In Search of Coastal Sand Dunes

The flipper tracks of an olive ridley turtle break out of the tideline and veer onto the beach. She has nested somewhere nearby and returned to the sea. We try to look for where she might have dug her nest and laid her eggs. Right adjacent to the beach are large sand dunes, some 40 feet high.  I am walking around in the coastal village of Poigainallur in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, India, along with Isaiyamudhan—a friend and fisherman from the neighbouring district of Mayiladuthurai. ‘Poigai’ is the Tamil word for freshwater pond, and this village is not far away from the famous religious town of Velankanni. It’s the last day of a road trip along the central coast of Tamil Nadu visiting fishing villages, talking to people, documenting and understanding the various coastal ecologies along this stretch. I was searching specifically for intact, well-developed coastal sand dune ecosystems—perhaps the most fragile and threatened shore habitats in India.

Sand and tsunami

The previous day, I had visited Parangipettai, a township north of the River Vellar’s estuary in Cuddalore. A place known for its massive coastal dunes in the past, we found that their numbers had significantly reduced, being flattened, built upon, and quarried away. On our way to Poigainallur, we crossed a number of tsunami memorials dedicated to fisherpeople who lost their lives in the worst natural disaster to ever hit the Indian coast in 2004. Isaiyamuthan tells me a beautiful story about Poigainallur and the neighbouring villages, which the land bears witness to. The local fishers and farmers had for a long time had a deep understanding of how indispensable sand dunes were for water security as well as for their lives. Dunescapes take centuries to form. Sand is slow water, a patient fluid, which is moved, shaped, folded by wind, waves, and vegetation. It flows over the years and with the seasons, like a current in deep time. The villagers had the practice of sticking palm fronds on nascent sand heaps in the path of the wind to help their growth by trapping other windblown sand particles. They also buried Palmyra seeds in them, which preserved the dunes as they grew. This practice, thought to have been prevalent once, faded over time as the dunes grew large and the ecosystem services they provided were taken for granted. 

A white-bellied sea eagle soars above us, its body cloud-white and wings coal-black. We see its gliding form through the gaps of palmyra fronds. It then stops circling, buckles its wings, and suddenly dives into the sea, hitting it like a giant arrowhead of flint and granite. When the Indian Ocean tsunami ravaged the eastern coast of India, fisher communities bore the brunt of the disaster. Isaiyamuthan tells me that the force of waves brought the ocean several kilometres inland along these districts. The toll it took on women’s lives was significantly higher compared to men. They were homebound, stuck with children and their chores, and couldn’t escape from the impact zone fast enough. Their hair got stuck in the thorny Prosopis bushes, which have invaded shore habitats, and several of them drowned like that, he recalls, traumatised. Yet in several areas, people observed that sand dunes greatly buffered the impact of the waves and protected them, and villages where houses were located on the dune crests were largely unaffected. Dunes protected coastal communities during this time even better than mangroves and casuarina plantations. The importance of these dune systems was realized then, and since these habitats took a beating from the pummelling waves, the age-old practice of growing and preserving dunes was revived for a time. 

The importance of dunes for local hydrology

A dune lives a slow life, one which is difficult to observe within a single human lifetime. Small vegetation traps windblown sand grains formed by wave action, which slowly accumulate, and are stabilized by grasses like Spinifex, Ipomoea and Fimbristylis. These grasses are also known to help dunes recover after storms and strong winds. As a dune grows, it shelters its landward side from strong salt-laden winds, allowing shrubs and trees to take root. Over time, it grows into a forest. 

The most miraculous thing about coastal dunes is their effect on the local hydrology. In the neighbouring village of Kallar, I had approached some fishermen playing cards under the shade of a dune, after spending the morning out at sea. They testified that the manal medu (sand dune) ‘created’ freshwater and pointed to a hand pump on their beach, located just 30 feet away from the high tide line. I jockeyed its handle and tasted the water. Although a little muddy, it was absolutely fresh. They also mentioned that many dunes here were blown down during the Gaja cyclone in 2018–19, but thanks to the protection the dunes offered, their village was largely untouched. At low tide, I spotted hundreds of wedge clams (Donax cuneatus) popping out of the sand to filter feed from the waves, while crows and egrets attempted to nab their soft, jelly-like bodies before they clammed shut and burrowed back in the sand.

A dunescape acts like a massive percolation chamber and is an extraordinary rainwater harvesting system. Where they are well-developed, the water table is above or at sea level. The undulating sand structures, when saturated with water, form an osmotic shield below the ground, blocking seawater intrusion. Swales—small and sometimes perennial freshwater ponds—form on the landward side of dunes. And within these I discovered swimming tadpoles, dragonfly nymphs, whirligig beetles, diving beetles and water scorpions—freshwater life forms thriving just 200–300 feet away from sea. I saw the fresh scat of a black-naped hare near one pond. Fan-throated Lizards, flicking their blue dewlaps, scampered into the spider-like roots of Pandanus plants growing around the pools. Jamun, Alangium, cashew, bamboo, tall palmyras, and some large banyans were among the trees growing here. Behind the last line of dunes—the largest of them with crests over 30–40 feet high—villagers were cultivating paddy, now nearly ready for harvest. 

The looming threats of sand mining and unplanned development

“That new temple in the next village was built with sand quarried from here,” a woman from Kallar said. According to most of the fisherfolk I spoke to, coastal dunes are severely threatened by construction companies, contractors, and increasing demand in urban areas for building infrastructure. It is sometimes the locals themselves who mine sand on their bullock carts and sell it, due to unemployment and access to quick money. “The younger generation don’t really know why manal medukal are important. Several villages over the years have lost their freshwater due to excessive sand mining.” 

Closer to home in Chennai, the coastal regions to the north of the city have suffered massive erosion and habitat loss where dune habitats and beaches once existed. This is due to unplanned and ecologically destructive coastal projects. Sea walls and groyne fields now taint these shores. However, some dunes still exist in small pockets in the villages of Kattupalli, Kalanji, Senganimedu, and surrounding areas. A few months ago I had taken the Class 11 students of my school on a field trip to north Chennai to witness and understand the changing coastal geography here, and to interact with the fisherpeople. In the village of Kattupalli, we sat around Yashodhamma and listened to her stories. She is a fisherwoman in her sixties, small in stature, but a firebrand activist for the cause of her community since her twenties. She spoke to us of how her community had been brutally evicted from their previous settlement during the construction of the L&T Shipyard, of unkept promises of employment by these large companies, and of her birth village—NTO Kuppam—which had a large beach, where she would play with her siblings, and where you could dock any number of boats. “Fish in those days would be so numerous that sometimes they would come near the shore and just jump and writhe on the sand. We would simply collect them from the beach on such days,” she said. 

This village and several neighbouring ones now exist merely as vestiges on maps. They have been erased by the ocean’s longshore currents, triggered by the building of coastal infrastructure like the L&T shipyard, Kamarajar port, and now the newly proposed Adani Megaport. A study published by Anna University in 2019 shows that the maximum sea intrusion into aquifers in India is on the coast of north Chennai. Groundwater up to 14 km inland has been contaminated with seawater. This leads to the city building more desalination plants for its drinking water supply, exacerbating the ecological impacts on its coast. Yet, in villages like Kattupalli where sand dunes still exist, people get freshwater just a few hundred metres from the shoreline. The swales sparkle with damselflies, and volley with the calls of skittering frogs and other anurans in the evenings. 

Reversing the colonial legacy of ‘wastelands’

In Tamil Nadu, coastal dunes are often classified as ‘Puramboke’ land by the revenue department. Historically, Puramboke in Tamil meant land reserved for shared community use—this included water bodies, grazing land, sand dunes, riverbanks, and mudflats. These were habitats which provided essential ecosystem services, and could not be privately owned or used for agriculture and construction. With the advent of colonialism in India, this word became twisted around to mean ‘wasteland’, in order to divert these common and crucial landscapes for colonial infrastructure and private property. The word even became a pejorative, although there is a movement now to revive and reinvoke its original meaning and significance. It is an interesting exercise to trace how the idea of ‘wasteland’ came to be and follow its roots into the colonial context. From literature, people and travels, I have been able to collect over 140 words for ‘land’ in Tamil. Each word evokes land in its ecological significance, cultural values and practices, and poetic contexts, where land had its own agency, animacy and seasonality. But not one of them describes land as ‘waste’ or ‘useless’. One of the first places where the idea of ‘wasteland’ is systematized is in the English philosopher John Locke’s theory of property, which found its way into Indian law and governance as far back as the 1790s. Locke said “Provisions…produced by … one acre of inclosed and cultivated land are ten times more than those… lying in common” and “land that is left wholly to nature, that hath no improvement of pasturage, tillage or planting, is called, as indeed it is, waste”. The colonial vision of land completely disregarded ecological truths and the communities which depended on them. Woefully, this vision is still carried forward by our governance systems and policies till date. 

Fortunately, sand dunes are recognized under Indian law. They are classified as CRZ-1A areas under the Coastal Regulation Zone rules of the Environment Protection Act (1986). All sand dune ecosystems have the highest legal protection, at the same level as coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves, but this doesn’t ensure their protection unless demarcated by the Coastal Zone Management Authority on their maps. There are a handful of instances where this law has been used to recognize the importance of and protect coastal dune ecosystems. But its implementation is still weak, and dunes are yet to be comprehensively mapped and documented in India. There are several rich sand dune ecosystems I have visited along the North Tamil Nadu coastline, including around Odiyur Lagoon and Uppukali creek, which have not been recognized or demarcated by the Coastal Zone Management Authority, making their conservation a real challenge. 

Coastal habitats and the biodiversity and local communities that depend on them are, and increasingly will be, the first to face the consequences of climate change and strong weather events. If ecosystems like sand dunes are protected, well researched, and celebrated, they can become our crucial first wall of defence—sheltering ecologies, hydrologies, and people. 

Further Reading
  • Bhalla, R.S., et al. 2008. Studies on vulnerability and habitat restoration along the Coromandel coast. A post tsunami environment impact report. Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning (FERAL).
  • Namboothiri, N., et al. 2008. Policy Brief: Sand Dunes. Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment.
  • Praxis. 2005. Village Level People’s Plans : Aspirations, Realities, Challenges. Praxis Institute for Participatory practices, Delhi.

Photographs: Yuvan Aves