Pichavaram Mangrove: India’s Floating Tsunami Shield

Image: Karthik Easvur/ Creative Commons
The world's second largest mangrove forest is a floating treasure that has saved countless lives.

When the city of Bombay was just a trading port, its islands were connected by a natural and efficient flood barrier – mangrove forests. The Mahim creek and Mahim Bay were once filled with mangrove forests that acted as a natural flood barrier.

But the development of the city saw these encroached by settlements and railroads. Between 1995-2005 alone, 40 percent of the mangrove cover was lost. In many places, it’s difficult to imagine that a mangrove once stood in place of concrete buildings. But a memory of these mangroves strikes every year when the city floods from heavy rainfall. This year’s floods alone saw lakhs of people stranded, several dozens go missing and public transport grind to a halt.

There are many ways to prepare for extreme flooding – the tragedy is that Mumbai had a natural remedy, now much diminished by an urban act of self-sabotage. Mangroves more than pay for their weight in human lives. On the other side of India, the Pichavaram mangroves bear testimony to the immense function of these floating forests.

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Image: KARTY JazZ/ Creative Commons

Between 66 and 23 million years ago, a visitor from South East Asia made the East coast of India its home. Floating across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, the mangroves of the Indo-Malayan region used their propagules to stay afloat – and to bear anchor when they arrived.

They came bearing a precious gift – mangrove seeds. Over many years, these grew into the world’s first and second largest mangrove forests. Of the first, the Sunderbans that are shared between India and Bangladesh, much is known and written. But in relative obscurity, the second mangrove has played a crucial role in India’s ecosystem.

In 2004, the deadliest tsunami in history made its impact on the Indian coast. It too travelled from South-East Asia, where a 9.0 magnitude earthquake trigged deadly waves that killed over 150,000 people in 11 countries. When the waves reached Tamil Nadu, a 12-kilometre stretch between the Killai and Pazhayar villages was miraculously saved.

The Pichavaram mangroves acted as a tsunami-shield, sparing the nearly 1,700 villagers who lived in small hamlets near the shore. Nagapattinam, a hundred kilometres south of the mangrove, saw more than 6,000 people killed – half the nationwide death toll.

Across the world, mangroves have become some of the greatest weapons against climate change. They provide livelihoods, serve as coastal shields, and sequester carbon at the rate of 1000 tons per hectare of forest. But, as a natural ally against catastrophic climate change, they are surprisingly undervalued.

Worldwide, mangroves are cut down at a rate three to five times that of regular forests. Over the last three decades, the Sunderbans lost over 124,000 square kilometres of its forests. In Mumbai, despite being protected, over 30 hectares of mangroves are to be culled to make way for a new highway.

But down South, in Pichavaram, a unique success story in conservation has been in the making.

The fall and rise of Pichavaram’s mangroves

Panorama of the mangroves (Image: PlaneMad/ Creative Commons)

Between 1750 and 1940 , the mangroves were managed by the Raja of Tanjore – who oversaw the clear-felling of swathes of forest, in order to raise funds for pilgrim rest-houses. The British continued felling trees using a ‘coupe-system’ – where healthy trees were cut every 25 years. This led to diminishing returns as the water grew too saline for the mangroves to grow back in.

Independent India continued this practice until the 1970s. By the mid, 1980s, nearly 54 percent of Pichavaram’s mangroves were on degraded land.

But unlike governments, the local communities took better care of their surroundings. Most of the local fishermen who stay near the mangroves rely on the forest for their sustenance. These communities set up a rotational system of fishing called  “Paadu” (meaning rotation). Locally called Vunuvalai Kattit (stake rotation), it involves setting the fishermen up in groups who then fish each area equally – and never at once on a single day.

It prevents overexploitation and ensures equitable distribution of catch. The fishermen catch prawns and many varieties of fish. Amongst themselves, they don’t permit the catching of ray-fish as the process is long and destructive. And most importantly, they don’t catch the prawn seeds – ensuring a habitat restoration. This lesson was lost when migrant communities started fishing on their lands.

When other fishing communities set up aquaculture farms in the area, they brought into new, destructive practices. The habitat showed immediate signs of suffering – tidal pools clogged up, and water turned stagnant. Communal clashes ensued between local communities and new.

In 1994, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) collaborated with the Government of India, to fix the damaged habitat. Stagnating tidal pools were infused with fresh water and an ambitious afforestation program was set up with the local fisherfolk. In a concerted effort that lasted till 2003, 5.5 million saplings were planted – and 68 percent survived.

This was a year before the tsunami struck. After the catastrophe, the value of Pichavaram’s sea-faring forests was well-heeded. A local tribe called the Irula – famous as snake-catchers – were given Scheduled Tribe status. For the first time, they were made aware of their rights. This was followed up by training them in sustainable fishing practices.

The Irula were almost all illiterate at the time. Their training accompanied gender sensitisation – women were given separate spaces to voice out their concerns and problems to the local authorities (as were the men). Self Help Groups (SHGs) were started to give them economic freedom. None of this came at the cost of the environment.

By 2015, mangrove cover in Pichavaram had grown by 73 hectares. India’s second largest mangroves are now one of the best examples of a sustainable ecology – and a great tourist destination. The locals make sure that visitors don’t damage the ecosystem, and the prevailing atmosphere is one of a serene, natural silence.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) now uses Pichavaram as a model in adopting community efforts to fight climate change.

However, it may soon be destroyed. The Government has notified 45 villages that their lands are now delineated to become part of a Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region (PCPIR) – 23,000 hectares in size. 2388 hectares fall within the Chidambaram district, of which Pichavaram is a part. Two villages, Tillainayakapuram and Maduvangarai lie close to the mangroves themselves.

Local environmental activists are deeply concerned that the water-intensive petrochemical industry would strain the mangrove ecosystem – not to mention, contaminate it. But a single petition may spell hope for the mangroves.

In 2015, the Government had issued a Government Order (GO) to query the locals for their consent to the project. No one replied so the clearance was given. But this notice was printed only in English – when it should have been circulated in Tamil at the least. The petitioner, G. Sundarrajan, filed a plea stating that this makes the GO “illegal and void and arbitrary and violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.”

The Madras High Court has asked the Government to take notice of the plea, now.

Mangroves give back far more than what we put into preserving them. Coastal cities that grow and preserve their mangroves are going to be better prepared for the now-inevitable consequences of rising sea-levels. As a valuable natural ally against climate change, mangroves can also help communities work together in harmony with the environment.

We may not be able to burn a mangrove to fuel our cars. But we may as well burn the cars themselves if they come at the cost of the only wall we have, against the unknown tsunamis of the future.

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