The high winds and gushing sea that Cyclone Phailin brought to Chilika Lake, India’s largest coastal lagoon and home to a large number of endangered animal and plant species, have hit the eco-system that may take years to rejuvenate.
The largest brackish lake in the sub-continent, Chilika is the wintering ground for almost a million birds and is only one of the two lagoons in the world to support Irrqwaddy Dolphin population. More than 200,000 people earn their living from fishing in the lake spread over the Puri, Khurda and Ganjam districts.
Even before the cyclone, the lake has been under great deal of stress, battling shrinking area, sedimentation and commercial prawn-farming to name a few.
The huge surge of water from the Bay of Bengal has played havoc with mangroves, which prevent the saline sea water from going inland and also check coastal erosion, along the Odisha coastline.
“Mangroves have been uprooted for kilometers,” said a forest officer at Chilika.
Because of their unique location between land and sea, these salt tolerant evergreen forests have one of the most diverse ecosystems.
On land, trees as far as five km off the sea coast are all bent in one direction, whipped by 200-220 km per hour wind speed packed by Phailin.
Most of them would wither away, said another forest official when asked if the damage could be contained. “We will have to start afresh,” he said.
While wind played havoc with mangroves, sea water has left vast stretches of land unsuitable for trees or wild plants. “In the coming days many trees where soil has turned saline will dry up,” said a professor at Odisha Agriculture Technical University, Bhubaneshwar.
Too much salt interferes with the water balance as well as soil nutrients. The professor, who didn’t wish to be identified, said desalination would have to be undertaken at earliest to ready the soil for new plants.
Though Phailin spared Chilika’s most famous residents — the dolphins, there are a few concerns.
“Strong tides and sea water can further acidify the lake water. If that happens, it will have a big impact of aquatic life,” a forest department official said.
But they want to wait for the rain to stop before making an assessment.
The Ganjam district, which took the maximum pounding when the state was hit by the country’s worst cyclone in 14 years, is also the favoured nesting ground of the endangered olive ridley turtles. The cyclone will have no impact on the nesting season.
“There are still four months for the turtles to come,” said Biswajit Mohanty of Odisha Wildlife Conservation Society.
With inputs from Priya Ranjan Sahu