Bhubaneswar: The mangroves in Bhitarkanika proved to be the saviour for people of Jagatsinghpur when a massive cyclone swept Odisha, catching the state machinery unawares by its severity, in 1999.
According to a report by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the mangroves saved 0.0148 lives per hectare during the cyclone.
The mangrove wetlands in Bhitarkanika spread across 145 square km, is listed in the Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention 1971 (certified by UNESCO in 1994) for its invaluable ecosystem, so also Chilika lake.
On World Wetlands Day today, Odisha Sun Times spoke to Dr S. Balachandran, researcher and a member of the steering committee of Odisha Wetland Development Authority, concerning wetlands in Odisha, its importance and present-day situation, besides this year’s agenda, ‘Wetlands for Sustainable Urban Future’.
The most important function of wetlands is that it refills, recharges and filters groundwater which is the basic source of drinking water in urban areas. The mangrove wetlands prevent flood and prevent extreme damages during a cyclone or flood.
“The wetlands not only improve water quality by filtration but also the air quality as these radiate moist air. The lush vegetation help in regulation of local weather. These are also a source of livelihood for fishermen and their clan,” Balachandran said.
Here’s a video by the Ramsar site explaining the role of wetlands in our ecosystem:
Paddy fields are excellent wetlands. “Submerged in water for around six months, the paddy fields recharge the groundwater. Odisha comes under the ‘rice-bowl’ states and paddy is cultivated in abundance. There’s a lot that can be done,” he added. Distressed over conversion of paddy fields for cash crops, he said the effects of the same would soon be seen.
“With an increase in population and demand for houses, the wetlands are encroached, degraded, filled in and built upon. Bhubaneswar is an example in itself of how fast it is being turned into a concrete jungle. Wetlands are a rare sight these days. There’s rise in urbanization and water is carelessly wasted in construction. The condition here is far better than other cities in the country, though,” he said.
Steps to protect these areas are well-taken but the implementation is not given due attention, he feels. “If you talk about Chilika, the inflow of fresh water had once increased to an unusual level in the 1990s which led to an imbalance. There were various committees set up and meetings held, plans were implemented and Chilika’s ecosystem was restored. Today, the freshwater inflow is decreasing day by day. Plans for conservation of Chilika wetlands and Bhitarkanika are brilliantly executed but it is still not making any difference because the Mahanadi catchment area, the origin of fresh water, remains neglected,” he further said.
He said lack of fresh water in Chilika will push the groundwater deeper and if its depth goes beyond sea level, water will turn saline which might lead a disastrous situation and the entire area might lose its vegetation.
“The Mahanadi catchment areas from where the fresh water in Odisha originate, are depleting and degrading. The river is drying up in certain regions. Deforestation has also hampered the filtration of the river water. It’s high time steps are taken to improve the source of fresh water,” he expressed.
Improving the frame of wetlands will also assist farmers in the state because a majority of them depend on wetlands for irrigation purposes. “Almost everything in environment and issues related to it are interlinked. There was an alarming rise in the obstacles farmers had been facing. This is one way to help them,” he opined.
He feels the current idea of interlinking the rivers will have a serious impact in the long run. “None of us is benefiting from interlinking rivers. In fact, altering the natural state of ecology will create a lot of other problems. People need to understand this and corrective steps along the Mahanadi river and the forests must be taken to protect Chilika and Bhitarkanika,” he said.
He feels Bhitarkanika is in a really good state right now. “The pollutants are all absorbed all too well by the wetlands. Given the way lifestyle is changing, Bhitarkanika is keeping up with the urbanization really well. Kudos to the development authorities,” he said.
“Effective management of the catchment areas, check on deforestation and the Mahanadi river, preventing the conversion of paddy fields and public cooperation is sure to bring changes. Failed actions might lead to acute water problems, especially in urban areas, in future,” he added.