The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world and home to 4.5 million people. Out of Sundarbans’ 102 islands, 54 between India and Bangladesh have inhabitants. Almost 70% of these Sundarbans live below the poverty line. To make matters worse, the region has suffered 13 supercyclones in the past 23 years, with the most recent occurring in 2020. To address the adversity that these people face, the governments of India and Bangladesh are exploring avenues to improve the evolving landscape of the Sundarbans.

The Situation in the Sundarbans

The islands act as a shield, protecting major areas of India and Bangladesh by taking the brunt of the cyclones. Since 2019 alone, the islands faced the wrath of cyclones Fani (May 2019), Bulbul (November 2019) and the lethal Amphan (May 2020). These cyclones constitute a concern for both the present and future. The islands have been unable to recuperate fully. The older cyclones destroyed their embankments, affected the salinity of the soil and overwhelmed their vulnerable agricultural economies.

The islands of the Sundarbans were able to act as a shield because of their previously dense mangrove cover. But now, that cover has experienced compromise due to the felling of trees and the increasing temperature of the water. The forest has also absorbed the continuous shocks of the onslaught of the cyclones. The environmental disasters quickly affected the Sundarbans’ economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, saturating the agricultural land with salt.

Advancing the Ongoing Work

The Government of West Bengal promised to plant five crore mangrove trees in the Sundarbans. Meanwhile, researchers have begun to look into a more realistic and sustainable approach called  Community Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration (CBEMR). To fight the salinity of the soil and economic hardships in the Sundarbans, scientists engineered several variants of “salt-tolerant rice varieties” at the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute (CSSRI). Carlsberg, a major beverage company, is setting up Desolenator’s solar-power water purification system to turn saline water at Sundarbans into safe drinking water. Additionally, some are building barriers to limit human-tiger interactions with nets and embankments to prevent further damage from storms leading to salinity. Experts also seek alternatives to concrete embankments, which are non-cohesive to the environment and do not always withstand cyclones.

Migration Problems

According to the WWF, the Sundarbans house some of the poorest people in the world. This facilitates a low rank in human development indicators. The rampage of environmental disasters and human-animal conflict in the Sundarbans strongly affected the livelihood and the daily lives of the residents. This has led many to migrate from the islands to the mainland in search of work and shelter. An MIT study stated that if the trend of migration continues, it might be one of the largest populations in Asia to migrate due to the climate crisis. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many workers who had migrated returned to the landscape of the Sundarbans. As long as these sudden-onset disasters keep affecting the islands, people will continue looking for work on the mainland.

Planning a Retreat

Climate scientists predict that climate disasters will continue to affect the landscape of the Sundarbans and that these disasters may even increase in intensity. The poor, vulnerable and lower-caste population suffers the most from all of this. When discussing the current climate crisis, climate adaptation and planned or managed retreats serve as key components. However, moving about 1 million people away from danger zones presents some challenging logistics.

Policymakers from India and Bangladesh have proposed the Delta Vision 2050 to address this need. It is a step-by-step planned migration to move the 1 million living in vulnerable areas. However, concerns exist that the migration plans will not honor the people’s desires. To the islanders of the Sundarbans, the climate crisis is not the only threat they face. Residents urgently need to address the socio-political climate of the Sundarbans, not just the climate.

Opportunities for Community-led Tourism

The picturesque landscape of the Sundarbans makes it the perfect holiday destination for nature lovers. At the same time, it has the potential to generate substantial income for the community. If Bangladesh and India join hands to facilitate achievable standards of hospitality to attract tourists worldwide, the Sundarbans will not only experience an economic revival but also work towards a sustainably secure future.

Infrastructural hindrances like electricity, water-way transportation and effective communication are the key challenges to enhancing the tourist experience. Cooperation from the government, forest and transportation departments, community-based hospitality training exercises and collaboration with tourism will greatly advance the Sundarbans’ ecosystem.

The Importance of Community Involvement

Ashmita Biswas, a Climate Risk and Adaptation Consultant at CEEW, responded to The Borgen Project’s questions on the importance of involving the community in the Sundarbans. “It is imperative to involve local communities in any and every discussion which pertains to their surroundings, be it conservation or resilience, as they will be ones who will have to implement initiatives. Stakeholder engagements are important to identify constraints and tailor programs to make for sustainable initiatives. Without such conservations, there lies a risk of communities not understanding the importance of them, and, as a result, not following through with responsibilities. Stakeholder engagements also help to understand what might be key drivers that could motivate communities to take action. These action points are essential in ensuring the success of a plan or policy to create long-term sustainable impact and change.”

The Sundarbans are at the forefront of the climate crisis. Its geographic position has often exaggerated its already-present economic, social and developmental hardships. The interconnectedness of the ongoing crisis post-cyclone presents a cluster of islands full of people simultaneously recuperating from past disasters while bracing for future ones. The Sundarbans’ community members are key facilitators of the innovations that scientists, policymakers and NGOs have created. Their equal involvement and understanding of the Sundarbans will determine the future of the islands.

– Anuja Mukherjee
Photo: Flickr