THIRUVARUR/THANJAVUR: In November 2018 a devastating cyclonic storm, Gaja, crossed the Tamil Nadu coast between Nagapattinam and Vedaranyam, killing 52 people and displacing over 500,000. At the time of its landfall, the cyclone carried wind speeds of 100-120 kilometres per hour. The highest sustained speed of 160 kmph was recorded at Muthupet, home to Tamil Nadu’s largest mangrove forest.
In this series titled "Lost Treasure," we travel through the once dense mangrove forests of the coastline. Going by the multiple testimonies of jurisdictional forest officials and the local populace, the fatalities from Gaja could have easily run into the hundreds if not for the Muthupet mangroves, which acted as a natural barrier that prevented the killer storm from hitting coastal villages in Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts.
However, the storm was too strong for even 20- to 30-foot tall fully-grown mangroves to endure. The latest remote sensing data from the Tamil Nadu forest department shows that a whopping 60 percent of the total 11,886 hectares of the Muthupet mangrove area has now degraded. Only 2,000 hectares (16.8 percent) is currently dense mangrove forest. The State of Forest Report, 2019, says there was a decline of 4 square kms of forest cover in the state between 2017 and 2019.
“This loss is significant in Ramanathapuram (1.07 sq.km) and Thiruvarur (1.04 sq.km) districts," the report says. "It is due to the devastating damage caused by the Gaja cyclone."
Muthupet, or the "Land of Pearls," is part of the Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary and is the only Ramsar Site in Tamil Nadu.
A Ramsar Site is a wetland site designated to be of international importance. It is also an important protected area as it is closer to the international border between India and Sri Lanka, located at the southernmost end of the Cauvery Delta, along the Palk Strait. V Selvam, former director of the coastal systems research project at the Chennai-based MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), spent months inside the Muthupet mangroves while doing his PhD research from 1983 to 1986 and has worked with local communities there on mangrove regeneration for around 40 years.
"The situation has never been so desperate as it is today," he said. "If there is no immediate intervention, the forest and lagoon will die.”
In fact, before the cyclone struck, the 2017 report of the Forest Survey of India indicated that the Muthupet mangrove forest cover had increased by about 2,600 hectares between 1995 and 2015, especially in the Palanjur, Thamarankottai and Maravakkadu reserve forests of the wetland thanks to some proactive measures initiated jointly by the forest department, MSSRF and local fishing communities.
Unlike other forests, the Muthupet mangroves have an emotional connection to the local community, who for centuries have safeguarded this critical wetland and adopted unique and sustainable fishing practices. Official records show that there are about 22 fishing hamlets around the wetland, with a total population of 37,255 people.
Range Forest Officer A Thaheer Ali says there are multiple reasons for the degradation of the mangroves in the area, the major ones being hypersalinity and siltation. Mangroves are salt-tolerant species and they depend on a delicate balance of fresh and seawater and are often referred to as tidal forests.
“Generally, Muthupet gets fresh water for six months, from July to December. This year, due to the extended northeast monsoon, there was flow until the second week of January. It is during the summer that the tidal water stagnates and its evaporation occurs, leading to hypersaline conditions smothering the low-salt tolerant mangrove species, especially the young ones,” he said.
Additionally, the six distributaries of the Cauvery River – Nasuviniar, Pattuvanachiar, Paminiyar, Koraiyar, Kilaithangiar and Marakkakoraiyar – that flush fresh water into the Muthupet forest have silted-up, Ali said. Also, these distributaries hardly receive any inflow, thanks to the presence of dams and barrages upstream.
V Selvam said that the final nail in the coffin was the Gaja cyclone, which uprooted almost every tree here and brought in thousands of tonnes of silt.
The New Indian Express visited the Muthupet mangrove forest on February 1 and found it was mostly grey rather than green. Though there was some amount of natural regeneration happening on the coastline where there is tidal flushing, the interior forest areas were filled with dead mangrove debris and buried under silt. Forest guards, S Ganeshan and B Shivaneshan, have been serving at the Muthupet forest range for the past three decades and have seen this wetland evolve.
They showed The New Indian Express at least half-a-dozen spots that were once dense jungle with giant canopies and now resemble a “wood depot” with uprooted trees, broken trunks and branches strewn all around.
Despite October-February being a peak season for migratory water birds, we spotted hardly any during the five-hour-long boat ride, except for a few resident egrets and darters. Muthupet was once a favourite wintering ground for more than a hundred species of migratory water birds, including the Grey Pelican, Greater Flamingo, Terns and Teals.
The Muthupet forest is the only place in India where “canal fishing” is practised. It's a unique method that serves the dual purpose of providing livelihoods for local fishers and keeps mangroves in good health. There are about 120 natural canals and 79 man-made fishing canals in the forest, each measuring from 500 metres to 4 km. These were dug a couple hundred years ago.
M Shankar, 50, a fourth-generation fisherman and the president of the Village Forest Council in Maravakkadu, said that out of these 200 canals, only 15 to 20 were functional currently and all the others had filled up with silt.
“[The] Gaja cyclone turned the entire Muthupet forest into a graveyard. Besides uprooting trees, the storm covered all the canals with 3-foot-deep silt," Shankar said.
To revive the forest, the 200 canals have to be de-silted, but Shankar said "we will not let our forest die."
For the past 25 years, Shankar has been mobilising his community to carry out mangrove planting on 5,000 hectares, with the help of the forest department. Shankar and his community have so far dug 3,000 feeder canals, which bring water into the degraded areas and help the mangroves re-generate. In Palanjur and Thamarankottai reserve forests, there is still healthy mangrove cover, thanks to his efforts. Now, these canals are also covered in silt.
A Madurai-based NGO, the Dhan Foundation, has come forward to de-silt at least 50 canals. T Asaithampi, coordinator of Coastal Conservation and Livelihood Development Programme, said the foundation has plans to pump in Rs5 crore for canal de-silting.
But a lack of funds is delaying restoration work.
It’s been nearly 18 months since the Tamil Nadu forest department submitted a proposal seeking funds under the National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).
“We are still awaiting a nod from the ministry,” said Syed Muzammil Abbas, Chief Wildlife Warden and Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) of Tamil Nadu.
The delay is attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic and the department is yet to get even the annual budget for mangrove restoration for the year 2020-21, sources said. As per the detailed project report, a sum of Rs25 crore has been sought from the ministry for the Muthupet mangrove forest restoration.
The project has eight components. Primarily, the funds will be utilised for the removal of invasive prosopis juliflora from the mangrove area, regeneration of mangrove biodiversity on 2,500 hectares of degraded area in the Muthupet forest range, and de-silting old canals to maintain the existing mangrove plantation.
A version of this story was published as a three-part series in The New Indian Express from 7-9 February 2021. This piece has been edited for length and clarity. It's production was supported by a Bay of Bengal grant from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.
Banner image: An aerial view of the degraded Muthupet mangrove forest in Thiruvarur district in Tamil Nadu / Credit: Tamil Nadu forest department