The Sundarbans are a vast mangrove delta that connects India and Bangladesh along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. In Bengali, Sundarban means “beautiful forest,” and the region is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, as Anuradha Sengupta reported for YES! Magazine, residents of islands in the Sundarbans, such as Ghoramara, are “struggling to cope” with rising seas, erratic weather patterns, severe floods, heavy rainfall, and intense cyclones that are the consequences of global climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that rising sea levels mean that areas like the Sundarbans will, in Sengupta’s words, “bear the brunt” of climate change, with submerged lands, farmlands damaged by increasingly saline soils, homes swept away, livelihoods destroyed, and families broken apart. “The effects of global warming,” Sengupta reported, “will be most severe on those who did the least to contribute to it, and who can least afford measures to adapt or save themselves.”
Residents of the Sundarbans have typically made a living by reliance upon natural resources, deriving sustenance from small-scale farming, fishing, and honey gathering. However, with climate change, rising water levels have reduced the amount of arable land and frequent intrusion of saltwater has reduced the quality of remaining farmlands, while extreme weather conditions mean fewer flowers to sustain honey harvests.
Nevertheless, Sengupta reported, the people of the Sundarbans are “resilient.” While many of the region’s men now leave for most of the year to work for wages in urban areas on the mainland, the women have responded by planting hardy native crops, adopting integrated farming methods, and banking seeds. Many have switched from “modern high-yield” rice seeds to native grains that are saline-resistant. A West Bengal nongovernmental development organization, the Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC), provides support to families adopting sustainable agricultural practices in the face of climate change.
However, as Sengupta acknowledged, the number of those who adopt sustainable methods is “still quite low.” Aditya Ghosh, who covered the Sundarbans as a journalist between 2000 and 2004 and is now a research associate with the University of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute, told YES! Magazine, “Years of ineffective, unplanned, and chaotic governance have made the Sundarbans a soft target for any abrupt environmental change.” In his research, Ghosh found eighty-two reported incidents of flooding, affecting more than five hundred households, between 2010 and 2015. His research also indicated that flooding and other impacts of climate change have led to a six-fold increase in marginal labor—people who work less than six months per year—from 1991 to 2012. Workers who previously had employment security have “gradually slipped into marginality,” he told YES! Magazine.
Several islands in the Sundarbans have already been completely submerged by rising sea levels. When the island of Lohachara went under in 2006, it displaced seven thousand people. As Sengupta and other journalists have reported, if scientific predictions about rising sea levels prove accurate, in fifteen to twenty-five years as many as thirteen million residents of the Sundarbans would be left homeless, “forcing a massive exodus of climate refugees.” Sengupta’s YES! Magazine report was distinctive in emphasizing the ways that residents of the Sundarbans—and especially the region’s women—are “rebuilding their lives” in the face of climate change, as well as the positive role that NGOs, such as the DRCSC, could play in helping to minimize a looming humanitarian disaster in the Bay of Bengal.
Anuradha Sengupta, “Tired of Running from the River: Adapting to Climate Change on India’s Disappearing Islands,” YES! Magazine, June 2, 2016, http://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/tired-of-running-from-the-river-adapting-to-climate-change-on-indias-disappearing-islands-20160602.
Student Researcher: Caroline Yoss (College of Marin)
Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)