Author – Nandini Kumar
Growth of macro algae in Chilika Lake – Photo via www.ostcbu.nic.in
Chilika Lake, a wintering ground for millions of migratory birds, home to thousands of fisher folk, a paradise for tourists and nature lovers, is the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia. Located along the coast of Odisha, this 1,100 sq km lagoon filled with water with salinity between that of freshwater and sea water. Rich in fishery resources housing about 205 species of fish, this highly productive area has been a source of livelihood for 150,000 fisher folk.
Problem – Loss of livelihood
However, over the years, the lagoon bore the brunt of various intensive and rash agricultural activities including the conversion of paddy fields into prawn ponds, which eventually caused heavy pollution in the area. Furthermore, the rapid expansion of the commercial aquaculture led to a significant decline in the fish and bird population of the lake. This drastic change adversely affected the livelihood of the community that depended on Chilika, forcing them to abandon their ponds. With no food to eat, nowhere to go, not enough fish to catch and severe unemployment, the once flourishing lagoon became a dismal and hopeless place for the locals.
When all seemed lost, renowned marine biologist, Dr.Dinabandhu Sahoo made an effort to apply his scientific knowledge and findings for the socio-economic development of the people living in coastal areas. Chilika seemed the perfect place to implement his extensive research on microalgae and he spent 20 years studying the area and its problems in an effort to arrive at a sustainable solution.
Solution – Seaweed cultivation
After detailed work in the field of seaweed cultivation, Dr.Dinabandhu Sahoo developed a model called the ‘Chilika Model’ based on the concept of generating wealth from waste. This model is aimed at the socio-economic upliftment of the distressed communities by generating employment around the lagoon.
Dr.Sahoo based his project on the fact that the seaweeds’ industry is economically rewarding, which is worth around $8 billion per year. Furthermore, the demand for seaweed is increasing at the rate of 10% every year due to its wider applications in the manufacture of toothpaste, ice-cream, textile printing, teeth filling, cosmetics, tissue culture, plywood and biofuels.
Along with his team, Dr.Sahoo studied 14 different algae species, which were suitable for the Chilika Lake region and narrowed down on four species that were the most economically beneficial. Next, his team carried out the task of determining which species to grow where based on an analysis of salinity, pH and turbidity conditions of the lagoon. The subsequent task was on educating the locals about the technique of seaweed cultivation in a simple manner. It was not an easy task to encourage the villagers to shed their orthodox beliefs and apprehensions and become a part of this new project. The entire activity was handled by NGOs and self-help groups (SHGs) under the able guidance of Dr.Sahoo.
The beauty of Chilika seaweed cultivation lies in its sustainability and simplicity. The technique used in the project requires common local material like bamboo, nylon rope, torn fishing nets and hammers, and therefore can be easily carried out by the people of nearby villages. The crop is ready to be harvested within 45 days of planting and cultivators earn INR5,000 per month on an average. An added advantage is the continuous cycle of cultivation unlike some traditional crops. Along with harvesting, seeds are sown for the next cycle of crops, thus paving the way for continuous daily income for the cultivators.
Initiated in 2009, the Chilika seaweed cultivation project was a great success allowing the dislocated people to move back to Chilika and engage in this new form of livelihood. Today, several self-help groups, especially women are involved in seaweed cultivation. Apart from financially empowering the people around the Chilika lagoon, the seaweed cultivation activity is also environmentally beneficial as it restores the carbon absorption capacity of the water. The only setback for the project is that it is a slow process. Expanding it to areas beyond Chilika would require prior research on the climatic and soil conditions in order to determine the species of algae that would grow most abundantly in a given area.
This pioneering Chilika Model has been used as the base by the Department of Science & Technology, Government of India, to develop the first nation-wide project of seaweed cultivation in different coastal areas of India as an alternative source of livelihood for local people. Its success was also highlighted in detail in the bestseller book, ‘I Have a Dream’ by Rashmi Bansal. In order to sensitize the masses about the situation in Chilika Lake, Dr.Sahoo also co-directed a documentary, ‘Chilika – The Untold Story’.
A scientist with a mission, he says, “We have seen the green revolution, and the white revolution. My dream is to see a ‘Blue Revolution’, by harnessing the vast potential of the sea.” The fruitful outcome of his project at Chilika has definitely brought him closer to realizing this dream. Dr.Sahoo’s relentless efforts beautifully exemplify the power of innovation and the importance of using theoretical knowledge for the progress of society at large.