Fishermen Pushed Into Poverty By Warming Arabian Sea
Fishermen in KeralaPhoto credit: Rejimon Kuttappan

Fishermen Pushed Into Poverty By Warming Arabian Sea

The warming sea brings more severe cyclones, forcing fishermen out of their livelihood

Is the Arabian Sea heating up, pushing fishermen in Kerala into poverty and forcing them to take up gig economy jobs? Yes, say experts.

Cyclones are hitting the South Indian coast repeatedly, as a fallout of an increase in sea surface temperature due to various reasons. Fishermen, as a result, are either forced to stay in huts with their boats anchored on shore or become delivery boys of food apps for survival.

“At least four days every week, we are getting alerts to suspend fishing. We all survive with daily wages and daily catch. Most of the time, these alerts are inaccurate too,” T Peter, general secretary of National Fishworkers’ Forum, told The Lede.

“Eventually, many youngsters have become either delivery boys of food apps or salesmen and salesgirls at shopping malls,” Peter added.

The cyclonic activities in the Indian Ocean usually start in spring, months before the monsoon, and end in December.

However, this year, the number of cyclones were high, striking the South Indian coast repeatedly.

This year, Vayu, Hikka, Kyaar and Maha had hit or passed by the south Indian coast. Additionally, there were a few depressions too that had formed. During all these disturbances, fishermen were stopped from venturing into the sea.

The studies associated with temperature suggest that the Indian Ocean is warming, particularly the Arabian Sea, which is doing so at the fastest rate. And as the Arabian Sea is quickly responding to climate change signals, heating rapidly, it is driving more cyclones.

Weather expert Rajeevan Erikkulam pointed out that for the first time in the satellite era (since 1965) two cyclones were forming in the Arabian Sea around the same time, referring to Kyaar that passed the Oman coast during the last week of October and Maha which neared Oman and then changed its path to India.

“Global warming is heating up the Arabian Sea. So we are going to see more cyclones and super cyclones in the coming years,” he said adding that following Maha, we are going to see, Bulbul, Nakri and Halong.

History Of Cyclones

2019 experienced four very severe cyclonic storms (maximum sustained wind speed ≥ 64 knots), namely Vayu, Hikaa, Kyarr and Maha.

In recorded history, since 1891 onwards, the Arabian Sea has been highly active during 1902, 1948, 1975, 1982, 1998, 2004 and 2015. And during these years there was the development of five or more cyclonic disturbances (maximum sustained wind speed ≥ 17 knots) over the Arabian Sea.

The occurrence of five or more cyclonic disturbances has increased in recent years since 1975, as there have been six and two such years during 1975-2019 and 1891-1974 respectively.

And during the period of 1891-2019, the maximum number of five cyclonic storms formed in 1902 and out of these, four intensified into severe cyclonic storm and above intensity.

Between 1891 and 2018 the maximum number of six cyclonic disturbances had developed in 1998. And out of these, three turned into cyclonic storms (maximum sustained wind speed ≥ 34 knots).

2019 has been the first such year after 1902 that witnessed development of four severe cyclones (maximum sustained wind speed ≥ 48 knots). And 1902 had witnessed four severe cyclones followed by 2004 with three severe cyclones.

Cyclones And Poverty

“Global warming is heating up the entire globe. And as a result, the sea surface temperature is going up and the number of cyclones forming in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal is increasing. For scientists, it is just global warming. But for the fishermen, it is suspension of fishing activities, which pushes them into poverty,” Fr Eugene Pereira, a priest and activist among fishermen, told The Lede.

Ockhi passed just south of Puthalam, the southern tip of mainland India, on 30 November, 2017.

Though it turned to the northeast and headed towards the Lakshadweep Islands in the Arabian Sea, it caused havoc and destruction in the southernmost districts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, particularly the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu and the Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala.

Damage throughout Kerala was initially estimated at Rs 1843 crore and in Tamil Nadu, damage was estimated at more than Rs 1000 crore.

According to Fr Eugene, most often Kerala State Disaster Management Authority issues unscientific alerts.

“They failed in alerting the fishermen when Cyclone Ockhi struck the Kerala and Tamil Nadu coast in November 2017. Still, hundreds are missing. So to cover up that fault, they are overdoing things now,” Fr Eugene, who is also writing a book on Cyclone Ockhi, alleged adding that frequent alerts stopping fishermen from fishing have made their lives difficult.


However, Sekhar Lukose Kuriakose, member secretary at KSDMA (Kerala State Disaster Management Authority), said that they act only upon the directions of the Indian Meteorological Department’s notices.

“It is they who decide on whether a warning should be issued or not for fishermen depending on the cyclonic formation and its strength. When they issue the warning, we then issue only action points. We use the state government apparatus to make public announcements stopping fishermen going to sea when there is a cyclone,” Sekhar said alleging that during Ockhi the IMD failed to issue alerts on time.

In a report tabled in the parliament on 07 February this year, the Parliamentary Standing Committee had stated that it was difficult for IMD to predict Ockhi due to its rapid intensification.

The Committee also recommended that the IMD must acquire inputs on sea surface temperatures from thermal satellites and integrate them into the cyclone forecasting models to make the prediction of cyclones more accurately.

Keeping in mind the fact that that cyclones like Ockhi are likely to happen more frequently in the future due to the effects of global warming, the Committee had suggested that the Meteorological Department must learn from the best practices being followed globally to improve prediction of such phenomenon.

“If necessary, research should be undertaken to predict such cyclones in collaboration with international organisations,” the Committee had advised IMD observing that the advisory issued on 29 November 2017 did not clearly predict a cyclonic storm and, therefore, it was not taken with the seriousness it deserved.

“Moreover, rapid intensification did not leave enough time for the IMD to issue a cyclone watch or alert and, therefore, both the affected State Governments and the people were not sufficiently alert,” the report added.

Officially, a cyclone specific advisory was issued only on 30 November 2017, the very date of the arrival of cyclone Ockhi but by then many fishermen had already ventured out to sea.

This was a clear departure from the Standard Operating Procedure wherein the first cyclone specific advisory, the Pre-Cyclone Watch, is issued three days prior to the landfall of the cyclone.

While rapid intensification of a cyclone is a reasonable justification for this omission, the fact remains that the state government machinery and the people may not adequately understand the technicalities and therefore they should be proactively informed in such cases.

Considering the fact that the advisory issued on 29 November 2017, would have been taken more seriously if it clearly forewarned of an impending cyclone, the panel recommended that the IMD should be more proactive and take every instance of weather disturbance with utmost seriousness in the future.

The report said that the advisory issued by the IMD might not have been given wide publicity in the mass media and through radio stations. This might be the reason for the concern raised regarding the absence of any prior warning or alert.

The people should have been alerted through media channels and radio stations in a timely manner before cyclone Ockhi hit the coast.

IMD Version

Meanwhile, K Santhosh, Indian Meteorological Department head in Kerala, said that the alerts they give is according standard operating procedures only and they are based on figures and facts.

“We have set up a Cyclone Warning Centre here in Thiruvananthapuram recently. Now we can forecast cyclones or depressions even five days in advance. This early forecast is helping the fishermen a lot,” Santhosh, said adding that fishermen who are at sea for more than a week and longer can benefit from early alerts.

“Our priority is to save lives and property of fishermen. We work towards that. And if some are alleging that our warnings are inaccurate, then it is wrong. With all advanced equipment and experts, our readings and findings cannot be wrong. It is scientific,” he added.

Warming And Emissions

A study by scientists Hiroyuki Murakami, GA Vecchi and S Underwood, reveals that there is an increase in the number of storms in the Arabian Sea due to global warming.

And recently, many researchers have even looked into the impact of carbon emissions on these weather patterns.

In 2017, a study Increasing Frequency of Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storms Over the Arabian Sea was inconclusive about the direct impact of emissions, but showed the correlation.

The study by AT Evan, C Chung, V Ramanathan and JP Kossin tracked cyclone and emissions data of the past 30 years and noted that increased emissions not only impacted the level of solar absorption on the surface but also the wind shear (change in wind velocity), another factor affecting the formation of cyclones.

What has happened as a result is the increased intensity of the extremely severe cyclonic storms (ESCs) in both the pre and post-monsoon seasons.

In fact, until 2014, ESCSs were not even observed in the post-monsoon seasons.

Sales Boys And Girls

Saju Leanz, an activist among the fishermen community in Thiruvananthapuram coast, said that many youngsters from fishermen community are now going to cities to work as delivery boys and salesgirls.

“Going to sea has become rare now. And even if we go, we are not sure that we will get a good catch. However, the investment, including fuel and other expenses, cannot be cut. We are not even getting fuel at a subsidised rate. Most often we have to depend on the black market. We have to spend at least Rs 10,000 to go fishing. And if we don’t get a good catch, then think of the situation,” Saju said.

According to Saju, the financial situation of fishermen has worsened after Ockhi as many lost their boats and fishing equipment.

“Majority of the fishermen are always in a bad shape, financially. Earlier, if five fishermen pooled in money and bought a a boat, now 10 people need to pool in to buy the same boat. So eventually, the share of the catch also will be less. It is in this situation that unnecessary alerts are stopping us from going fishing,” he added.

“Very soon, there will be a generation which doesn’t know traditional fishing methods. And that is going to happen in the next 10 years,” Saju added.

Rs 32 Lakh Compensation

Meanwhile, Kerala government announced a compensation of Rs 32 lakh for fishermen in Kerala as they are losing working days due to frequent alerts.

Peter, while talking about the compensation, said that what the government has decided is to give Rs 2000 per family.

“Will they repeat it every month or is it an annual compensation is unclear. Is Rs 2000 going to support them or compensate their loss?” Peter asked.

Meanwhile, last week, some 11,000 scientists have declared a climate emergency that could bring “untold suffering” unless there are significant transformations in the way humans live.

“Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn the humanity of any catastrophic threat and to “tell it like it is.” On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” the scientists declared in an article published in Bio Science.

The study brings together four decades of climate research, finding troubling trends in population growth, meat production, air travel, loss of tree cover, greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption.

“Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have generally conducted business as usual and have largely failed to address this predicament,” scientists had said in the report.

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