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From Peril to Survival, to Revival – The Chilika Lagoon rebirth story

The story of Chilika Lagoon is marvel. It's a story of revival and rejuvenation of a lake that was a victim of neglect. A team of visionaries decided to not let it die.

The story of Chilika Lagoon is marvel. It’s a story of revival and rejuvenation of a lake that was a victim of neglect. A team of visionaries decided to not let it die. Being concerned with the rapid decline of the lake, the Government of Odisha created Chilika Development Authority (CDA) in the year 1992. Though constituted in the year 1992, it was only that after Dr Ajit Kumar Pattnaik took over as chief executive of CDA in 1997, the restoration of the lagoon commenced in right earnest. He shares his views with Express TravelWorld

Chilika is a nature’s bounty, hemmed between the Eastern Ghats and the Bay of Bengal, filled with enchanting beauty. Famous as the largest wintering ground of migratory bird of Asiatic subcontinent, endowed with rich biodiversity including some endemic species which are not found anywhere in the world, it is also the provider of livelihood for a million people who depend on its fishery resources and live in its catchment. However, its ecosystem started deteriorating due to various anthropogenic pressures and other natural process resulting in loss of its productivity and biodiversity. This adversely impacted the livelihood of more than 0.2 million local communities due to plummeting fish production. By the end of the 80’s, it had deteriorated so much that Ramsar Bureau put it in the Montreux Record (threatened list of Ramsar site) in 1993 due to change in the ecological characters. The lake was turning towards a fresh water ecosystem and its biodiversity was threatened. The suffering of the community became precarious as they have to leave their village and to migrate outside the state in search of employment, leaving behind their children and their families in great distress.

Addressing the problem

The factors responsible for such deterioration were siltation, and choking of inlet resulting in poor inflow of sea water and fall of salinity leading to change in its ecological characters and proliferation of invasive species. Being concerned with the rapid decline of the lake, the Government of Odisha created Chilika Development Authority (CDA) in the year 1992. Though constituted in the year 1992, Dr Ajit Kumar Pattnaik felt it was time someone took up the case in all earnestly. He took over as Chief Executive of Chilika Development Authority (CDA) in 1997 and that was the first step toward some serious action and restoration of the lagoon.

After my joining I was able to formulate credible project proposal, which enabled the Chilika Development Authority to receive funds from Govt. of India and other sources to implement the much-needed restoration work. I could identify rather early that the key to the success of restoration of Chilika would be to trace the root cause of degradation and identification of the pressures on the lake ecosystem and initiate the restoration intervention based on the science with an ecosystem approach. Since Chilika is a sensitive eco-system, before going for any intervention he initiated extensive hydrological studies by commissioning the services of the premier institutes of the country to find out the best options to restore the complex ecosystem. Based on the outcome of the rigorous numerical model studies, one of the major interventions was the desiltation of the outer-channel, which connects the lagoon to the sea by dredging, (and opening of an artificial mouth). This was a huge task that involved a number of critical decisions, liasoning with various national and international institutions and experts, and the government. This bold hydrological intervention resulted in significant improvement of salinity flux and tidal flux in to the lake as predicted by the Central Water and Power Research Station, Pune. The hydrological intervention was carried out based on the outcome of the rigorous model study carried out by Central Water & Power Research Station (CWPRS) Pune. All credit goes to Dr L K Ghosh, joint director CWPRS, who carried out the model study and confidently recommended the hydrological intervention. The strategy for carrying out this challenging intervention was developed by Dr. P. Sundarvadivellu, professor, Ocean Engineering Center, IIT(M) Chennai. Equal credit goes to my colleagues from CDA, S K Nanda, executive engineer and D K Nayak, assistant engineer. Last but not the least M Sekar, director Tebma Marine who provided unconditional support by way of executing this challenging task, as this type of work with such degree of precision was executed for the first time in Asia. The tireless and passionate efforts of the above individuals have been crucial for making this impossible task possible more than that their unconditional support to me was the real driving force in taking this bold decision which saved this unique lake ecosystem from peril and brought a new lease of life.

From Survival to Revival

Due to improvement of the salinity regime the freshwater invasive species gradually reduced, the seagrass meadows expanded and the fish production improved significantly due to successful breeding migration and auto recruitment. The strategic intervention not only resulted in rejuvenation of the lagoon ecosystem but immensely benefited the fishers whose livelihood was jeopardised. The fish production has gone up by seven times in comparison to the average yield prior to the intervention. The other ecological performance indicators have been expansion of the sea grass species and their diversity, spread of habitat of endangered Irrawady dolphin are few such example. It also resulted in flushing sediment, reduction of fresh water invasive species like water hyacinth, quick discharge of floodwater etc. Restoration of such complex system needs careful planning wide consultation and lot of spadework. To accomplish this, my mission was to make the community understand the values and function as well the ecosystem services flowing from the lagoon thereby making them informed and responsible resource user.

Chilika is important habitat for migratory birds. Some of the fishers had adopted poaching of birds as their sole means of livelihood after the decline in fish production. To save the birds and at the same time to restore the livelihood of fishers he took a novel step by way of convincing the commercial banks and the local NGOs to arrange soft-term loan to these fishers so that they can adopt alternate mode for livelihood. Apart from persuading the villagers to abandon the poaching, they were also encouraged to form birds protection committee at village level and adopt ecotourism . For the first time in the history of Chilika thousands of nests and the eggs of a number of rails and coots could be saved starting from the year 2001.

Community based development

This is an innovative bottom up approach by way of formulation of the micro plan blended with indigenous knowledge at the grass root level for optimum utilization of the natural resources to increase productivity. The watershed community also shares the part of the cost of treatment which ensures their involvement. This is also creating a conducive environment for the local community to take decisions and to understand the problem through a holistic perspective. The gender issue is also addressed in the project area by way of formation of the self-help groups and steps were taken for their capacity building by way of trainings in the field of bee keeping, broom making, fishery, leaf plate making, cane and bamboo crafts, pottery, dairy, poultry farming and horticulture. Amazingly, this has helped the women to supplement their family income. This has also facilitated the empowerment of the women against the prevailing social taboo. The holistic management of the natural resource at the grass-root level also resulted in the conflict resolution. The age-old village level conflict and difference of opinion could be resolved through the implementation of the participatory micro-watershed development programme. It also helped in restoring the communal harmony as the watershed committee could resolve the conflicts and issues at the village level in their own way.

Since more than two lakh people depend on the lagoon, while formulating the management plan, stakeholders consultation is done by holding village level meetings. The outcome of the meeting is in the form of suggestions and recommendations are incorporated into the management action plan. The
linkages with the community through the village level institutions, women Self Help Groups, Community Based Organizations, networking of the NGOs is a mandate in their restoration programme. A network of NGOs and the CBOs working in and around the lagoon has been established.

A dolphin watching protocol is developed based on the study conducted through noninvasive Passive Acoustic Monitoring(PAM) by use of customized hydrophones. World class visitors amentias are also developed at 6 locations which are considered as gate ways to Chilika lake. To improve the socio-economic condition of the communities, who live in and around Chilika, communication facilities in form of ferry service, construction of Jetties, solar lighting system in the island villages, biogas plant, improved cook stoves, community centres, road networks, were developed by Chilika Development Authority. Health camps were also organized in the island villages and fishermen villages where no infrastructure for health services were

The hallmark of the interventions by CDA have been the holistic approach adopted and measures in solving the problems of Chilika. The opening of the new mouth is considered as a watershed in the history of wetland restoration. This has been a very difficult task, both in terms of making the hard decision on an intervention of such far-reaching consequences and the implementation of its engineered themes at the same time winning people’s acceptability. The commissioning of the services of the premier institutes of the country and careful planning was the key to the success. The community participation, linkage with the various national and international institutions, intensive monitoring and assessment system are some of the uniqueness of the management practices adopted by CDA for restoration of this unique wetland.

The most prudent and successful eco-restoration of Chilika have brought international recognition to CDA and Chilika and emerged as a global example. This testified from the removal of Chilika from threatened list with effect from November 11, 2002 by Ramsar convention. Chilika is first sitefrom Asia and one of the thirty-six sites those have been removed so far globally from Montreux Record due to successful restoration.

(As told to Reema Lokesh)

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