Sunderbans, West Bengal 18-19th March, 2023: Sundarbans meaning “beautiful forest” in Bengali, is located at the mouth of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers between India and Bangladesh. The area is indeed true to its name. The Sundarbans is celebrated as a World Heritage Site being the world’s largest contiguous stretch of mangroves, trees and wetlands that survive in brackish water. Mangroves provide timber and food, prevent soil erosion, support marine life, and buffer the coasts of India and Bangladesh against storms and tidal waves.
But the Sundarbans are under extreme threat! Climate change is the biggest challenge facing the Sundarbans. The last three years have seen the Sundarbans being battered by four major cyclones – Fani (2019), Bulbul (2019), Amphan (2020) and Yaas (2021). These cyclones killed nearly 250 people and caused a loss of nearly USD 20 billion.
Last month I joined a Sensitisation Visit with West Bengal Lawmakers and Government Officials, organised by CANSA and our partner EnGIO to document and understand the challenges faced by the people of Sundarbans through direct interaction with the village pradhans and community people.
It was a small boat that took us through the creeks and mangroves. It was quite a surreal experience to travel by a small boat in the vast water bodies and so close to the mangrove forests. The dense forests had an eerie feel to them. There was not much sound except that of the mild splashing noise made by the oars of the boat.
The cranes were standing as if meditating on the muddy shores of the river. And our eyes were constantly going furtively towards the mangroves on the lookout for the golden yellow colour of the majestic animal of the region hoping to be one of the few lucky ones! As the tide was waning, the boatman took the boat out from the creeks to the main river. Sundarbans is all about the tide and the tiger – that was what our boatman had to say.
We learnt that the Sundarbans got their name from the ‘Sundari trees’, which have special roots known as pneumatophores or breathing roots as they allow the trees to respire. But these trees are now declared endangered. The mangrove forests are home to a huge number of animals and vast biodiversity. We were lucky to see deer, the rare water monitor lizard, wild boar and wild cats. Believe me, the thrill of seeing these animals in their natural habitat is much better than seeing them confined in a zoo.
However, life on the islands dotting the delta is tough. The sea level has risen by an average of 3 centimetres a year over the past three decades in the Sundarbans, leading to one of the fastest rates of coastal erosion in the world. Rising sea level, salinisation of soil and water, loss of ecosystem services and failure of the ring of embankments built to protect the region from erosion have led to decreased access to safe drinking water, lack of food security and inadequate WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) facilities.
After travelling for over three hours, we reached Gosaba block, which forms an administrative division in Canning subdivision of South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal, India. At the Block Development Office, we met representatives of local communities at a program to hear their concerns and requirements during disasters and flood conditions. Everyone shared their thoughts and plans for disaster preparedness and encouraged people to share what they think would help in making Sundarbans disaster-ready and reduce the impact of disasters. From Gosaba, it was a boat ride to Pakhiralaya, including repeat disaster-prone zones, mangrove areas and core forest areas of Sundarbans including Sudhanyakhali, Dobanki and Jhorkhali.
After interviewing the villagers on climate change impacts many points were highlighted, such as homes having been inundated and ground soil contaminated by salt water forcing residents to relocate. With rising sea levels, islands are disappearing and the increasing salinity in the water and soil has severely threatened the health of mangrove forests and the quality of soil and crops.
In the past decades, climate change stressors such as rising sea levels, land erosion, erratic patterns of rainfall and temperature have been profoundly changing the ecology, lives and livelihoods in the Sundarbans. Hence, people have had to search for a new livelihood option and end up taking risk-prone jobs in the cities. Earlier, migration was for better job opportunities, but lately, people have been migrating simply to secure safer living conditions. Migrants have to go to different locations, start from scratch, work as construction labourers, rickshaw drivers, or on someone’s farm and live in poor conditions.
The women meet their day-to-day expenses by selling prawns and fish they catch in the river for which they have to remain in waist-deep water for four-six hours per day, which is the main cause of the health hazard they are facing. Collection of wild tiger prawn seedlings from rivers and creeks is an important occupation for poor women in the Sundarbans. Spending hours waist-deep in the very waters that no longer nurture their fields, these women face a battery of health issues ranging from infections of the reproductive and urinary tracts, apart from other infections. Irregular menstrual cycles, vaginal infections, recurring UTI and miscarriages are common amongst the women in the Sundarbans. Besides vaginal problems, women in the area are also battling skin diseases such as eczema and infected sores due to prolonged exposure to saline water.
Education is a major factor in determining women’s occupational choices. Children of Sundarbans are the most vulnerable to health shocks due to unacceptable levels of under-nutrition and high prevalence of common communicable diseases. More than one-third of the children are chronically malnourished. Malnutrition is higher among older, poorer children and girl children aged 13-36 months. Children of the Sundarbans are facing an extra burden of morbidity. Children mostly suffer from respiratory infection (fever, cough), gastrointestinal disorders (diarrhoea, watery stool) and skin problems (irritation, rash).
Despite its rich biodiversity, the people living in the Sundarbans are doubly marginalized by virtue of living on the fringes with respect to physical location as well as social and economic isolation historically marked by governmental policies of exclusion and disenfranchisement for this island nation.
It was time to return to the concrete jungle from the lush green of the Sundarbans. The sun went down while we were on the boat, as if bidding us goodbye. The intense pouring rain was a bleak reminder of climate change and how it would change the Sundarbans and the lives of its people forever.