Life at Land’s End

In the Sunderbans Delta, Climate Change Means More Storms, Crumbling Islands, and Displacement

I came across a news report recently that mentions that climate-related disasters have displaced more than 42 million people in Asia in just the past two years. It reminded me of a feature I wrote in 2008 for the German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, about the plight of the people in the Sunderbans delta in Bangladesh where the land is both subsiding and eroding at the same time. If anything, the situation there and in coastal areas across Asia, has become worse since then, especially for people living on the social and economic margins of society. Sharing the English version here given the context, even though it’s a few years old.


All photos by Maureen Nandini MitraAnita Haldar serves customers tea while her husband, Nizanoor Halder hovers
in the background. The couple lost their home in a 2007 cyclone.

UNDER A POORLY thatched roof supported by bamboo poles, Anita Haldar boils black tea over a wood fire for her customers. A few feet away flows a wide brown canal where her lanky fisherman husband, Nizanoor Haldar, docks his small country boat. I sit on a rough wooden bench, sipping a glass of Anita’s rather weak brew while my hired trawler bobs beside the busy farmers’ market at Chila, a fishermen’s village in Bangladesh’s Sunderbans region. Across the wide Mongla river the green line of dense mangrove forests stretches as far as the eye can see.

“This shack is our home now. It’s all we have. Sidr took everything else,” the petite Anita tells us in Bengali, wiping her betel juice stained lips with the end of her cotton sari. The young couple, I learn, are among the millions left homeless after Cyclone Sidr tore through this deltaic country on November 15, 2007, killing nearly 4,000 people. “In some places further along the coast, the waves surged as high as the treetops,” says the soft-spoken Nizanoor, his eyes widening in horrified wonder.

Anita and Nizanoor survived Sidr’s 240 kmph winds by hunkering down in the village’s concrete school building that serves as a cyclone shelter. Half a year later they are still trying to piece their lives together. Eking out a living in this tidal region, where the flat lands coexist in an uneasy alliance with the waters, has always been hard. But now life seems to be getting harsher by the day. Most villagers I speak with say storms and cyclones are more frequent and severe. A fact local climate change experts corroborate.

Until five-six years ago, the villagers here grew paddy, lentils, and vegetables. Now rising sea levels and rampant shrimp farming have rendered the river waters increasingly saline. The groundwater too, is barely drinkable except during the monsoons and for a few months after. Villagers collect rainwater in massive earthen pots half-buried in the mud outside their homes. But even that runs out by the time March rolls around. For the next three months, till the monsoons strike in June, they have to buy water shipped over by trawlers for 66 paisa a litre – an expense the Haldars can barely afford. Sometimes, in the dark of the night, Nizanoor furtively slips his boat across the river into the narrow creeks of the mangroves to gather wood and catch crabs. “It’s illegal and dangerous, I know, but the stomach needs food to keep it quiet,” he says.

Why doesn’t he move someplace further inland where life would be a little more secure? I ask. “This is the only home I know,” he answers simply. I have no heart to tell him that the very land he’s standing on may someday slip from beneath his feet. I don’t mention all those scientific reports suggesting that a 45 centimeter rise in sea levels by the end of the century will wipe out 75 percent of the Sundarbans, including his shack by the river.

EARLIER IN THE MORNING, my rather kitschy hired trawler, with its black and green frilled awning and bright blue and red plastic deck chairs, set sail from Mongla port and chugged its way across the invisible line demarcating the last frontier of the Bengal floodplains – the Sunderbans – a sprawling archipelago of several hundred islands, some large some miniscule, stretching nearly 300 kilometers between Bangladesh and India (60 percent of the Sunderbans lie in Bangladesh).

Formed from sediments deposited by three mighty rivers – the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna – as they empty into the Bay of Bengal, the Sunderbans, which means “beautiful forests” in Bengali, is one of the world’s biggest delta regions (80,000 sq. km) and contains the world’s largest freshwater mangrove ecosystem. The entire area is criss-crossed by a maze of tidal rivers, estuaries and creeks that carry water nearly 300 km inland from the Bay of Bengal. The islands are marshy alluvial plains, still being formed and reformed by continuous siltation and powerful tidal currents. What land the waters swallow from one end, they spit out as sandbanks and burgeoning islands at another.

Unregulated trawling along the shorelines with fine mesh nets for the thread-like prawn spawn has
severely depleted local prawn and fish populations and has contributed to erosion of the islands.

We resume our journey from Chila, sailing across the river to the forested side. The tide is rising, strong and turbulent. I watch lone men and women trudging waist-deep in muddy water near the shore, dragging nets behind them. “They’re gathering prawn seeds,” explains Abdul Rehman, a young crew-member on our boat. “They’ll pace the waters all day and make only a few hundred taka.” Unregulated trawling of the waters with fine mesh nets for the thread-like prawn spawn, a practice introduced in the 1980s, has severely depleted local prawn and fish populations. The constant treading along the fragile shorelines by these fisherfolk, who I also spot loading barges with wet sand dug up from the riverbed, has contributed to erosion of the islands. But as Rahman justifies: “there isn’t much you can do here to earn a living.”

The Sunderbans supports a population of over 4 million people, most of whom scrape together a precarious livelihood by fishing, farming and collecting forest produce like honey and palm leaves. Each venture into the waters and forests is fraught with danger. Storms, crocodile, shark and tiger attacks, poisonous snakebites and ambushes by dacoits are regular occurrences. “The dakats are the worst,” Nizanoor told me earlier. “They just take what you have on the boat, but sometimes they hold you hostage and ask for impossible sums of money which your family is then forced to borrow. You end up being in debt for the rest of your life.”

Before the introduction of the highly profitable shrimp seed collection the islanders had barely enough to eat, I’m told by anthropologist Annu Jalais of the London School of Economics who has been researching lives of people in the Sunderbans for several years. For many, especially those who owned no land, working in the forest was the only way of making a living. Sunderbans’ inhabitants are largely of lower caste and tribal origin – people living on the fringes of society. As one Kolkata scientist puts it – “the Sunderbans is a unique case where a most socially and economically vulnerable population lives on most vulnerable lands.”

It was under British rule in the late 1700s that many of these islands were reclaimed and settled. The colonial rulers undertook a massive drive to clear the land and make it cultivable so they could obtain revenue from the settlers. Back then the Sunderbans measured around 16,700 sq km. Now it’s dwindled to one-third the size. Over two centuries of conversion of mangrove forests into paddy land, the use of the area’s natural resources, hunting and poaching have all contributed to the degradation of this region, making it prone to erosion and vulnerable to the wrath of storms and cyclones.

Yet, despite human habitations and economic exploitation, about 10,000 sq. km of the Sunderbans islands are still covered by swampy mangrove forests, much of which vanish under water for several hours daily during high tide. These dense estuarine forests have an amazing biodiversity. They are home to over 100 plant species and a variety of animals including about 400 Royal Bengal tigers, estuarine crocodiles, sharks, spotted deer, wild boar, Gangetic dolphins, otters, and Olive Riddley turtles and several species of birds and snakes. The mangroves also act as a natural shield for the coastline, protecting it from cyclones and tsunamis by absorbing much of their destructive force.

Our trawler noses its way into a narrow canal less than 100 feet wide. To our left dense mangroves close in, their web-like tangle of roots that hold the soil in place saving it from the pull of tides, still exposed. In another hour they’ll be under water. The trees have a way to survive this repeated submersion – a “breathing apparatus” in the form of numerous spike-like roots that poke out of the mud. On the right bank, are clusters of fishermen’s huts hidden behind tall palm fronds. We come across a tiny thatched shrine to Bonbibi, the serene forest goddess, in a clearing on the mangrove side. Sunderbans villagers, be they Hindu, Muslim or Christian, pray to Bonbibi for protection against tigers before venturing into the forests.

The mangroves are known for being the largest remaining natural habitat of the Royal Bengal Tiger. The big cat’s presence and region’s inaccessibility are possibly why the mangroves still survive. It was the realization of the tiger’s dwindling numbers that triggered wildlife conservation efforts here in the 1960s. By then, the changing landscape had already resulted in the disappearance of the leopard, wild water buffalo, Javan and one-horned rhinos, swamp and hog deer and several plant species. But the Sunderbans tiger? Ah, it was canny. It learnt to adapt to the marshy land. The massive 500-pound terrestrial beast learnt to swim, it learnt to walk alone and in secret, it learnt to hunt for fish and lizards and reptiles and – humans, its varied diet giving it a distinct advantage over other tiger populations.

I ask Rehman if he’s ever spotted one during his forays into forested areas. He shudders and shakes his head. “I’d rather not. People are known to fall unconscious just hearing a bagh (tiger) roar,” he says.

Many wildlife conservationists believe if the Sunderbans go under, there’ll soon be no tigers left on earth.

Will the people of the Sunderbans move far, inland or will they take to living on boats the way some
believe their ancestors had done many hundreds of years ago?

I’VE COME TO Bangladesh to see if the threat of climate change to the people living in the Sunderbans here is similar to their counterparts across the border in West Bengal who are watching helplessly as large chunks of their land crumble into the seas. Researchers in India say the combined effect of global warming and subsidence due to tectonic activity in the region is causing annual 3.14 mm rise in sea level on the Indian side of the delta (higher than the global average of 2.5 mm). This has caused stronger and higher tides, which are responsible for increasing island erosion. Strong undercurrents continuously eat away at the edges of the islands, triggering sudden collapses of large sections of the bank. In the past 20 years the sea has claimed two islands on the West Bengal side. It’s predicted that in the next 15 years, another dozen islands will vanish under the waters, rendering some 70,000 people homeless.

This is just on the Indian side. The impact on the Bangladesh Sunderbans, which hasn’t been researched as specifically, would be far worse.

But in Bangladesh, it isn’t just the mangroves that are vulnerable to climate change. About 70 percent of the country comprises floodplains, most of it less than 6 metres above sea level. Even a 1°C increase in average global temperatures, (projected average increase by 2050 is 1.4°C) means the country will lose 10 percent of its land, mainly in the coastal zone that’s home to about 35 million people.

Dr Sugata Hazra of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, estimates the local sea level rise in the Bangladesh Sunderbans is at least 5 mm a year, given that the centre of deltaic subsidence in the region is located here. But that’s a rather conservative figure. Other climate change scientists predict far more alarming numbers based on findings that show the glaciers feeding rivers in the Indo-Gangetic floodplains are melting faster than expected. Experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, estimate a staggering rise of about 15mm -18 mm annually. This means by 2100 the sea level would be about 5 to 6 feet higher.

Ecological refugees would be far less in the Bangladesh Sunderbans since it’s less densely populated (0.5 million to the 3.9 million on the Indian side). But the disappearance of the mangroves would have a huge the impact on the ecology and economy of a country that’s in any case low on just about all measures of economic development. The Sundarbans is the single largest source of forest produce in Bangladesh and accounts for about 41 percent of the nation’s forest revenue. The mangroves provide raw material for wood-based industries and non-timber forest products like palm leaves that are used as thatching materials, honey, beeswax, crabs and mollusks.

For Bangladeshi climate change experts, however, the future loss of the Sunderbans isn’t the most pressing concern.

“Right now I’m more worried about our immediate survival,” Dr. Ainun Nishat, one of the country’s leading environmentalists, tells me from Dhaka. Food insecurity, caused largely by a decrease in rice production due to rising salinity in coastal areas and changing monsoon patterns, is the most serious threat Bangladesh faces, he says. Given that this tiny nation with 144,000 sq km of land has 147 million people to feed, a food crisis seems inevitable.

Increasingly violent weather phenomena is the other big worry. “Floods, droughts and cyclones are not new for Bangladesh, but the frequency and severity of these natural disasters has multiplied,” says Nishat, who was involved in the UN’s 2007 report on climate change. But Nishat doesn’t foresee large populations turning into environmental refugees any time soon, “at least not for another 100 years”. In this, he differs from his colleagues, who predict the rising seas will in coming decades displace 30-40 million lives in Bangladesh. He puts his faith on the 7,000 km of embankments that were built around islands and along the Bangladesh coast in the 1960s as protection against storm surges. The embankments gird all but about 10 percent of the coastal belt and are 3 to 5 metres high. Nishat believes they’ll be able to withstand the predicted sea level rise if their height is increased by another metre and drainage systems improved to allow rainwater to flow into the rivers.

As for the Sunderbans – it’s among the 10 percent area that’s open to the ravages of the sea. No specific study has been done so far on how to save it. It seems clear that the threat to the Sunderbans can’t really be seen as separate from the sum total of alarming climate change worries this impoverished country faces.

As the trawler heads back to port, I’m haunted by questions no one has answers for thus far. Will the majestic tiger learn to adapt yet again or will it perish? Will the Sundari tree, after which the Sunderbans are named, learn to like the taste of briny water? What of the shushuks, the iconic and endangered Ganges River dolphins, that I saw playing delightfully in the more placid corners of the river? And the people of Sunderbans? Nizanoor, Anita, Rehman? Will they move far, far, inland or will they take to living on boats the way some believe their ancestors had done many hundreds of years ago?

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