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Mayhem In The Mangroves: The Sundarbans Crisis Deepens During The Pandemic

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The COVID-19 outbreak has caused a huge public health crisis across the globe. While the imminent health concerns naturally took priority, the impact of certain other dire consequences of climate change took a back seat. With the ocean devouring up land in the world’s largest mangrove forest, humans and tigers are being squeezed into an ever-shrinking space in the Indian Sundarbans, with deadly ramifications.

Sundarbans is the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest and is a designated World Heritage Site. Shared by India and Bangladesh, it is home to several species including tigers. The Indian Part of Sundarbans consists of roughly 102 islands, half of which are inhabited. Unfortunately, that may not be the case much longer.

Climate change has pushed this forest to the brink of battling several challenges. With rising sea levels and islands disappearing, the increasing salinity in the water and soil has severely threatened the health of mangrove forests and the quality of soil and crop. As if this wasn’t enough, there have been serious disturbances lately to hydrological parameters and changes in fishing patterns, resulting in disastrous consequences for the fishermen community.

The villagers here have recently raised a tall barrier of mud and rocks near the sea. The West Bengal State Government has constructed a white concrete structure in order to prevent vigorous coastal erosion. However, the white wall serves no aid to the villagers and during intervals of high tide, the sea level rises over the barrier and the water gushes over.

As per media reports, tens of thousands have already lost their homes in the Sundarbans so far. It has become even more challenging for the 160,000 people living in the villages encompassing Sagar island to resists the gushing water in their homes. To add to the mayhem, cyclones have become even more frequent.

It has become even more challenging for the 160,000 people living in the villages encompassing Sagar island to resists the gushing water in their homes.

In addition to general environment protection laws, India had set up institutes at both levels of the Centre and state in order to specifically tackle the effects of climate change on the Sundarbans. However, split responsibilities between the Centre and states and the multitude of institutions resulted in overlap of responsibilities, loss of time and resources, which rendered the aforementioned ineffective.

The threats to this deadly climatic change are six-fold.

Firstly, increased temperatures: Since 1980, it has been observed that the temperature of the waters in the Sundarbans have increased at a rate of 0.5 degree Celsius per decade, in comparison to the observed global sea surface temperature warming at the rate of 0.06 degree Celsius per decade. This accelerated increase in temperature can have several adverse implications on aquatic life, thereby detrimental affecting the health of the mangrove ecosystem.

Secondly, the impact on agriculture due to the rise of salinity: Recent studies suggest that in the last two decades, the runoff in the eastern rivers has decreased resulting in ever-increasing salinity and seawater-sulfate concentrations. This adversely affects agriculture due to the high level of salinity in the soils.

Thirdly, rising sea levels: In the past 20 years, sea levels have risen at a rate almost double the global average, which has resulted in plants with weak and narrower branches resulting in lower rates of photosynthesis and regeneration of the mangroves. The sea-level rise is also adversely affecting the sediment availability, thereby hindering the establishment of new groves.

Fourth, changes in agricultural patterns: As a consequence of the shrinking of land, the area suffers from a low intensity of cropping. Mono-cropping of rice is practiced seasonally, and horticultural crops are rarely grown. Further, only 12% of the cropped area in the Sundarbans is irrigated through rainfed ponds, tanks and canals, while the majority of the agricultural land is rainfed. It has been observed that rainfall has become erratic and its intensity has increased causing further damage to agricultural yield.

cutting of forests deforestation

Fifth, deforestation: Between 1770 and 1980s, continuous land reclamation activities carried out in the Sundarbans led to a loss of 5% of the forest cover here before the 2000s even began. This deforestation has increased man-animal conflict, local extirpation of several species and has added to the biological loss of this region. In addition to this, clearing of forests have not facilitated self-sustaining agriculture on the flood plain, as it tends to be submerged under saline water during high tides.

Finally, pollution: Heavy disposal of solid waste from the adjacent cities has left the Sundarbans delta to become susceptible to chemical pollutants such as heavy metals that has brought about a massive ecological change, for the worse.

The Sundarban inhabitants are increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters and with the sudden shock of a pandemic, these marginalised inland communities, with bare minimum incomes, can only rely on the uncertain relief efforts to conserve the largest delta in the world. A tragic story indeed!

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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