Deforestation. A term that, sadly, is in common usage today. Yet how often do any of us stop to think about the consequences of losing our trees? If it doesn’t directly affect us, chances are, not very often.
We are taught in school that trees are important to maintain the oxygen balance in our atmosphere, but they do so much more than just that. The recent floods devastated our country and resulted in great loss of property and lives. As part of retrospective disaster management, we should be looking at the cumulative causes. Loss of deeply rooted trees is one such cause.
The roots of large trees anchor them firmly to the ground. As they go deeper, they create pores or spaces in the soil. During times of heavy rainfall, the surface water seeps through and is collected in these spaces, thereby retaining a fair portion of the water. When trees are absent, all the surface water remains above ground, leading to a larger flood. In a rocky area, natural water retention is less. However, the presence of trees again creates spaces in-between the rocks and increase the absorption of water.
An often-witnessed side effect of flooding are landslides. These too can be reduced through the presence of deeply rooted trees. Soil and sediments flow easily when there are no barriers. The roots of trees help pack the soil in the surrounding area firmly, making it more difficult for the soil to move. In the event of a landslide, trees will act as a natural barrier to slow down the movement of the debris, giving more time for evacuation etc.
In the case of floods too, natural forests and belts of trees act as a barrier to the water. While trees cannot stop flooding altogether, they can reduce it to a fair extent and help minimize the damage caused.
In an undisturbed ecosystem, heavy rainfall rarely causes flooding. The environment has a system to deal with extreme natural conditions. Wetlands are the ‘sponges’ of the environment. Their presence does much more than simply enrich the local biodiversity. They act as natural basins, providing a place for water to collect and drain into the soil to refuel the supply of ground water. Wetlands also play host to a variety of aquatic birds and animals. Their lifecycles and breeding habits center around such ecosystems.
Sadly, with every passing year, our wetlands are fragmented. Walkways, highways, apartments and recreation areas are wonderful to have, but not at the cost of such a valuable ecosystem. We do all this in the name of progress, but we face the consequences during the monsoons.
When I was younger, I used to go bird watching at some of these Wetlands. I’d prattle off the names of the birds I could see. Now, when I visit those very places, I see half the number of species and quarter of the land area. We are the root cause of most of our problems – the trees don’t cut themselves down neither do the wetlands shrink on their own. We need to heed the warning Mother Nature is giving us. She is harsh only because we have been harsh to her. She takes from our lives because we have taken from hers.
How much are we willing to lose before we learn our lesson? Is the price we end up paying truly worth it?
Ashinsa de Silva Wijeyeratne
Studying for a BSc in Biotechnology, Biochemistry and Microbiology
Spectrum Institute of Science and Technology