Although millions living in Sundarbans islands are as much at risk from rising seas as those in the Pacific Ocean such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Fiji, there isn’t a fraction of global concern for them
Kalyani Mandal has gone way past hope. Living in Dhoblat Shibpur, a coastal village on Sagar Island in the Sundarbans estuary, her house has been washed away by the sea thrice in 10 years. “How many times can you make a fresh start?” she asks despairingly.
Sagar, a large island of 160,000 residents at the confluence of the Ganga and the Bay of Bengal, perhaps depicts how people are fighting a losing battle against an increasingly hostile sea brought on by global warming. It shows the worst effects of climate change — coastal erosion, rising sea levels, unpredictable tidal surges, land salinity and more violent cyclonic storms.
The story of Sagar is repeated across the Sundarbans archipelago of 102 islands, out of which 54 are inhabited. Some of these islands — Bedford, Lohachara, Kabasgadi and Suparibhanga — have already sunk into the sea. Other like Ghoramara and Mousuni, which are thickly populated, are rapidly losing land; and it’s just a matter of time when they too will be lost.
In Mousuni Island, only women, children and the old are to found in the hamlets facing the sea. In Baliara village, for instance, high tides rush into farmland and homestead every few days, leaving the soil saline and unfit for either cultivation or shallow, freshwater fisheries. “Our sons have no option but to migrate out for work,” Abdul Majid, 56, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “But we have nowhere else to go.” See: Rising sea swamps island along Bengal coast
Halfway across the world, the same human tragedy is repeated in the islands of Tuvalu, Kiribati and Fiji. Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific, is home to just about 110,000 people living on some 30 atolls and reef islands. It straddles the equator, where the sea level rise is double the global average. “The home of our people and our culture is in jeopardy. My country is sinking into the sea,” Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati, said at the Bonn climate summit in November.
Tong in 2014 finalised the purchase of 20 sq. km on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji islands, about 2,000 km away. “We would hope not to put everyone on (this) one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it,” he had said at that time.
The plight of low-lying islands in the face of climate change has captured global attention. The island nations of the Pacific Ocean in particular have been in the spotlight. The annual global climate summit in November 2017 was held under the presidency of Fiji, underlining the importance of urgent action to contain global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrialised times under the Paris Agreement.
The Pacific island nations, who contribute nothing to climate change, are the ones who suffer most from its impacts. “In another generation or two, my people will have no homeland,” Tafue Lusama, general secretary of Tuvalu Christian Church and spokesman for his nation, said in Bonn. Tuvalu, a tiny nation of six coral atolls, three reef islands, and 10,000 people, has been vigorously demanding climate justice as an active member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).
Even as the international community rightly turns its gaze towards the Pacific islands since they are indeed sinking rapidly, the imminent danger of islands in the Sundarbans where millions more live have received scant attention. “There has been around 250 sq. km land loss from southern sea-facing islands over the last 45 years,” Sugata Hazra, Director of the School of Oceanographic Studies in Jadavpur University in Kolkata, had told indiaclimatedialogue.net in an earlier interview. See: Shrinking Sagar Island struggles to stay afloat
Millions are affected and displaced due to sudden onset of climate change impacts such as violent cyclonic storms and this is particularly true for the Sundarbans region that straddles Bangladesh and India, according to Aminul Haque of the Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST) in Bangladesh. “Global co-operation is absolutely necessary if we are to address the issue of climate refugees,” Haque told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
It is inevitable that a large number of people will be displaced from the islands of Sundarbans, particularly in India because they are thickly populated, says ecological economist Nilanjan Ghosh, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and consultant to WWF India. According to a study led by him, some 1.5 million people have to be permanently relocated outside the Sundarbans due to the fast rise in sea levels. “A conflict-free organic movement of the population is a challenge,” Ghosh told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “But given the inevitability of sea level rise, we have no option but to strategize for a planned retreat and ecosystem regeneration.”
India needs proactive steps to address the crisis at Sundarbans and also bring up it at international platforms, according to Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change for ActionAid International. “The people who are displaced or are forced to migrate due to climate change must be provided legal protection through the United Nations Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage,” he said. “Developing nations such as India and Bangladesh need support so that large-scale migration does not lead to conflict over scarce resources.”
However, it would be futile for India to raise the issue globally unless the government takes some action on the ground to help people to cope with the changes brought on by global warming, according to Anurag Danda, Programme Lead of Climate Change Adaptation at WWF India. “We are talking about loss and damage on a massive scale and the business-as-usual model of development funding is no longer sufficient,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Although experts are unanimous that action must be taken, both the federal and state governments seem to be indifferent to the impending crisis. For Kalyani Mandal of Dhoblat Shibpur, Abdul Majid of Baliara and countless others living on the islands of Sundarbans, time has already run out.