The 7.7 million inhabitants of the largest mangrove forest in the world face a bleak future as coastal erosion and high tides consume their islands.
The “beautiful jungle” that straddles India and Bangladesh to form the world’s largest mangrove forest known as Sundarbans is facing a coastal erosion emergency that threatens the survival of its 7.7 million inhabitants, 2.7 million in Bangladesh and five million in India. And climate change is only hastening the inevitable.
“Bonbibi [the guardian spirit] will protect us from the tigers and crocodiles, but who will protect us from cyclones and the rising sea?” asks Debabrata Babu, a 58-year-old resident of Gosaba Island in the Sundarbans of West Bengal. Babu has survived six cyclones, four of his houses were gobbled up by the rising sea, and the land that remains is highly saline and uncultivable.
Since 1783, when Tilman Henckell, the magistrate of Jessore (now in Bangladesh), ordered the clearing of the Sundarban forests for timber, the early migrants and settlers here have had to face the ravages of cyclones, shifting rivers, high tides, floods, erosion, and the ever-looming threat of attack by the Bengal tiger.
Climate change has exacerbated all the natural phenomena to the extent that in the Sundarbans life is increasingly under threat. A 2009 study estimated the costs of the environmental damage and health issues at Rs.1,290 crore annually1 ($250 million). In fact, in the last two decades, more climate refugees have fled here than from any other ecosystem in the region. An estimated 62 per cent of the workforce has lost their original livelihoods, and 1.5 million people have been forced to move.
The name Sundarban, which means beautiful jungle in Bengali, perhaps comes from the Sundari trees (Heritiera fomes) that once thrived in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, but are now listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Mangroves act as vital “carbon sinks”,2 efficiently removing CO2 through natural carbon capture. One study3 estimates that the Sundarbans have soaked up 45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Through centuries, tides have formed the Sundarbans; the islands vanish and reappear in a natural rhythm. But over the last couple of decades, the variations have become more extreme, and the pace of erosion outpaces the global average.4 The Sundarbans, which extends over an area of 10,000 square kilometres, is slowly shrinking5 and has lost “almost 16 sq km of vegetation per year since 1991” because of human encroachment and climate change.
As the sea level rises and the tides swell, houses are raised high above the ground and embankments are strengthened every year. But the breaches continue unabated, as cyclone after cyclone batters the region. Four cyclones in the last five years—Fani (2019), Bulbul (2019), Amphan (2020), and Yash (2021)—have destroyed embankments even as they were being repaired.
“The challenge for the government is not only to save lives but ensure livelihoods and preserve this ecosystem,” Javed Ahmed Khan, West Bengal’s Minister in-charge of Disaster Management and Civil Defence, told this writer when he visited the region in March this year.
The State government is now looking for climate finance to repair and restore the loss and damage. There are plans to commission a comprehensive audit of embankments to find the best-suited methods to strengthen them against the onslaught of the sea.
Shailendra Yashwant is an independent environmental writer and photographer. He is Senior Adviser, Communications and Advocacy, at Climate Action Network South Asia based in India.