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Interview with Ritesh Kumar about the Lake Chilika (India)


 This article, originally entitled "The Story of Lake Chilika" is published in the book "The Ecosystem Promise" by Meindert Brouwer.

Lake Chilika, India

Imagine a lagoon on the eastern coast of India. From the side of the mainland sweet water of a river flows into the lagoon. From the seaside at the Gulf of Bengal salt water and fish move in. In the lagoon fisheries thrive. Then the river gets sandy and brings sediments to the lagoon. As a result, the opening at the seaside gets choked-up. The amount of fish in the lagoon which is now fully separated from the sea, decreases. Local people around the lagoon who depend on fish, become poor. Later somebody starts to do something about it. Now the lagoon is full of life again and fisheries thrive. It is the story of Lake Chilika, located within the Indian state of Orissa.

Dr. Ajit Pattnaik, Chief Executive of the Chilika Development Authority and Ritesh Kumar, Conservation Programme Manager of Wetlands International in South Asia are two of the leading men of the Lake Chilika rescue team. Ritesh tells about the past and the present of Lake Chilika the surface of which fluctuates between a monsoon maximum of 1,165 square kilometers and a dry season minimum of 906 square kilometers. The long-term objective of the project is conservation and wise use of Lake Chilika, integrating ecological security and the livelihood improvement of local communities.


The presence of unique salinity gradient enables the lake to host a wide range of biodiversity which includes 318 species of fish, 224 species of water birds (including 97 inter-continental migrants) and 726 species of angiosperms, several of them of economic value. The lake regularly hosts over one million of wintering migratory birds. It is also one of the two lagoons in the world that support the Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella bervirostris). Barkudia insularis, a limbless skink, is endemic to Chilika.


The diverse and dynamic assemblage of fish, invertebrate and crustacean species provide the basis for rich fishery which includes 73 economically important fish, prawn and crab species with an average annual yield of 11,800 MT. Fisheries guarantee the livelihood of over 140,000 individials who are depend on the lake for their sustenance. Chilika also harbors a rich diversity of aquatic plants, several species of which are harvested for use by communities living around the lake and on its floodplains. As per assessments of 2007, over 58,000 MT of vegetation was harvested from Chilika. The wetland is also used as a mode of navigation, especially by island village communities. The enormous water storage capacity of around 1200 MCM with a water level variation in excess of a meter provides a huge capacity downstream for buffering floods.

 High biodiversity and cultural values of the lake make it one of the most important tourist destinations of the Orissa state. The lake is visited by 300,000 domestic and foreign tourists every year. Chilika is also intertwined with the rich cultural heritage of the state. The temple of Kalijai is highly revered by the communities living in around the lake. Archaeological remains at Manikpatna, Palur and adjacent areas mark the rich maritime heritage of the wetland.

Economic values 

The economic values of the direct user benefits from the wetland systems – through fisheries, tourism, aquatic vegetation and inland navigation – have been estimated to be US$ 62.8 million per annum, US$ 46.7 million of which is accounted for by tourism, US$ 15.4 by fisheries and the rest by benefits from harvesting aquatic plants and use for inland navigation. The restoration of the wetland has contributed positively to local livelihoods through the expansion of the resource basis. An economic assessment of the contribution of the hydrological intervention to the fish catch, assessed the benefit to be US$ 8.7 million per annum.

Decline and restoration 

Chilika underwent rapid degradation during 1950 – 2000 owing to increasing sediment loads from catchments and a reduced connectivity with the sea leading to decreasing salinity. The lake fisheries underwent a major decline, invasive weeds proliferated and the wetland shrank in area and volume. This had a tremendous impact on the livelihood of communities, especially fishers who depended on the lake for sustenance. Introduction of shrimp culture further added pressure on lagoon ecology and ultimately led to significant disruption of community institutions, especially the traditional community governance of lake fisheries.

In 1992 the Government of Orissa created the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) for restoration of the ecosystem. The CDA took several measures for lake remediation including catchment area treatment, hydrobiological monitoring, sustainable development of fisheries, wildlife conservation, ecotourism development, community participation and development and capacity building at various levels. In 2000, a major hydrological intervention was carried out by opening a new mouth to the Bay of Bengal which helped improve salinity levels, enhanced fish landing, led to a decrease of invasive species and overall improvement of the lake water quality. The initiative rejuvenated the lake ecosystem and significantly improved the livelihood of wetland dependent communities.

The restoration was recognized by the granting of The Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award and Evian Special Prize to the CDA in 2002

Who are the beneficiaries of the restoration of Lake Chilika

Local beneficiaries of the restoration are the 140,000 inviduals of the local communities who benefit from the wetland fisheries and also partly engage in tourism. The wetland is also an important source of revenue and foreign exchange for the state government. At an international level, the conservation of Chilika fulfils commitments under the Ramsar Convention. The wetland provides opportunities for further research for the national and international wetland community. Beneficiaries also include international tourists from the United States, European Union, Australia and several Asian countries who come to visit Chilika.

Chilika is set to become a model example of coexistence of high biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods.


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