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In the eye of the storm - a report from "The Perfect Storm" causing devastation on the reefs of Lakshadweep

While election fever gripped the entire nation and countless air time was spent debating the numbers that formed the next government -in a corner of the country, away from the radar of most newsgathering, a violent cyclone swept across the west coast of India threatening the fragile ecosystem of the coral islands of Lakshadweep.

Some of the islands were so severely ravaged in the process that they were split into 2 pieces! Amini island, the epicenter, was split into 3, Kadmat split into 2, while Kiltan was the worst hit. Communication was disrupted, boats sank and water supply was also hit in the region as a result.

LakshadweepThe corals reefs are sensitive ecosystems that are vulnerable to an increase in sea surface temperature. The El-Niňo current -a natural current occurring every 6-7 years was unnaturally high in 1998, believed to be a direct offshoot of global warming, affected the Lakshadweep Islands. This resulted in widespread bleaching of the corals and the consequent death of many of the reefs. Over time, the destruction of these corals along with the unsustainable local practice of collecting coral shingles for building material made the islands vulnerable to disaster. Interestingly, according to Reef Watch Marine Conservation who are monitoring reefs of these islands reveals that coral reefs were regenerating rapidly in most of the other islands but in Amini and Kadmat there was no regeneration of corals in last 6 years.

While the high velocity winds that came in from the north of these islands have abated and the seas are relatively calm again it will be a while before normalcy is restored in the region. The devastating impact of the cyclone is being attributed to a large extent to death and loss of reefs over the years. These reefs were key to the survival of the islands as they acted as a natural barrier to the sea. Whats noteworthy is that Lakshadweep and the Sunderbans had been highlighted as two of the biodiversity areas most vulnerable to global warming and climate change in the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP).

The devastating effects of the cyclone are being felt across the islands and life was thrown off gear in several pockets. This has not only affected daily-life but has also slowed down research that was taking place in the region.

" We are in shock, approx. 20 boats have sunk off Kaviratti the capital island and 30 boats have sunk in and around the lagoon in Kadmat island alone, and sadly our 52ft research vessel "Sea Urchins" of Reef Watch Marine Conservation is one of them. It was perhaps the only one of its kind in the country dedicated to doing research work, survey and training from its live aboard platform. This has affected all our work and future plans, " says Mitali Dutt Kakkar , Director, Reef Watch Marine Conservation.

Due to onset of Monsoon, the effort of Reef Watch Marine Conservation to survey the extent of damage are halted and the detail information is expected to be out only by November.

It is a wake up call not just for environmentalists and inhabitants of the islands but for the country where environmental issues are generally relegated to the backburner, only to be dealt with at conferences and written about intermittently in journals. These islands are extremely fragile and the only Coral islands in India and the need to conserve them cannot be stressed enough.

There is little information or awareness that it is our unsustainable lifestyle that impacts the environment and can impact global warming patterns across the country. This is turn hits the ecosystem of islands such as the Lakshadweep.

Realising the urgency that such an issue merited Reef Watch Marine Conservation last year had made a film titled " Troubled Waters " which won the " Best of Film Festival" award at the environment film festival Vatavaran 2003.

We unknowingly referred to it the possible adverse implications of these local and global threats not realizing that they would play out into reality within six months. This film has been shown to children in schools, Govt. officials and Management authorities to create awareness.

Nonetheless, this cyclone has proved once again that the importance and urgency of coral reef conservation on planet earth!

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