Small Indian islands face huge ecological stress - GulfToday

Small Indian islands face huge ecological stress

Meena Janardhan

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.

Small Indian islands face huge ecological stress

Experts say that the major threats of these regions are population growth and the influence of climate change.

Away from the Indian mainland, the rich forests and biodiversity of the strategically important islands of Andaman and the Nicobar and Lakshadweep are battling pressures of climate change, seismic impacts, tourism and developmental activities – pressures similar to those on forests in the mainland.

The recently released India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2019 points out that due to the geographic isolation of these islands, a large degree of endemism exists which means that the ecosystems of these islands are vulnerable to disturbances. Experts say that the major threats of these regions are population growth and the influence of climate change.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands comprise 572 islands with a total geographical area of about 8,249 sq.km, 0.25% of the total geographical area of India. Of the 8,249 sq. km, over 80% of the land is recorded as forest land, which includes nine national parks, 96 wildlife sanctuaries and one biosphere reserve. They support very luxuriant and rich vegetation due to tropical hot and humid climate with abundant rains. The surrounding seas are equally rich in marine biodiversity.

The report noted that about 2,200 varieties of plants have been recorded in the Islands, out of which 200 are endemic (found nowhere else in the world) and 1,300 do not occur in mainland India. These islands are at the entrance to the Malacca Strait, the world’s busiest shipping route. Now, coupled with tourism and climate change, the forests of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are facing immense pressure.

According to the ISFR report, the importance of forests in this region can be ascertained from their diversity. It states that while the forest cover in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has increased by 0.78 sq. km, the mangrove cover has decreased by one square kilometre, relative to their 2017 status report.

Experts point out that the ecological and environmental struggle in these small islands are a result of human impact, climate change and seismic effects. The 1950s to 1980s saw alarming migration trends leading to a steep climb in population. The islands also face at least one earthquake every 72 to 96 hours. In 2019, 138 tremors hit the island according to United States Geological Survey data. The 2004 earthquake uplifted the northern Andaman coast, causing a tsunami and resulting in a drastic reduction of tidal water influx into the adjoining mangrove-laden mudflats.

The report adds that the forestry practices in these islands have undergone significant changes in the last more than 125 years of scientific forestry, influenced by major policy changes and socioeconomic situations. The current focus of forest management in the islands is towards biodiversity conservation along with sustainable use of forest produce for local inhabitants, to protect the environment for future generations.

On the other side of India, located in the Arabian Sea off the western coast, Lakshadweep is a group of 36 islands and is the smallest union territory of India. Its total geographical area is only 30 sq. km and it has a total population of only 0.064 million.

According to the ISFR 2019, the forest cover in the union territory is 27.10 sq.km which is 90.33% of its geographical area. About 82% of the land mass is covered by privately owned coconut plantations. It has a vast lagoon of 4,200 sq.km with sandy beaches and abundance of marine fauna.

The report points out that the biggest stress that the whole ecological system of the area faces is climate change. Experts say that these islands will become inhabitable by maximum two to three generations. The livelihood of inhabitants of Lakshadweep is dependent on fishery and tourism but one of the most serious concerns the region faces is coastal erosion. Large scale commercial fishing that is taking place is also emptying the fish stocks.

Another study published in the journal Current Science by a team of Indian researchers from Space Application Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad, India, warns that rising sea temperatures due to climate change could put the wondrous underwater coral reefs near these islands under peril. Oceans act as massive sinks for the greenhouse gases emitted by anthropogenic activities. However, as they absorb them, the oceans warm up and there are changes in the seawater chemistry.

Their study, which analysed data of sea surface temperatures since 1982, has found that three mass bleaching events occurred in 1998, 2010 and 2016, impacting five major Indian coral reef regions — in Andaman, Nicobar, Lakshadweep, Gulf of Mannar and Gulf of Kutch.

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