A tribal family seen under a collapsed tree that was hit by cyclone Fani, at Birapratap Pur Village, Odisha, India, on Thursday, May 09, 2019.(Photo: Arabinda Mahapatra / Hindustan Times)
A tribal family seen under a collapsed tree that was hit by cyclone Fani, at Birapratap Pur Village, Odisha, India, on Thursday, May 09, 2019.(Photo: Arabinda Mahapatra / Hindustan Times)

Cyclone Fani: Odisha stares at ecological crisis

Two of Odisha’s ecological hotspots – Lake Chilka and Balukhand-Konark wildlife sanctuary -- may not be the same any more, thanks to Cyclone Fani that roared through the state on May 3 with wind speeds exceeding 200 km an hour, officials said on Thursday.
By Debabrata Mohanty | Hindustan Times, Puri
UPDATED ON MAY 10, 2019 08:30 AM IST

Two of Odisha’s ecological hotspots – Lake Chilka and Balukhand-Konark wildlife sanctuary -- may not be the same any more, thanks to Cyclone Fani that roared through the state on May 3 with wind speeds exceeding 200 km an hour, officials said on Thursday.

Chilka, Asia’s biggest brackish water lake that earlier had two mouths, now has four more, stirring fears that salinity could increase by inflow of sea water and adversely affect marine life, the officials said. Over 4.5 million trees were uprooted by the cyclone in Balakhand, making it look like a “wasteland”.

Cyclone Fani, which made landfall in Puri last Friday, has left a long trail of destruction along the coast, uprooting millions of trees, blowing away roofs and homes, and snapping power. Weather experts have termed Fani the most intense cyclone in the region in 20 years.

While it affected over 14 million people in Odisha’s densely populated coastal districts, its impact on ecology and wildlife has been equally devastating, though an estimate of the damage has yet to be made. Most part of the ~17,000 crore the state government has sought from the Centre will go into putting people’s lives back on track.

The Balukhand wildlife sanctuary on the Puri-Konark marine drive, which has over 4,000 spotted deer, a large number of wolves, monitor lizards and is visited by Olive Ridley turtles for nesting, has lost over 4.5 million trees. “Most of the trees are either uprooted or broken. It’s a Herculean task to clear the fallen trees and restore the sanctuary’s ecology,” said Harshabardhan Udgata, the divisional forest officer of the sanctuary. The sanctuary was home to around 9 million trees and only mangroves were able to resist the strong winds.

The loss of spotted deer was not much, Udgata said, but it would be difficult for them to tolerate the gruelling summers without the shade of trees. “It will take us at least four months to clear the fallen trees. Planting new ones would only be possible in the next season. We are distressed thinking about the impact of the cyclone on wildlife,” he said.

The cyclone also damaged lakhs of trees along the Bhubaneswar-Puri highway and on roads in Bramhagiri, Satapada, Krushnaprasad, Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Khurda and several other areas. On Thursday, the Odisha forest department released information on the ecological impact of the cyclone, including Lake Chilka, which has been designated a world heritage site.

“Chilka lagoon had only two active mouths -- the point where it meets the sea -- before Cyclone Fani. Four new mouths have opened due to wave energy with high tidal prism and saline ingress to the lake,” said Chilka Lake Authority chief executive officer Sushanta Nanda. “Its effect on biodiversty is being assessed.”

A Bhubaneswar-based environment expert, Biswajit Mohanty, said the new mouths were a cause of concern to the health of the lake, but one would have to wait a few months to see if they remain open or close by natural deposition.

“It’s important to monitor the lake’s salinity, which may see unexpected fluctuations due to the inflow of sea water through the new mouths. This may also lead to changes in fish migration. Fish and aquatic plants may also be adversely affected if the salinity level goes up,” he said.

“Chilka is home to about 150 species of migratory birds and endangered plants and animal species, apart from a source of livelihood for about 1.5 lakh fishermen in the region,” Mohanty added. Another environment expert, Aditya Panda, said increase in salinity could impact swamps in the lake and it could be measured only though detailed scientific assessment. “I am hopeful that Chilka will be able to revive itself,” he said.

After an initial assessment, Panda said the flamingo, pelican and painted stork population was safe in the Nalabana sanctuary on Chilka lake. But the real ecological impact would be assessed only in the next few weeks, he said. In the Balukhand-Konark wildlife sanctuary, the forest department has estimated damage to nearly 5.5 million trees, which would affect around 400 spotted deer. “Around 20% of the trees are uprooted and cannot be revived, while the remaining were found to be snapped or broken,” said Jarsabardhan Udgatta, divisional forest officer of Puri wildlife division.

In Bhubaneswar’s Nandankanan Zoological Park, animal enclosures have been destroyed and hundreds of trees uprooted. With the zoo shut indefinitely, monkeys have begun entering residential areas looking for food and water, zoo officials said.

The Odisha principal chief conservator of forests, Sandip Tripathy, said the damage to the green cover was so pervasive that it would take at least a decade to restore it. “We have to ensure re-plantation of the uprooted trees to revive the green cover,” he said. Mohanty suggested that the department should not plant trees such as casuarina and eucalyptus as they cannot withstand strong winds. “It would be wise to plant trees like neem, karanj, banyan and local berries, which are endemic to the area,” he said.

There is clear indication that because of climate change, the frequency and intensity of cyclones have increased in recent years, Panda said.

According to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increase in surface temperatures over oceans, especially in the cyclone-prone Bay of Bengal, will increase the frequency and intensity of sea storms.

Odisha has witnessed three major cyclones since 2015 – Phailin, Titli and Fani. “Cyclone Fani got intensity as surface temperature over Bay of Bengal got warmer by one degree Celsius over the long term average, according to NASA satellite data,” said a Global Strategic Communication Council statement.India Meteorological Department director general K J Ramesh said there was a direct correlation between the intensity of cyclone Fani and climate change.

“Due to global warming, there is additional warming over all oceans; Bay of Bengal is no exception. Atmosphere is also very warm. The combination of the two makes cyclones last longer,” he said.

Panda said the increase in frequency of cyclones, especially in the Bay of Bengal, should goad policy-makers to come up with a new action plan to tackle them. “The storm blew away window panes of flats in high-rise buildings in Bhubaneswar and Puri and damaged household goods. This has not happened before. We need to do a rethink on how to save our cities from such cyclones,” he said.

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