Over the past two decades, Amresh Samanth, 46, has planted tens of thousands of trees spread across 40 hectares of land around a cluster of towns and villages in Jagatsinghpur district, a part of Mahanadi River delta and one of the most flood-affected regions in the country.
The electrical engineer did not marry to be able to dedicate his time to the cause, devoting his salary to the man-made forests.
Mr Samanth’s selfless efforts have earned him the moniker Brukhya Manab — or Tree Man — in the state.
“It is not a mission but a revolution,” Mr Samanth told The National.
“Planting trees has become a part of my life. I interact with people in faraway villages and towns and cities and make them aware of cyclones and other calamities and encourage them to plant trees.”
A 2021 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said because of climate change, coastal areas around the world will experience rising sea levels, resulting in coastal erosion and more frequent and severe flooding in low–lying areas.
In India, the east and west coasts face the full force of climate change, with increased cyclones and storms in the past decade.
The coastal districts of Odisha stretch about 480 kilometres along the coast of Bay of Bengal — the largest bay in the world and the hotbed of tropical cyclones — and are prone to extreme climatic events such as cyclones, storms and floods.
Eight out of the 10 worst tropical cyclones in the world originated over the Bay of Bengal, according to a list by Weather Underground.
In the past 20 years, the state, which has a population of 47 million, has recorded 10 cyclones, including super cyclones, that killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions living along the coastline.
Natural calamities increased threefold in the state between 1970 and 2019, according to the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a policy research institution in New Delhi.
Odisha was devastated by a powerful cyclone in 1999, in which 10,000 people died.
Four people were killed and more than two million were displaced after Cyclone Yaas pounded the state in May last year.
The state then faced the brunt of Cyclone Jawad, the first winter cyclone in 100 years, in December. Nearly 55,000 people had to be moved from coastal areas to safe shelters.
The 'alternate hazards' of flooding and droughts
Experts and environmentalists say the state is vulnerable to natural calamities because of rapid industrialisation causing deforestation, soil erosion in coastal areas and pollution.
“Odisha is a highly cyclone-prone state. It is in transition from a forest and agriculture economy to a mines and industry-based economy, which amounts to large-scale removal of natural forests,” Sundara Narayana Patro, environmentalist and president of Orissa Environmental Society, told The National.
“Floods and droughts are alternate hazards and despite large-scale deforestation and mining activities, watershed management is not receiving due attention … there is fast soil erosion in rivers so even if there is little rain there is flood,” Mr Patro said.
In Jagatsinghpur, floods are frequent as a result of rainfall combined with high tides from the Bay of Bengal, which is just 10 kilometres to the east, destroying crops and livelihoods of a large number of villagers, mostly tribal communities.
Mr Samanth says he has started a revolution in the state to fight soil erosion.
He initially embarked on an afforestation drive to fight pollution, but since the increase in the number of cyclones, he changed the mission.
He has planted trees near motorways and ponds, in open unused land, school premises and government offices.
“We started planting trees to fight pollution caused by industrialisation, but after the super cyclone we changed our mission and started massive plantations. Since 2010, there have been six cyclones … the village forests were destroyed each time. The trees were uprooted,” Mr Samanth said.
“We all know trees help in controlling soil erosion, hence we started planting trees and creating mini rural and urban forests.”
Every winter, the Tree Man, who has a network of 100 volunteers, mostly villagers who work in the fields or as fishermen, starts looking for space in school properties or public property.
By spring, they have successfully identified the land to plant saplings for their next mini-forest.
They plant locally grown trees, including teak and mango, that have deeper roots and can help to “control soil erosion”, he said.
The urban forests are secured by a cement wall and barbed wire so no cattle can destroy them.
There are also dedicated round-the-clock caretakers who visit the forests to water the saplings and look after the trees until they are five years of age.
“We plant 1,000 trees, including fruit trees, at one time. We do row plantation. We look for unused land. Earlier, we did not need permission but now we get written permission from landowners, say if it is a school or government land,” he said.
Experts say while urgent large-scale efforts and policies by the government are required to mitigate the climate crisis, grassroots initiatives such as Mr Samanth's can certainly help in dealing with the crisis.
“Unless there is community participation for the creation and protection of the forests, no government scheme to mitigate climate change will be successful. These grassroots initiatives must be integrated to deal with the crisis,” Mr Patro said.
“While attention should be given to natural forests on a priority basis, man-made forests should also be promoted because even though these don't have the eco-system serviceability, they play a vital role to fight floods and soil erosion to some extent.”