Gaja Cyclone and unlearned ecological management

The recent cyclone Gaja has left an indelible mark on the landscape of Cauvery Delta districts in the state of Tamil Nadu. What was the primary reason for such a large-scale destruction on the landscape which produces food and non-food crops on a massive scale?

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Cyclone hazard map of TN
Cyclone hazard map of TN

The Delta districts of Tamil Nadu which have the Cauvery River and its tributaries flowing also have considerable landscape of mangrove forests starting from the nearby Cuddalore district.

Over the years, owing to paddy cultivation and other agricultural activities, the mangrove forests started to shrink to a dismal size. A major reason for shrinking of the mangrove forests has been marked as construction of dams in the upstream areas. Consequently, flow of fresh water to the mangrove forests started to decrease which harmed their existence.

“As long as the activities remained within limits, considerable damage to the geo-morphological settings was under control. Slowly, commercial activities started to grow. In particular, shrimp farms started to mushroom in the coastline of Nagapattinam district and inflicted damages on the ecosystem.”

One of the largest coastal wetlands found in the state of Tamil Nadu is the Great Vedaranyam Swamp. The Muthupet Mangrove Wetland is located in the southern tip of the trio-districts of the Delta region.

During the early 90s, when liberalisation and globalisation were initiated, the shrimp farms which were earlier, few in number spread into thousands comprising regulated and unregulated as well as forced farmers who had to sell their lands to the shrimp owners. This trend continued till the Supreme Court intervened and put a break on the activities to protect the ecosystem.

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However, not before the shrimp farms destroyed coral reefs and marshland along with mangrove forests. The areas under the three districts were seriously prone to cyclones for which the mangrove forests and coral reefs were a protective gear to guard against damages.

During 1970 to 1986, the loss of mangrove forests was from 2,762 hectares to 1,767 hectares, according to a study by MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. In 1996, total loss of area of mangrove forests stood at 7,100 hectares. Notably, majority of surrounding villages of Muthupet Mangrove region are fishing hamlets.

Once the downfall of the ecosystem was noticed, farmers and fishermen started to lose their livelihood. A Gandhian couple who were once involved in Bhoodan movement of Vinobha Bhave went to the SC which put a break to the harmful aquaculture practices.

Shrimp business was said to be more profitable than agriculture. However, several taluks of the Nagapattinam district, once adversely affected started to mobilise people and the couple led them.

Shrimp farms, once again, reached peak activity in the post-Tsunami period which hit several Asian nations in December 2004 as it opened wider areas connivance to the aquaculture.

These uncontained activities caused salinity and intrusion of sea water into the coastline of three districts and in particular, Nagapattinam district. Not surprisingly, the district is one of the foremost cyclone areas of the state and witnesses damages regularly. Once the mangrove cover reduced, it affected the severity of the cyclones.

Gaja and unlearned lessons

During the last few years, the state of Tamil Nadu experienced many natural calamities. Okhi, Vardah and currently Gaja cyclones continue to inflict severe damages on the landscape and livelihood of the people.

“However, the question is how far the cyclones shall be blamed for the severity as the manmade destructions propagate the chances?”

Disaster-prone regions in India
Disaster-prone regions in India

Even the 2015 floods in the capital of Chennai did not awaken the public consciousness as the High Court came down heavily over the authorities for non-compliance of removal of encroachments on the water bodies. Still lakhs of such encroachments need to be cleared, observed the court. Learning lessons is an important exercise for any administration as global warming also causes huge catastrophe on our planet.

The state government has taken the Gaja threat and to the extent possible, prevented human loss; but the damage caused by the cyclone is huge. Hence, the relief operations are encountering staggering challenges. The Chief Minister is yet to visit the areas and evaluate the loss. However, the government as usual announced compensation packages. The public outcry against relief operations has attracted wider audience on social media. Handful of social media activists do know about the real cause behind the destruction.

Social farming and Vardah cyclone

During the Vardah cyclone, thousands of trees fell in Chennai and the reason given was unplanned plantation by the Corporation and private entities mostly with alien tree varieties which could not sustain heavy winds of monsoon. Later, several demands were made to plant traditional tree varieties instead of beautification drive with alien varieties.

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“Similarly, there is no awareness at the grassroot level for mangrove forest villages to keep up their flora-fauna to safeguard not only their properties but also hinterland areas which are exposed to cyclones like Gaja.”

Even though there are court interventions and mass campaigns and even media frequently highlights, the result is not that much encouraging. Disasters like these may open up wider discussions as many of the younger generations have never seen the mangrove forests and marsh lands in their life time or even understand their usefulness.

Responsibility of governments

Both central and state governments in spite of their direct or indirect connivance in regard of destruction of mangrove forests and marsh lands should develop a mechanism to naturally protect against cyclonic destructions. Framing relevant policies is not enough; instead their effective execution should be the target.