Indian Island Majuli, World’s Largest River Island, Fights For Its Biodiversity Amidst Climate Change

Posted on April 15, 2011


By Pooja Kalita:

Lush green hills to rocky terrains, golden sparkling sand of the desert to white snow-clad mountains, inhabited by wonders of the life-forms characterizes the Indian land, a land which explains biodiversity to the fullest extent. To explain it further I do not think that there would be any other region more suitable than the region of north-east India where the most amazing creatures in the world are found, of which the one horned rhinoceros of Kaziranga in Assam can be cited as an example.

Turning our glances towards the heartland of the state of Assam, there is situated the largest river island in the world-MAJULI. The air in this island is filled with the mystical music of Flute, conch sounds and prayer songs. The religious leaders called Sattradhars recite the Vedic scriptures while the villagers clap hands and bow their heads in unison.

Each monsoon, the spiritual leaders invoke the Gods to seek divine intervention, because their homeland, Majuli–one of the largest inhabited river islands with 1.3 million people–is fast disappearing. The island located in the flood plains of the Brahmaputra River was 1,256 sq km in 1950, but now it has shrunk to about half that size.

Every year the local communities gather at different points on the island to pray to God to save them from being engulfed by the tempestuous Brahmaputra, the longest river in India. All efforts to protect the island and curb erosion, caused by the glacial waters of the Himalayas, have failed. The villagers spend sleepless nights in fear of floods and erosion. They take turns to keep vigil, ready to relocate instantaneously with their belongings and domestic animals.

And each year life is getting more desperate.

Climate change has resulted in chaos and despondency on the river island. Now the average annual rate of erosion is 6.42 km sq whereas land was lost at 1.77 sq km per year from 1917 to 1972. Since 1990, more than 35 villages have been washed away. Each year the intensity and frequency of the floods increase and the magnitude of the damage swells. The temperatures fluctuate and monsoons are more unpredictable. The floods and the erosions affect more than 95 percent of 243 small and large villages. The local people have become climate change refugees within the island.

The impact of climate change is not limited to diminution of shoreline or internal displacement of islanders. At the same time, the biodiversity of this hotspot is dwindling.

Quietly but rapidly, many of the 200 rare healing herbs, some of the 150 species of birds, unique and rich flora and fauna– endemic to the region– have disappeared. The number of migratory birds that visit the island annually has declined. Inland water and freshwater biodiversity is endangered because of increase in temperatures. Warmer temperatures, rapid change in seasonal flow regimes, total flows, lake levels and water quality, affect fish and other aquatic resources.

This is the fate of many other river islands in northeast India such as Dibru-Saikhowa, one of the largest river island national parks and Umananda that consist of famous Hindu temples.

So, why focus on Majuli or any river island?

Partly because climate change proponents suggest Majuli could disappear within the next 20 years. But more importantly to expand the climate change conversation to include the shrinking biodiversity and landscape of river islands.

Recently, the Carteret Islanders in the South Pacific Ocean, a matrilineal society 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea, caught international attention when they became some of the world’s first climate change refugees. The entire population is officially evacuated because the sea is swallowing their islands and storm surges ruining their crops. Similarly, Kiribati and Tuvalu, two other South Pacific islands have begun relocating its people because of global warming.

However, it seems the climate change discussion has mostly concentrated on rising sea level and the poisoning of crops and freshwater wells by salt.

Majuli is unique because of its fluvial geomorphology with islands within islands and its landmass, which changes shape every summer due to relentless floods.

Majuli is also the epicenter of Assamese Vashnavite culture and houses over 30 Satras, which are cultural and educational centers. UNESCO is reviewing its nomination for world heritage site status.

In the mid-deltaic island, formed because Brahmaputra changed its course, agrarian populations have thrived since the 7th century AD. According to land records, the island has been eroding for the last hundred years but erosion accelerated after the earthquake of 1950, when the riverbed rose overnight.

In Assam, traditional farming revolves around a six-season cycle. But local farmers and fishermen say that each year two seasons are missing. Distinctions are getting blurred among summer, monsoon, autumn, late autumn, winter and spring seasons. These are not erratic mood swings of weather but a consistent pattern, experienced by the indigenous communities of Assam in the last decade. The amount of rainfall has not increased in the last 100 years, however, rainfall patterns are inconsistent and temperatures are fluctuating. The annual floods have precariously increased.

The changes in the cropping and fruiting patterns are disturbing the food chain. This in turn is jeopardizing the feeding, breeding and migrating patterns of animals. The intensity of rainfall has altered, creating drought in some years and flood in the others. The course of river Brahmaputra and its tributaries are changing every year, eroding Majuli, engulfing small islands and creating new islets called as chaporis. More than 22 new islets have been formed around Majuli resulting in relocation and disturbance of native flora and fauna.

The result is a domino effect that is shrinking the biodiversity, endangering the aquatic life in the lowlands, swamps, riverine sand flats, tributaries, channels and wetlands, which make the river islands.

Biological diversity is essential for human survival as it provides food, medicines and industrial raw materials. To tide over heavy flooding seasons they live in unique houses built on bamboo stilts. Despite their seasonal nomadic existence they have devised innovative strategies to maintain the major occupations including agriculture, fishing, pottery, mask making and sericulture.

Climate change affects rivers in many ways: warming of freshwater, reduction of dissolved oxygen, changes in the interaction between water and their watersheds, changes in biogeochemical cycling, greater frequencies of extreme events including flood and drought, thus affecting growth, reproduction and distribution of organisms. Increase in water levels has submerged crucial breeding grounds of rare and endangered migratory birds. There is a 30 percent decline in species richness.

Each year, Brahmaputra inundates almost the entire island by breaching dykes and deposits sediments on extremely fertile land and rendering it unproductive.

The villagers regularly volunteer to redesign the banks of the islands, construct raised tube wells to secure safe drinking water, build embankments and roads.

I believe the best way to show the impact of climate change on river islands is by “going native,” like anthropologists and travelers, who immerse in the community.

Yet the hope of rejuvenating the island’s declining image of losing its startling biodiversity, and its magnetism as a heritage has to be combined with concrete efforts of not only the natives but also the different organizations working in the expanse of saving the island’s legacy and the government shouldering this great responsibility. We still can be optimistic for the future as the natives join their hands and bow their heads every morning in the satras for well-being of not only the people residing there but also the different forms of natural life residing responsible for magnificent biodiversity of the region which makes it one of the sought-after tourist spots of India, visited by people from different parts of the globe.

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