Over the past 20 years, 54-year-old Sankar, along with Muthupet’s coastal community and forest department, has dug canals to enable freshwater flow into the mangroves and planted mangrove saplings. Illustration by Chaaya Prabhat.

Sankar mobilises his community to dig 3000 canals

There were 200 traditional fishing canals in Muthupet, but on realising the importance of the inflow of fresh water to keep the soil salinity in control, Sankar began to mobilise his community to dig more canals — with the help of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department — leading the Cauvery river water into the wetland.

Over 20 years, Sankar worked closely with researchers to educate the coastal community on the importance of mangrove forests to their livelihood and, with the Forest Department, to dig over 3,000 canals spread across 5,000 hectares. These canals are also his legacy.

“I have been involved with a lot of programmes to spread awareness among coastal communities in the neighbouring regions and in conservation activities, but I consider my contribution in digging the canals to be my most important work. They are my legacy. Even when I am gone, the canals will continue to keep the salinity levels low, preserve the mangroves and in turn, protect my people,” Sankar says.

3,000 canals were dug across 5,000 hectares in Muthupet to feed fresh water to the mangroves while flowing into the sea. Salinity levels in Muthupet increased due to changes in rainfall patterns and reduction in river water levels. Image from Google Maps.
3,000 canals were dug across 5,000 hectares in Muthupet to feed fresh water to the mangroves while flowing into the sea. Salinity levels in Muthupet increased due to changes in rainfall patterns and reduction in river water levels. Image from Google Maps.
An artificially dug canal lined by replanted mangrove saplings. Photo by Sankar.
An artificially dug canal lined by replanted mangrove saplings. Photo by Sankar.

But, with scarce and erratic rainfall patterns, and an ongoing tug of war between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for Cauvery water, the hope for restoring the diversity of the mangrove forests are slim. Selvam says, “Unless more river water is released into the sea, the soil salinity levels are unlikely to get better. It is this fresh water that flows into the sea through the canals while feeding the mangroves. But since the State receives erratic rainfall and has often faced drought, the government is keen on saving the water for citizens, especially farmers.”

Most government authorities consider letting the river water flow into the sea waste and as a result, they try to ensure that very little is allowed to be “wasted”, the researcher adds.

Sankar, however, is optimistic. “When I was little, when the monsoon would set it, we would have a big festival and worship Paampatti Siddhar (a sage with an affinity towards snakes). We believe that he protects us from snakes when we venture out to catch fish. Now, even though the rains set in around November, we have maintained the tradition and continue to celebrate the festival on July 15. It has become a way to keep us connected to our past,” he says.

He knows that unless there is an increase in fresh water flow to the wetland, certain mangrove species will continue to die out, but he is determined to put up a fight. “We cannot change rainfall patterns but we will do what we can to save this ecosystem — from planting new mangrove saplings to protecting the existing ones. It has given us food and shelter for more than 200 hundred years. The least that we can do is at least try to conserve it,” he says.

Women from the community digging canals and planting mangrove saplings to restore the habitat. Photo by Sankar.
Women from the community digging canals and planting mangrove saplings to restore the habitat. Photo by Sankar.

 

Illustration by Chaaya Prabhat, a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives and works in Chennai and works on picture books, editorial and all sorts of illustration work.

Article published by Aditi
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