Floods imperil Western Ghats ecology

Govt initiates steps for rapid assessment of biodiversity loss

August 29, 2018 10:59 pm | Updated August 30, 2018 03:35 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

The intense rainfall that unleashed widespread devastation throughout Kerala earlier this month could have extracted a heavy toll on the rich biodiversity and ecology of the Western Ghats region, according to experts.

The government has initiated steps for a rapid assessment of the biodiversity loss, prior to launching remedial measures for ecological restoration.

“The Kerala Forest Research Institute and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation will be tasked with the preparation of a report after studying the situation,” M.C. Dathan, Scientific Adviser to the Chief Minister, told The Hindu .

“The disaster is bound to have left a lasting impact on the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats,” says Oommen V. Oommen, former Chairman, Kerala State Biodiversity Board.

“Everything from mammals to reptiles, amphibians, vegetation and microflora are likely to have been affected. It may take decades for the ecosystem to recover from the shock.”

Dr. Oommen stressed the need for a quick assessment of the damage using internationally acceptable tools.

Invasive species’ threat

“The heavy rain and floods could impact the ecosystem in several ways,” says T.V. Sajeev, Principal Scientist, KFRI. “For one, it could trigger the spread of invasive species like the Giant African Snail which was so far confined to 123 specific localities. The inundation of vast areas could have created an environment for these species to proliferate.”

Dr. Sajeev, who also coordinates the Asia-Pacific Forest Invasive Species Network (APFISN), said the floods were likely to trigger a major shift in the diversity of flora, with invasive species taking over from endemic varieties. “It could enhance the threat to Rare, Endangered and Threatened (RET) species, leaving them more vulnerable.” The protracted spell of heavy rain is also feared to trigger virulent fungal infections in trees and plants.

Aquatic system

The impact of the floods on the riverine and aquatic systems is another area of concern for environmentalists and experts.

“The heavy debris washed down by floodwaters has displaced several endemic fish species from their habitat, leaving the field open for more hardy invasive species to establish a beach head,” says A. Biju Kumar, Professor, Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala.

“After the floods, our rivers are teeming with predatory species like the Arapaima and Alligator fish and exotic aquaculture species like the Tilapia and African catfish. This has the potential to upset the riverine ecosystem,’’ he observes.

The department has joined hands with the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies to assess the impact of the rain and floods on the aquatic system.

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