In view of the fact that climate change has had a profound impact on the Sundarbans, with multiple natural disasters hitting the region over the past few years, the subcontinental team of the World Bank has visited various parts of Sagar in South 24 Parganas to assess the socio-economic situation of the residents and held a meeting with Sundarbans Development Minister Bankim Hazra. More disasters may strike the delicate ecology of the mangrove forests in the future, the World Bank fears.
On 30 April, a five-member team led by CCO Fuimen, the subcontinental director of the World Bank, visited the seafront site near the Kapilmuni Temple in the Ganga. The team then visited Mayagoalinighat. Later, a meeting was held with the West Bengal minister on the development of eco-friendly tourism industry and prevention of erosion in the changing socio-economic situation of the Sundarbans.
The director of the World Bank said the UN agency was studying the effects of climate change on the Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India. What is needed to protect the Sundarbans will come up through a research it is sponsoring.
Minister of Sundarban Affairs Bankim Hazra said, “There were some initial talks with the World Bank a few years ago. Later today the meeting was held again. I have some suggestions. The whole matter will be decided after discussions with the union and state governments.
The Sundarbans is a World Heritage site. This 2,200 km mangrove coastline lies on the intersection of a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and islands of mangrove forests within the delta of the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna on the Bay of Bengal. It hosts a diverse portfolio of fauna, including 260 bird species, Indian otters, spotted deer, and even threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile, the Indian python, and the world-famous Bengal tiger and Gangetic dolphin.
Today, the Sundarbans are struggling to survive and stay resilient against serious challenges to its existence due to climate change and various external factors. Flooding of low-lying deltas, the retreat of shorelines, salinization and acidification of soils, and changes in the water table all pose serious concerns for the well-being of local human populations as well as the diverse species thriving in this delta.
Climate change is now listed as a major threat — affecting one-third of all natural World Heritage sites — as per the 2020 IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3. To assess the impact of climate change on natural World Heritage sites, the World Heritage Committee compiled a list of 23 case studies on WHS, illustrating the effects of climate change that have already been observed, as well as those that can be expected in the future.
As many as 54 of the 104 islands in India’s Sundarbans region support a human population of approximately 4.5 million people. Four islands have so far vanished due to the effects of climate change in the last 25 years — Bedford, Lohachara, Kabasgadi, and Suparibhanga. Lohachara became well-known as the world’s first inhabited island to vanish.
Sagar, a delta island with a population of 200,000 in the Bay of Bengal, serves as a prominent climate change “hotspot” for climate researchers, allowing them to study the effects of climate change on India and its adjoining regions. This region also serves as one of Hinduism’s most sacred pilgrimage sites, attracting more than half a million pilgrims every year.
However, this area has lost almost 12% of its shoreline to coastal erosion in the last four decades, according to Nasa Landsat satellite imagery. According to the 2001 IPCC report, sea-level rise is the most serious threat and challenge to long-term adaptation in South and Southeast Asia, especially in the case of the Sundarbans. It faces tremendous stress from subsidence of 2.2 mm – 3.1 mm a year.
The region also faces additional sources of non-climate related stress, such as the diversion of upstream freshwater inflow of the Ganges by the Farraka Barrage in India since 1974, and a decline in streamflow leading to salinity ingression (saltwater invasion of areas that previously only contained freshwater). According to the 2001 IPCC report, a combination of these effects and external factors could lead to a 45 cm rise in global sea level, which will destroy 75 per cent of the Sundarban mangroves.
The report titled ‘The Benefits of Natural World Heritage‘ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) illustrates how natural World Heritage sites like Sundarbans provide benefits that contribute significantly to human well-being. For example, the forests found in World Heritage sites across the tropical regions store 5.7 billion tons of carbon, and two-thirds of natural sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List are crucial sources of water for millions of people.
The Sundarbans also serve as a natural buffer against cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, which receives 10% of the world’s tropical cyclones, according to the World Heritage Committee report. A report by DownToEarth examined cyclonic events over a 120-year period, which revealed a 26% increase in the frequency of high to very high-intensity cyclones in this region.
These cyclones cause massive damages to livelihoods and housing infrastructure, as well as leave farmland saturated with salt water, rendering it unusable. The Sundarbans act as a natural barrier against such devastating storms and provide respite as valuable flood protection tools for India and Bangladesh. If not for Sundarbans, these countries would have had to spend $300 million on just protective infrastructures like embankments and seawalls.