It is among the most beautiful spots on earth and controls all that lies in the mainland, but it is constantly being eroded due to sea-level rise and catastrophic extreme events like Cyclone Aila
By Shibaji Bose
“YOU may think that I am making up stories. Actually, coming to think of it, the tale of our island over the last two decades is stranger than fiction,” says Amulya Roy a 70-year-old resident of Ghoramara, which is now better known as the ‘sinking island’.
Such stories are common in Ghoramara, one of the 54 inhabited islands among 103 in the Indian Sunderbans, which is now under severe threat of worldwide climate change and associated sea level rise.
More often than not, it is not the story of an individual but of an entire hamlet facing the apocalypse. Amulya Roy was born in a household in the once largest hamlets in Ghoramara – Khasimara. He has seen his seven and a half hectares of agricultural land and homestead being gradually eaten away by the river.
He along with other members of his community has tried to regroup on each occasion, building and rebuilding their houses, only to see the river destroying it. It happened five times. Today he lives in a small piece of land donated by one of the fellow islanders.
The Khasimara hamlet now has only 50 families trying to eke out a living. A single grocery store remains of what was the busiest bazaar in the island. Remains of the temple by the side of the store silently bear the testimony to a once teeming community.
For the last 31 years, Ghoramara has lost almost half of its land due to climate change-induced land erosion and embankment breaching. Originally, the total land mass of the island was 8.51 sq km. Currently, it has been reduced to 4.45 sq km due to continual sea level rise resulting in the gradual destruction in the estuary and causing the island to erode away. According to the latest census, the population of island hovers around 5,000, a far cry from the 30,000 strong population three decades ago.
Ghoramara island is not a solitary case. Mousuni island situated very near to the river Hatania-Doania (a channel which connects India and Bangladesh) and the now uninhabited Jambu Dweep island lost 25 per cent of the landmass in the last four decades.
The catastrophic Cyclone Aila in 2009 – itself a manifestation of climate change and a major flood in 2014, which breached the embankment and inundated huge tracts of land on the island, were the major wreckers. Up to 3/4th of the island gets flooded every year and the projections are that another 15 per cent of the land would be engulfed by 2020.
Arabindo Shahu, a middle-aged farmer who had to rebuild his house twice after having lost the land due to erosion, rued: “I still have an acre of land completely useless for agriculture due to high saline levels after the river flooded this tract last year.”
Unlike Ghoramara, Mousuni island still boasts of a 25,000 strong population which now jostles for space. With the increasing population density and depleting land mass, the inhabitants of the fertile island see their agricultural land shrinking at a rapid pace.
Islanders of Ghoramara say that almost every year (excepting 2013) especially after Aila in 2009, they are facing extreme events, either in the form of cyclone or floods or inundations.
Upasona Ghosh, an anthropologist working with IIHMR University and a project lead for several research studies on climate change and health systems in the Sundarbans say: “Inundations mainly occur due to sea level rise and related embankment breaching. Severe flooding and cyclonic events are frequent add on to inundations.
The impact varies from demolition of homestead, loss of agricultural lands, loss of productivity of agricultural land and fishing ponds, scarcity of potable water and moderate to severe health hazards like diarrheal, skin rashes.” The islanders of Mousuni and Ghoramara, she says, “are left with only one option: Migration. Migration is mostly seasonal but of late the cases of permanent migrations have also increased.”
The predicament of these two islands is part of a larger plot which is affecting the entire Sundarbans, now under severe threat of worldwide climate change and associated sea level rise.
According to estimates by School of Oceanographic Studies (SOOS), Jadavpur University, Sundarbans recorded a mean sea-level rise of 3.27mm/year from 1993 to 2010, which is higher than the global average of 0.5 to 3 mm/year. The same study calculated that the sea level rose by 17.8 mm/year between 2000 and 2009 in the southern part of the Sundarbans.
The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has also forecasted a higher than usual rise in sea surface temperatures and rise in sea levels for the entire eastern coast of India and neighbouring Bangladesh. What is worrisome is that the findings stated that this raising may cause a total hike of 20 cm by 2050. This amount of rising will lead to the submerging of vast areas of Sundarbans delta which had already lost 97.16 sq km land in the southern part.
Close to five million islanders live in this fragile and dynamic delta while facing mounting challenges to their livelihoods
A more recent study carried out by WWF led by Prof Sugata Hazra, Director of SOOS, in 2011 found out that in Sundarbans the rate of erosion is much higher than the accretions rate. The study estimated that about 69,000 people from the different islands of southern Sundarbans have been displaced.
They also projected that by 2020, more than 1.3 million people from different part of the Sundarbans will be displaced by the sea level rise and resultant coastal erosion.
What is really a cause for worry, says Prof Hazra: “Under the modelled maximum sea level rise scenario of 1.48 meter, over 17% of the island system will be eroded off by the turn of the century. By 2050 more than a million people, as per our estimates, need to be relocated.”
Despite this sorry tales of islanders and dark forebodings of the scientific community, the world at large sees Sundarbans, literally ‘beautiful forest’ in Bengali, as an immense archipelago spread over the southern end of both West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh, as a UNESCO heritage site or as the largest remaining natural habitat of the Bengal Tiger.
“There exists a dichotomy in our perception of Sundarbans,” says a prominent member of the Environment Ministry on the condition of anonymity. Indeed the so-called ‘eco-tourism’ industry is flourishing in the Sundarbans and the state government has announced a Rs 187 crore largesse for developing the already fragile delta as a tourist site.
This despite the Green Bench of the Calcutta High Court passing several rulings with respect to conservation of wetlands with regard to the Ramsar Convention (Sundarbans is the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world) for strict adherence to the norms by the decision makers and representatives of the hotel and the fishing industry.
Surprisingly, the Green bench is silent when it comes to decrees regarding policy documents on developing translating and adapting mechanisms to facilitate their use by the local community. Several violations by the fishing and the tourism lobby with regards to the destruction of the embankments and livelihoods of the marginal fishermen and women have never been dealt with strongly by an effective environmental regulation.
Phanibhusan Mondal, the Secretary of Global Welfare Trust, a community-based organisation working on climate change, spells the situation out: “The interest of trade lobby – fishing and tourism seem to override the necessity of a clear and coherent strategy to combat the climate change and its effect on the native populace.
He goes on to add: “The institutions that make macro policy are unable to decide from conflicting evidence on climate change from the academia is evident from the fact that there have been claims and counter claims from two distinct school of thoughts.
One camp-leading by renowned claims that the sea level rise and the net erosion-attrition level is higher than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) records for coastal regions. The other camp maintains that Sundarbans being an active delta the land eroded from an island would automatically get added to the land mass of another island.”
According to initial findings of the “Deltas, Vulnerability & Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation (DECCMA)” project which is analysing the impact of climate change and other environmental drivers across contrasting deltas in Africa and Asia, the high sea level condition will also be a threat to low-lying areas of Kolkata which have been experiencing repeated water logging after heavy rainfall. The slow but gradual changes are already visible in Kolkata.
“It is not panic stations yet”, says an official from the Forest department. “But the planners need to talk to the scientists and the local governments more to make future plans. The situation indeed needs well thought out, pro-people policy intervention.”
The reality, though, is a different story. The departments like health, women and social welfare, employment generation schemes, irrigation are uncertain of converging with the Sundarbans Affairs Department (SAD the nodal agency) due to the ambiguity on the role of the nodal agency.
SAD was formed essentially to oversee governance and support to the people living in this climatically fraught and geographically unique terrain. One of its mandates is to be consulted by an advisory body with members drawn from civil society, environment activists, people’s representatives and the academia.
Over the years SAD has been reduced to an ineffectual body largely of its decisions are not binding on the other government departments and even to the Sundarbans Development Board (SDB), which has its own centralised construction driven agenda with no willingness for consultation with the people’s representatives.
Researchers from the Norway University of Life Sciences did three studies on Climate Change Uncertainty and Transformation on the drylands (Kutch), wetlands (Sundarbans) and megapolis (Mumbai) while studying the coping, adaptation or mitigation for the changing climate in the Sundarbans.
They feel that “a critical first step forward would be to understand the existing and future possibilities of transformational changes in the Sundarbans and how the contextual socio-cultural, economic and political transformations have an impact on the climate change uncertainties and vice versa”.
Prof Lyla Mehta, Co-leader of the Resource Politics Cluster, Institute of Development Studies at Sussex, who has been studying the ‘uncertainties and scope for transformation’ in the Sundarbans observes: “Climate-related uncertainties, like floods and cyclones, will continue to pose threats, especially to marginal environments such as the Indian Sundarbans.
By 2020, more than 1.3 million people from different parts of the sundarbans will be displaced due to sea level rise
Close to five million islanders live in this fragile and dynamic delta while facing mounting challenges to their livelihoods and shelter. Incremental approaches to address these challenges, such as building embankments, are unlikely to be sufficient in the long run and more systemic and people-centric approaches are needed to trigger broader transformations that ensure the islanders’ well-being in the 21st century.”
Transformation of the islands is a complex process that entails changes at the personal, cultural, organisational, and institutional levels to deal with the climatic changes within a given context. Still, the scope for transformational changes under climatic threats in Sundarbans is manifold.
Of late there have been some bright specks in the otherwise gloomy future of Sundarbans. Transformational adaptation in the agricultural system is being tried out with salinity resistance traditional paddy variety and changes in the agricultural practices, which is helping the farmers to build a climate resilient crop production system.