A recent survey has found that the ecology of Chilika Lake in Orissa is bouncing back after it was hit by the monster Cyclone Phailin in 2013. But with scientists predicting more frequent and more powerful cyclones, no one knows how many times it can recover

Chilika Lake (Image by Rita Willaert)

Chilika Lake (Image by Rita Willaert)

Chilika Lake, India’s largest coastal lagoon, has fully recovered from the impact of Cyclone Phailin which had hit the region in October 2013, says the Chilika Development Authority on the basis of a recent study it commissioned.

A copy of the yet-to-be-published study report, Impact of severe cyclonic storm Phailin on the Ecology and Hydrology of Chilika Lagoon, is with indiaclimatedialogue.net.

The biggest indicator of Chilika’s recovery from Phailin has been the growing number of migratory birds it attracted last winter, compared to the winter before. The 2014 -15 bird census carried out by ornithologists from Orissa forest department, Bombay Natural History Society and other wildlife organisations in the Ramsar site found around 762,000 birds, an increase over the 2013-14 count of 719,000.

The bird population had been affected by the cyclone which occurred almost at the beginning of the migratory flocking and breeding season in the area. In earlier years – 2012 and 2013 – the counts were close to 900,000.

“The increased number of birds this year is one of the major indicators that Chilika has recovered from Phailin,” said Ajit Pattnaik, chief executive of Chilika Development Authority. “We have benchmark data of Chilika ecosystem before Phailin and also from recent time, which show that the lake ecosystem has completely recovered from Phailin.”

The report adds that apart from birds, the rest of the ecosystem has almost recovered as well. The salinity of the lagoon water has come back to normal after showing a sharp fall immediately after the cyclone, which had dumped an enormous amount of rainwater over the area.

“From 2012 onwards, Chilika Development Authority, in its ongoing mission to protect the lake’s genetic diversity and promote wise use of bio-resources, has implemented several long-term research studies in collaboration with premier institutes of India being sponsored by World Bank under Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM)  project. These studies were focused on ecologically and economically important component of the lake ecosystem such as fishes, birds, macrophytes, benthos and microbial communities of Chilika lagoon ecosystem which were badly affected after Phailin. Now the impact seems to be largely neutralised,” claimed Pattnaik.

Greater efforts at conservations seem to have contributed to the increase in bird numbers. Mangalajodi – a part of Chilika with a lot of vegetation and wetlands which has seen sustained efforts at conservation – is a good example. The experts counted around 38,000 more birds in Mangalajodi this year, compared to last year. In contrast, over the same period bird numbers fell from 415,000 to 391,000 in Nalban, a sanctuary within the lagoon.

“Previously bird poaching was a normal event in the area. But since around 2005-06 the trend could be reversed by promoting alternate livelihoods in the area through ecotourism,” said N. Sunil Kumar , director of RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) Foundation of India which has been funding a community managed eco-tourism project in the area since 2008-09.

“We have a number of bird guides and boat men who help thousands of tourists who visit the bird-filled wetlands. This has significantly improved their financial position. Moreover the eco-tourism setup is mainly run by a trust with locals that also contribute to their earning,” said a representative of Indian Grameen Services, the NGO piloting the eco-tourism project.

Effect on the protector

Scientists have now established that lagoons, wetlands and mangroves are vital in protecting coastal areas from extreme events such as cyclones or tsunamis. They temper the surge of storms and waves. But these ecosystems are themselves battered by such events. Scientists are now trying to find out to what extent they can recover and how soon, in an era of more frequent and more powerful cyclones due to climate change.

The report commissioned by the Chilika Development Authority shows that conservation efforts help recovery. But how often this can happen is an open question. And it is a vital question in India’s east coast, where Chilika Lake is situated, and which has seen an increasing number of major cyclones in recent years.

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