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Women weather storms as they take the lead to protect a unique Indian ecosystem

August 12, 2020

As Cyclone Fani headed toward the east coast of India last year, we anxiously watched the news reports. This severe storm was headed straight toward the state of Odisha–site of a new Seacology project.

Fani was the strongest cyclone to hit Odisha in 20 years, with periods of winds as high as those in a Category 4 hurricane. The Indian government organized a massive evacuation, moving a million people in the storm’s path to shelters on higher ground.

Our new project was in the villages of Berhampur and Mahinsha, small islands in Chilika Lake. The lake is really an enormous lagoon–400 square miles of brackish water–that opens to the Bay of Bengal on the east coast of India. This important wetland is the largest wintering ground for migratory waterfowl on the Indian subcontinent, and draws birdwatchers from around the globe. The lake is also home to endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, khainga (milkfish), limbless skinks, fishing cats, and green sea turtles.

The lake also supports thousands of people, many of whom depend on fishing for their livelihoods. Overfishing – including with illegal driftnets – is a serious problem. The nets sometimes ensnare and kill endangered dolphins and sea turtles. 

Helping people find other ways to make a living is an essential step if the lake’s wildlife is to survive and thrive. That’s why we were so happy to support about 100 women there who wanted to protect the lagoon, educate children and fishers about the lake’s ecology, and develop small-scale ecotourism.

Community pressure is helping dicourage the use of illegal nets that harm Irawaddy dolphins and other wildlife.

Thousands of mangroves and other plants were planted in the lagoon as part of the project.

As Cyclone Fani approached, they were using a Seacology grant to develop resource-based tourism. When we finally heard from our local partners in India, we learned that the storm had destroyed four partially built guest cottages – but that thankfully, no one was seriously injured or killed. A small community center, funded by Seacology in 2015, withstood the heavy rain and wind and actually served as a shelter during the storm. The cyclone ended up causing more than $8 billion in damage to India and Bangladesh, most of it in Odisha.

Seacology made an emergency grant for repairs, and the community quickly got the project back on track. The women have already planted thousands of mangrove seedlings, which will stabilize the shoreline, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, and protect the villages from storm damage. They’ve provided environmental education to boatmen, fishermen, teachers, and schoolchildren. 

Cyclone Fani, the largest storm to hit the area in 20 years, caused widespread damage.

A community center build in an earlier Seacology project provided shelter from the storm.

Our partners worked diligently to repair the damaged guest cottages and finish the Seacology project.

With emergency funding from Seacology, the cabins were quickly rebuilt.

Community members have also built an interpretive center with a lotus pond and an organic garden, and upgraded houses so families can host tourists. New cottages and tents (with biotoilets) are ready for tourists, and the women are running a small restaurant and craft store. They also bought a solar-powered boat, to take tourists out to see the amazing dolphins and birds, and collected more than 3,300 pounds of plastic from the lake. 

They’ve promoted their tourist facilities on social media, and visitors had started coming when another disaster – the global pandemic – hit. But these women are nothing if not resilient. They are still taking care of the lake, planting trees, and spreading the word about conservation. When the tourists return, they will be ready.