The importance of protecting Pulicat Lake

To ensure that the unique fragile ecosystem of Pulicat Lake gets the protection it deserves, the Centre and the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh governments must start the process to get it registered as a Ramsar Site and to establish a lake development authority.

Published : Dec 25, 2021 06:00 IST

Lime shell mining activities carried out in and around Pulicat Lake are destroying the wetland’s mudflat habitats

Lime shell mining activities carried out in and around Pulicat Lake are destroying the wetland’s mudflat habitats

Pulicat Lake is a unique waterbody that is situated along the east coast of India and sprawls across Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. More than 600 years old, the lake has a strong association with the cultural heritage and socio-economic status of both States. Its water spread area is 720 square kilometres during the monsoon. The lake is about 60 km in length, and its breadth varies from 200 metres to 17.5 km. Buckingham Canal traverses in a north to the south direction at the lake’s eastern edge, along Sriharikota Island. The canal is a 419-km-long navigation channel the British dug in the early 19th century that extends from Pedda Ganjam in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, southwards through Chennai and to Marakanam, Chengalpattu district, Tamil Nadu. The problem of siltation and the advent of the railway along the coast after the canal was constructed gradually saw it fall into disuse.

The rivers Swarnamukhi and Kalangi in the north and the Arani and the Korttalaiyar (as the Kosasthalaiyar is referred to in old British era documents) in the south drain into Pulicat Lake during the monsoon. In the dry season, water is generally present only in the southern areas and near the lake’s two inlets. The other areas of the lake receive inflows from the Bay of Bengal during spring tides and when there are strong winds. The lake receives fresh water through the rivers and canals draining into it and marine water through the inlet mouth connected to the Bay of Bengal. The lake has a spatial and temporal salinity gradient that gives rise to a multitude of niches inhabited by a large diversity of plant and animal species. About a lakh people living in 200 villages around Pulicat Lake depend directly on its highly productive lagoon ecosystem with its rich fishery resources for their livelihood. This large and fragile wetland ecosystem has hardly survived the pressures of human activities in the area. Among the most significant threats identified so far are the historical destruction (and fragmentation) of the mangrove ecosystem, commercial cultivation of shrimps and farming, over-exploitation of hydro-biological resources, inappropriate extraction activities (with impacts on fauna), deforestation and conversion of neighbouring forests, and pollution by waste water and pesticides from adjacent agricultural lands.

To address these problems, which are accelerating the destruction of this unique ecosystem, the respective State governments must establish a development authority for the lake along the lines of the Chilika Development Authority in Odisha. Such a body can help develop an integrated management initiative for the entire lake ecosystem, with the support of the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Key aspects of the process should include a community-based planning and management scheme (e.g. active participation of stakeholders and resource users), an integrated approach (that involves the entire ecosystem and not only the protected area), a zoning programme for land-use planning, clear conservation objectives, identification and mitigation of key impacts and, finally, a solid technical base for the project’s implementation and monitoring.

Threatened habitats

The historical backdrop of our knowledge on early wetlands comes from maps and documents that survived the ages. For many centuries, mankind viewed wetlands as places that had to be drained and converted for agriculture. Today, wetlands are one of the most threatened habitats of the world. Lakes and coastal wetlands play a vital role in global ecosystems in the maintenance of biodiversity, ecology and hydrology and for recreational purposes. They provide a habitat for a wide variety of flora and fauna and help maintain the life cycle of many species. Many of the world’s lakes and coastal wetlands have deteriorated because of exploitative use and improper management, causing irreparable damage to ecosystems and the life and culture of people living around them. Increased demands for drainage of wetlands have been accommodated by channelisation, resulting in a further loss of stream habitats, which has led to increasing numbers of aquatic organisms becoming extinct or imperilled and to the impairment of the many beneficial uses of the water, including drinking, swimming and fishing. Indeed, freshwater deterioration and scarcity have been threatening many forms of life and have serious consequences for humans.

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Region-wise initiatives such as the Asian Wetland Inventory and the Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Strategy 2001-2005 have already been started in recognition of the ongoing and impending threats to the lakes and wetlands in the Asian region. However, it has been recognised that the human and financial resources currently allocated to the conservation and wise use of lakes and wetlands in the Asian region are not sufficient and need to be strengthened. Successful conservation of lakes and wetlands depends on the proper management of their watersheds, but there are conflicting interests in the use of their resources.

Therefore, it is important to involve all stakeholders in the process of restoration, conservation and management of lakes and coastal wetlands. And there is an urgent need to promote regional linkages, develop strategic partnerships and follow good practices in the conservation and management of lakes and coastal wetlands. It is also essential to establish new or strengthen ongoing regional and international cooperation linkages and strategic partnerships between governments, international agencies, universities, research institutions, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), local communities, the private sector and individuals.

There are several international and national level organisations working towards conservation of nature and natural resources and interest in the preservation of wetlands has increased as their value to society has become more fully understood. In 1971, a significant United Nations convention on wetlands took place in Ramsar, Iran. The Ramsar Convention, as it is widely known, is an international environmental treaty with the mission of conservation and wise use of wetlands through local, regional and national action and international cooperation and to contribute towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world. The convention plays an important role in deepening the world’s consciousness of the importance of protecting wetlands, and that is why Pulicat Lake needs to be designated as one of India’s important wetlands.

Biodiversity hotspot

Pulicat Lake is a biodiversity hotspot that shelters several endemic and endangered species included in the red list of threatened species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is an avian paradise for several migratory birds and, during the peak migratory season, hosts around 250 species of birds, 50 of which are intercontinental species. In 2010, the Global Nature Fund, an organisation based in Germany, declared Pulicat Lake a “threatened lake”. However, there is still no proposal to get the lake added to the list in the Montreux Record. If a wetland is threatened, it must first be included in the Montreux Record. Later, it will be brought to the Ramsar List. Owing to the ecological threats it is facing, the lake has to be included in the Montreux Record. Further, emerging issues such as global warming, climate change and their impacts on coastal zone ecosystem need to be addressed.

People do not realise the preciousness of Pulicat. It was considered useless and not important enough to be protected. Therefore, the Central and respective State governments must consider getting it included under the Ramsar Convention. A wide area of Pulicat has been destroyed, and now there are several development projects planned that will have an impact on the lake: expansion of the Dugarajapatnam port and a proposed Adani port, among other projects.

Local governments should stop the lime shell mining that local people carry out at Pulicat Lake as it destroys mudflat habitats. Local governments should also devise a way to protect these habitats such as designation of the tidal flats as important for birds and proceed with the process of getting the lake registered in the Ramsar List. The public should commit itself with deep consciousness to protect Pulicat Lake.

In an overpopulated country like India with few job opportunities, people in power often make development plans that the public are unaware of and without a sufficient environmental assessment. The promotion of projects in and around the lake will lead to its destruction. Besides the strategies for biodiversity conservation of Pulicat Lake, ecotourism development, community participation, integrated watershed management, hydrological monitoring and modelling activities need to be undertaken in collaboration with various national and international institutions.

One of the major interventions needed after intensive scientific studies and consultations with all stakeholders is desilting of the channel connecting the lagoon to the sea and the opening of a new mouth to restore the natural flow of water and salinity levels. The local community has been asking for this for the past two decades. The intervention could result in the improvement of the lake ecosystem with a phenomenal increase in fish yield and the reduction in freshwater invasive species. Other measures should include management of the catchment in a participatory manner as the plan for restoration of the lake must be based on a river basin approach; protection of bird habitats and of bird species with the active involvement of the community; economic incentives for the local population to stop poaching of birds; measures to improve the socio-economic conditions, such as orientation training to facilitate community-based ecotourism; provision of solar street lights for island villages; development of a ferry service for isolated island villages; development of landing facilities for fisherfolk; networking of NGOs and community-based organisations; and carrying out education and environmental awareness activities.

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Good environmental practices that facilitate poverty alleviation of the community can lead to self-initiated participatory processes for conservation and sustainable use of the resources of the Pulicat Lake through the community adopting good practices and having a sense of local ownership. This in turn could increase the productivity level of both the wetland and the watershed. The Chilika lagoon is a striking example of how the restoration of the ecological characteristics of a site results not only in improvement of the lagoon ecosystem but also benefits the community depending on the wetland: the average annual income of each family increased by more than Rs.50,000 (around $1,040). The restoration of the Chilika lagoon derives its uniqueness from the strong participation of local communities, linkage with various national and international institutions, and intensive monitoring and assessment systems. And these are the attributes any development authority set up for Pulicat Lake should adopt. The case of the Chilika lagoon is a perfect example of how the listing of a site on the Montreux Record can be used to promote measures to correct the changes in the ecological character of a site and to improve the socio-economic conditions of the population living in and around it.

If the measures taken for the restoration of the lake result in a considerable improvement of its fishery resources and water quality and have a positive impact on the biodiversity of the lake, this can significantly contribute towards the increase in the per capita income of the community that depends on the lake for its livelihood.

As a major portion of the lake is in Andhra Pradesh (84 per cent), a question of jurisdictional issues may arise with respect to the location of the development authority if it is successfully set up. Before this the respective State governments and their Forest Departments should prepare a collaborative plan for the authority, which should be tasked with the following objectives: restoring the lake; funding research and educational and conservation projects; setting up an interpretation centre, a GIS cell and people’s participatory, ecotourism and development programmes; managing the fish resources (in consultation with the Central Institute of Brackishwater Aquaculture and the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute); carrying out dredging interventions; monitoring water chemistry and quality; and eradicating invasive species. A team of biologists will be required to prepare an adaptive ecological plan for the lake and to carry out regular monitoring of the lake ecosystem. The ecosystem approach is the only way to manage the resources sustainably.

In addition, the design of an integrated management area that includes coastal-marine, forests and transitional lands will improve resource management and minimise impacts. Finally, if ecotourism and craftsmanship initiatives can be developed, they will be as complementary sources of income to reinforce sustainable resource use and will contribute to more sustainable lifestyles. Pulicat Lake could be a significant subject to indicate the future course of wetland protection and, if successful, could serve as an international model for development and protection.

Dr Vaithianathan Kannan is a wildlife biologist who works with the Sathyamangalam Tiger Conservation Foundation Tamil Nadu Trust, Erode, Tamil Nadu.

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