How much of green cover has been lost?
Chennai city had a green cover of 9.5 per cent before the cyclone, as per a report of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). But no concerted effort had been taken to record the actual number of trees in the city. The cyclone, Chennai City Corporation commissioner D Karthikeyan says, uprooted around 18,000 trees, both exotic and native species, along city roads, parks and interior streets and a further 10,000 to 15,000 trees in private properties, college campuses, the Guindy national park and Vandalur locality, which was in the eye of the storm. It wreaked the maximum havoc at the three residential areas with sizeable green cover — Anna Nagar, Nungambakkam and Besant Nagar — besides the city’s popular green pockets at the Guindy National Park, IIT-Madras campus, Theosophical Society and the Madras Christian College (MCC) campus.
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Did native trees survive the cyclone?
While it is known that exotic trees are more vulnerable to cyclones and excess rainfall, Nanditha Krishna, a leading environmentalist based in Chennai who witnessed the devastating cyclone that hit the city in the early 90s, says Vardah was so severe that it did not spare any species. “Native trees are usually more strong and adaptive to the local climate. But in my campus (CPR foundation) alone, I lost palm, coconut, neem and tamarind trees. It has been so devastating that even the strongest native trees haven’t survived,” she says. Corporation commissioner Karthikeyan says that among the tonnes of logs being collected by corporation trucks, from various parts of the city, are a mix of both exotic and native species. “The most visible of the fallen trees have been exotic ones as we always have them besides roads and in parks. They are chosen for their quick growth, large canopies and for aesthetic reasons. But the cyclone was so severe that even native trees have fallen in areas such as Guindy National Park and IIT-Madras,” says D Narasimhan, a leading environmentalist and a botany professor at the Madras Christian College. While environmentalist Krishna contends that trees that fell were largely those which had been strangulated in a concrete jungle with shorter roots and less soil, Narasimhan, who is familiar with almost all green pockets in the city, lists other reasons such poor soil foundation and soil type, and adds that trees with stem infections and those over weight were also vulnerable.
So what tree species have been affected?
The city lies on the stretch from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh to Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu, popularly known as the pocket of ‘traditional coastal vegetation.’ Although majority of its green patches have disappeared, Chennai’s natural vegetation largely consists of ‘tropical dry evergreen trees’ such Madhuca longifolia (iluppai), Cassia fistula (manjal kondrai), Cassia roxburghii (sigappu kondrai), Saraca asoca (asokam), Thespesia populnea (poovarasu), Terminalia catappa (almond), Albizia lebbeck (vaagai), Melia azedarach (vembu), Millettia pinnatta (pungai) and Millingtonia (maramalli).
“That is exactly what we lost now. Along with exotic varieties such as Gulmohar (from Madagascar), rain trees (from tropical American regions), Copper Pod (from South East Asia) and Siamese Cassia, there were also plenty of Neem trees and other popular native trees that were uprooted,” says Narasimhan.
How did the city react to the unprecedented tree fall? What next?
In spite of the massive tree fall, the death toll was limited, thanks to better preparedness unlike during the floods of 2015. Within 12 hours of Cyclone Vardah, the state administration had responded quickly, clearing roads and highways. The city corporation trucks are now busy dropping wood at 58 temporary dump sites. The state government has also asked the Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Limited (TNPL) to look at ways of using the logs. While urban life has seemingly been unaffected, barring damage to a few private vehicles and buildings, Samathwapuram village, 30 kms away from the city, has not only lost 80 per cent of green cover but also damage to over 100 houses.
The next big challenge for the administration will be to restore its already shrinking green cover. Even before the cyclone, at 9.5 per cent, it lagged behind Delhi (20 per cent) and Mumbai (14 per cent) in this regard. Corporation commissioner Karthikeyan says a meeting has been called this weekend to discuss what varieties need to be replanted. “We do not want to claim that we will plant double the number of uprooted trees but we need to scientifically pick and plant the best varieties. The government has already promised funding for this massive mission,” he says.