Scenic Munroe Thuruth turns a 'sinking island' 

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Munroe Island | Photo: Mathrubhumi

Kollam: Tucked away from the chaos of this nearby commercial town, there is an inland island where wooden country boats can be seen carrying tourists every now and then through tranquil canals, flanked by lush mangrove patches and shady coconut lagoons.

Visitors can be seen leisurely sitting on the boats and clicking breathtaking visuals of the greenish waterways, flocks of migratory birds and moss-infested low bridges there.

However, it may be hard for any outsider to believe that several hundreds of natives have left the scenic Munroe Thuruth, a cluster of islets located at the confluence of Ashtamudi Lake and Kallada River here, in recent years due to hazardous living conditions caused by unusual high tides post Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

According to unofficial figures, the population of the island, named after erstwhile British resident Colonel Munroe, has dwindled to around 8,000 from 12,000-13,000 in recent years.

Hundreds of families are still facing the threat of displacement in this tourist destination due to high tides and corresponding seepage of saline water into house premises, waterlogging and connectivity issues.

Abandoned houses filled with dirt and stench, partially submerged pathways, buildings with moistened walls and crevices on structures and people doing their daily chores in ankle-high water were the common scenes in the most affected areas in this island.

An aeriel view of Munroe Island | Photo: Mathrubhumi

"Water is like an unwelcome guest in our homes," Susheela, a woman native, said with a grim smile.

Saline water, seeping into houses at regular intervals due to high tides, has been destroying the concrete structure of the houses and turning its yards into pools of brown filth, she said.

"Nowadays, water comes almost every day and leaves after some hours and comes again. It is all water around us now. Our little children are going to school wading through the filthy water," Susheela told PTI.

Though the island was once known for its coconut lagoons, high salinity in water and waterlogging have taken a dangerous toll on the coconut trees, decaying its roots and turning them into just lifeless stems, she said.

The region had been witnessing high tides in certain months for decades and that was normal, but the issue became so severe after the tsunami in 2004, the woman, a resident of Kidapram south ward, recalled.

A sought-after cruise tourism destination, comprising eight tiny islets in an area of 13.4 sq km, Munroe Island's low-lying areas have been facing a serious threat of being submerged during high tides for quite some years, according to native people.

Houses are inundated and land is largely reclaimed by water in many islets, causing the gradual "sinking" of buildings, other constructions and flora, they said.

Though several studies have been carried out in these years seeking to find out the exact reasons for the issues in Munroe Thuruth, experts are divided in their opinion.

Some attribute the unusual high tides to global warming and climate change, some others see this as a result of post-tsunami tectonic shift.

Those who see the construction of Kallada dam over three decades ago and vibration caused by trains passing through the island as reasons for the phenomenon are also not less.

Jayachandran, another resident, was heaving a sigh of relief that the intensity of tides was lower on the day. "It was low today...but it was very high two days ago. High tides are generally high in the months of November, December and January," he told PTI.

The total population of Munroe Thuruth has shrunk to just around 8,000 in recent years as several people have left due to the adverse environmental and living conditions, Jayachandran, also a block panchayat member, said.

Around 2,000 families continue to live in this cluster of islands fighting all these adversities, he added.

There have been incidents of people dying as they could not be taken to hospital on time due to the lack of transportation facilities, he said, adding that country boats are still the only mode of transport in many wards to ferry patients to hospitals and children to schools.

Binu Karunakaran, the former panchayat president of Munroe Thuruth, said the island witnessed the gravest situation in the last two years as the high tide, "veliyettam" in local parlance, lasted for seven continuous months.

"Several wards of the island panchayat have been facing the exit of local residents in a larger way and the situation is very severe in at least three wards like Pattam Thuruth, Kidapram North and Kidapram South," he told PTI.

The island was formed through the deposition of "ekkal" (sediment) from Kallada River and constant inundation and waterlogging might have made the clay softer, causing it to lose the bearing capacity which may be the reason for the submerging of building foundations and flora, the resident said.

Besides the land and houses, the livelihood options like farming are also slowly disappearing in the island.

"Coconut was the main crop in the region. Inter-crops were also there. But, now coconut farming is almost over. I myself planted over 1,500 plantains and farmed chembu (Taro), chena (Yam) and so on before but nothing is left now," Karunakaran added.

Meanwhile, eminent climate expert Chandra Bhushan opined sea level rise due to global warming could be a reason for the unusual high tide and the consequent submergence of land in the Kerala island.

The sea level increase in the Indian Ocean is higher than the global average and in some coastal areas the rise is as much as 2.5 mm per year, he said.

"Sea level rise can certainly be attributed to the increase in high tides. The sea level in the Indian Ocean is rising...the rise in the Indian Ocean is one of the highest in the world. So, naturally, when the water level is high, the tide level is also higher," he told PTI.

He felt the changes in the sea bed could also be a possible reason for the phenomenon.

"One of the things that the tsunami did was to erode the sea. In certain places, it eroded the sea bed and in certain places it deposited a lot of sediments. Changes in the profile of the sea bed can also lead to higher tides," Bhushan, CEO of New Delhi-based iFOREST, added.

Kerala Finance Minister K N Balagopal, who made several interventions in the past to support the suffering islanders, said it was difficult to find solutions for the issues of Munroe Thuruth alone as it was part of the world-wide phenomenon of global warming and climate change.

Before the construction of Kallada Dam, sediments used to get deposited in huge quantities in the island during floods but it has decreased in recent years, he said.

"So, in such places, what we can do is to adapt to the changing circumstances and find sustainable solutions to overcome the issues being faced. We can also support the natives to revive their livelihood means with available potential resources," he told PTI.

As it attracts a large number of tourists, sustainable and region-friendly tourism means can be developed to get a steady income for the islanders, he said.

Possibilities of "amphibian houses" and "light weight" constructions, using thin building articles, can also be explored as a solution for the submerging phenomenon as traditional houses are largely seen going underwater in the recent past, he added.

Located some 25 km away from Kollam town, Munroe Island is named after British administrative head of erstwhile Travancore kingdom, Colonel John Munroe.


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