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.
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.
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!