are three acres of land fully planted with coconut trees. The present water level in the house reaches up to half the height of its walls. When the ancient house and coconut gardens around it got submerged in water, Narayani had no other option but to shift to the house of her daughter, Ramabhai, living at Thazhava, near Karunagappally, where she died soon after from the aftershock of having had to forcibly leave her home.

Before the construction of the Thenmala Dam in 1975, the silt and sand converged by the flooding waters of the Kallada river was spread all around the region, raising the ground level by two feet annually. After the construction of the dam, the quantum of silt and fertile soil getting deposited in the region has been only nominal./ Resultantly, over a period of 15 years, the overall ground level of the region has gradually gone down by over one meter. Today, out of 13 wards in Mundrothuruthu, ten wards are already partly submerged in water.

Before the Tsunami calamity, the threat of tidal waves was mild and also confined to about two months a year. However, after the furious attack of tidal waves, the water containing capacity of the Ashtamudi lake somehow reduced. The geologists are of the opinion that the ferocity of the tidal waves gathered new strength consequent to the diversion of water from Ashtamudi lake to the Kallada river. As a result of the force of the receding Tsunami waters, the silt and sand present in the shore lands got washed away into the deep sea in large measure. When the depth of the shore waters increased, the force of tidal waves from the deep sea also aggravated.

By the attack of each tidal wave, the kitchens, bedroom and toilets of houses get immersed in water. Snakes, centipedes, scorpions etc. reach the houses along with flooding waters and move about all over it. Beds are kept raised in the bedroom by placing them over bricks and stones piled to the required level. You can hear the murmuring sound of accumulated sand flowing out in to the Kallada river and Ashtamudi lake. Such sounds resemble the sound coming from running trains.

The dusk of each day, brings moments of deep anxiety to the residents in these islets. Their travel routes will often be immersed in water. They would be able to reach their residential premises only when darkness sets in. The tidal waves that rise high at midnight will immerse their beds and utensils of the homes in water. Vessels and school books will float about. The ferocity of the tidal waves also affects the strength of the walls of their houses, making them weak.

Virtually, every moment at night is spent in terror and woe. This stalemate will continue till about 7 a.m. the next morning. Even after water has receded from the houses, resultant problems persist. The silt from the saline water coagulates in the kitchen and also makes vessels dirty.
Moreover, as mentioned, snakes, centipedes and such other creatures come with the floods and crawl about in the rooms, posing even further danger.

To kindle fire in the wet traditional cooking stoves of the kitchen is another major headache. The babies living in the house fall prey to this ordeal as they are destined to sleep in wet cradles. Savithri, living in Peringanam islet, described her woes in this manner: 'Bits of paper, which too may be damp, have to be spread over wet firewood to have fire catch upon them.

There are none to see our woes for sending our children to school in time, after giving them black tea and boiled rice prepared in gretahurry';. These poor people are shedding tears, mournfully looking upon their lands getting submerged day by day. In Jayanthi colony, out of 18 houses that existed there, only 10 houses remain occupied. Those whremain here have no other alternative but to stick on, as they have no means whatsoever to buy a piece of land or house elsewhere. This is the sad plight and fate of many of those who continue living in these tearshedding islets of southern Kerala.

Along with Mundrothuruthu, the railway platform here has also started submerging due to the effect of tidal waters. The level of the platform is now two feet below the step of the coaches. Besides the hazardous life being endured in kneedeep water, the death of someone turns out to be a major problem and headache to the people of the region, despite their sorrow. When someone dies, there is no suitable cremation ground for them. Moreover, this ritual cannot be carried out in the water logged residential premises.

The death of Anirudhan (54), son of Pooppaniyil Kesavan turned out to be a tragedy in the above circumstances a few months ago. Anirudhan, who was suffering from bone cancer, was, along with his wife and two children, forced to shift to a rented house when his own home got submerged in water. Within a short period, that rented house also got submerged in saline water. As he then had ro go for further treatment, and he proceeded to Mundrothuruthu railway station, striding through silt and waterlogged roads and from there, boarded a train to Trivandrum for treatment at the Regional Cancer Center there. He died four months ago.

As he did not have even six feet of own land for his cremation, his body was conveyed to the house of one of his close relatives by country boat and the cremation was held there, upon a platform made on a heap of soil.

The very foundation of Mundrothuruthu island has been gradually built up from silt and soil brought over there by floods of the Kallada river. It took many centuries for this region to build up, out of fertile soil that accumulated there. Mangroves grew up in abundance from its seeds that scattered all over the region. Their strong deep roots held the soil tightly and saved the land from erosion. In the midst of this strong fence of Mangroves, a wide area was formed, which was found highly fertile and very suitable for cultivation.

This condition attracted farmers who settled here in large numbers. They cultivated rice paddy varieties of Mundakan and Punnellu in the marshy areas here, which turned out to be a great success. The coconut tree saplings planted in these islets also grew up rapidly, giving high yield. This also turned out to be a big source of income for thousands of women living there, who were engaged in the processing of coir thread, made out of soaked coconut husks.

Panchayat President Thankamani Sreedharan disclosed sadly that at present there were no coir making units at all left in Mundrothuruthu today. By the prolonged stagnation of saline water at the roots of coconut trees, coconut production has come to a standstill.

The paddy fields which yielded tons of paddy are now fully covered with floating weeds. It is not possible for paddy or even grass to grow in this soil polluted by saline water. No paddy cultivation can be seen anywhere in this land either. There were even several shrimp rearing fields in this region several decades back which have all become redundant as a result of this saline water accumulation and flooding of land.

Prasannakumar of Puppani informed that his fish farm, which consisted of four acres and from which lobsters and carp fish was entirely washed away. Savithri, hailing from Velikkuzhiyil of Pattamthuruthu narrated her woes as under. "Great hardships continue even after the receding of the tidal havoc. The cooking pots and even the fireplaces in the kitchen are seen covered with silt.

Even if the fridge or television is kept elevated, these too equally face the risk of tidal waves. The toilets built close to the houses are attacked by flooding waters and resultantly human excretion comes out of them, floating about here and there and creating health hazards such as fever and dysentery, which are now common in the area. Wells that once supplied drinking water to us are also now submerged in water."
By the inflow of water all over this island region, roads and canals cannot be distinguished easily, resulting in accidents. A misplaced step may lead one in to a water logged patch or even a deep pit. The native people reach their homes either by trampling over saline water or by swimming.

Not only outside yards are covered by water, but also the kitchens and bedrooms. Further to the extermination of wells by the influx of saline water, there is no drinking water available in any house in this region. The fresh water taps are all under water. Continuously facing environmental setbacks, the ground level of these islets has sunk by more than one meter. In the absence of the even availability of cremation space, the age old settlers who have lived here over several generations, are being compelled to desert the area, their long cherished homes.

The basic foundations of houses here are shaking. Since the rooms of most houses now remain below water level, there is also the risk of houses collapsing at any moment. Most of the dwellers are ready to sell their house plots and move elsewhere, but nobody comes forward to buy them as the region is on the verge of getting sunk in to the river by the continual eroding attack of its tidal waves.

The schoolgoing children of Mundrothuruthu reach their schools by swimming. To prevent school bags from getting wet, they wrap these tightly in a plastic cover, along with their lunch packs and carry these on their heads in transit. One extra set of school uniforms is also provided to students so as to change in to dry clothes before entering the classrooms. The only school providing plus two education in Mundrothuruthu is a government higher secondary school situated at Perungalam.

The students and teachers of this school reach the school, wading through water and commuting by country boats. They remove their footwear while wading through water and carry their books and other required materials wrapped up in plastic covers and held upon their heads, while crossing waterlogged areas.

The students reach school in salted clothing. In the evening, soon after classes disperse, the next attack of tidal waves is imminent. If they are unable to return to their houses in due time, they will be stranded on the roads or in flooding waters. In this region when each tidal wave strikes, health hazards and environmental problems increase. The number of cancer patients in this small region exceeds 200. The number of patients with breathing troubles is much higher.

The sole income of the poor people in the region is that derived under the employment guarantee scheme and they are all manual workers. To obtain quality treatment for their diseases, they have to proceed to either the Thiruvanthapuram Regional Cancer Center or Medical College Hospital. Due to frequent floods, bus services to the region have also stopped, putting the inhabitants into even more misery and difficulty.

Nakulan who lives in a small hut put up in the area was once a silt gathering worker in the Punnathura ferry. Now he gets no such works at all to derive any income. His wife,Sarada, has for long been bedridden. Since he has no means to send her to a hospital for treatment, she is confined at home.

Naqkulan has two goats with four fowls, which are accommodated within his living room due to the surrounding water threat. How he would be able to pull on his life is the perplexing question that faces this poor labourer. In this region, decades back, jack fruit trees, mango tress and plantains used to flourish, giving profuse yield. Today, in their place, there are only a few small heaps of soil.

Mundrothuruthu village region is included in Chittumala block of Kollam District. This village panchayat acquired the name Mundrothuruthu from the name of the British resident John Mundro who was the Diwan of Travancore State, after the regime of Ummnithanka. Mundrothuruthu which is 25 kilometers to the North of Kollam town, is now a region inciting human sympathy for a poor, helpless, voiceless and negleted set of people still residing there.

To conduct a scientific study report, about the unusual high tide phenomena in Mundrothuruthu, an expert team of scientists was appointed. The members of this panel consisted of John Mathai (National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS) ), Dr V.P. Dinesan ( Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment (KSCSTE) , Dr, Sekhar Kuriakose and Dr D Harikrishnan (State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA).

In the report submitted by this team after several field visits and a detailed study of tidal waves, they found that this problem originated from the high intensity high tide connected with spring tide. Mundrothuruthu came into being by the deposit of fertile soil brought over the Kallada river during flood seasons. They revealed that at the top of the delta, there is clay up to a height of two meters. Below it there is sandy soil which is two to six meters thick.

Under this layer there is mixed soil comprising sand and clay up to a depth of 14 meters. Finally below it there is sand only. When spring tide coincides with highswell waves, it results in coastal erosion and flooding. It is estimated that the tidal surge last month was 2.5 to 3 meters high.

Since most of the houses in this region were constructed unscientifically and without proper deep concrete piling, the basements of some of the houses produced cracks in the building. The closure of their feeding small canals, prevented the free flow of saline water that had invaded the region through tidal waves. Thus the discharge of saline water back to the sea was obstructed.

The overall impact of this flooding and erosion phenomena continues to add misery and fear to the inhabitants of the area, who are virtually living under a sword, with their lives and land greatly endangered.

Unless possible remedial measures are initiated fast, this ecologically fragile landform that Mundrothuruthu island is, will soon be gobbled down up by the tidal waves and disappear from the face of the earth.

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