Authorities, environmentalists and local stakeholders are working together on India’s east coast to assess the area’s biophysical and social vulnerabilities to climate change. This is helping them develop proactive adaptation strategies to protect the area and those who live in it from destructive weather patterns similar to Cyclone Phailin that struck the Mahanadi Delta in 2013.

Coastal town of Gopalpur, Odisha on 13 October, 2013, in the aftermath of Cyclone Phailin. Image: ADRA India/ EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

Cyclones are common along India’s southern coastline, but there are fears they may grow more destructive as climate change warms the atmosphere and raises ocean levels. When Cyclone Phailin struck the Mahanadi Delta in October 2013, it was the strongest to hit India in more than a decade. Thankfully, most lives were spared due to effective early warning systems.

Among the most sensitive areas to feel the brunt of the storm was the Chilika Lagoon: . situated Situated on India’s east coast, it is a biodiversity hotspot and an important buffer zone between freshwater and seawater ecosystems. Some 200,000 fishers and 400,000 farmers make their living in and around the lagoon and its delta.

Since 2011, Wetlands International South Asia and the Chilika Development Authority have worked with local stakeholders to assess biophysical and social vulnerabilities to climate change in the area. Understanding these vulnerabilities is essential to developing proactive adaptation strategies that can reduce the risk to lives, occupations and ecosystems. Supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the project aims to produce a solid body of evidence to guide both livelihood supports and wetland management plans.

In October 2012, an integrated plan for “climate smart” management of the Chilika lagoon was released. The research team is pilot-testing various adaptation strategies in local villages. The team is also developing training modules on climate change adaptation for wetland managers and resources for decision- makers.

Some of the project’s disaster-response measures were dramatically tested when Phailin struck. Disaster resilience committees in 11 coastal villages around Chilika formed under the project and joined the effort to ensure early evacuation of villagers. Mock drills had been rehearsed, cyclone shelters had been stocked with food and medicine, and family survival kits helped stranded community members survive for the three days during which no outside relief could reach them. In the heavy rains that followed, committee members were able to help other flood-affected villages.

Major loss of life was avoided in Chilika, but coastal forests and shorelines have been devastated. Restoring habitats and livelihoods remains a significant challenge. In the long run, improved wetland management and disaster preparation planning will be key to ensuring the resilience of communities and the ecosystems they depend on.

For further information contact:

Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé
International Development Research Centre, Canada