Nowhere People: Small Rise in Sea Level, Big Decline in People's Living Standard

Indian Sunderbans lies on the southern fringes of the state of West Bengal, where the Gangetic plain meets the Bay of Bengal. Alarming rise of sea level has also been higher than the global average in the area. The 2015 report of World Bank stated that the sea level could witness an estimated 3 to 8 mm rise per year.

The site of the world's largest mangrove ecosystem, the Sunderbans, is an archipelago of several hundred islands spread across 9,630 sq km in India comprising of 102 low-lying islands, of which 48.

Sea level rise and subsequent erosion have already inundated four islands fully in the Sunderbans over the past two decades. About 6,000 families from Bedford, Lohachara, Kabasgadi and Suparibhanga in the Sunderbans have been rendered homeless. Ten of the most vulnerable sea facing islands – Sagar, Ghoramara, Jambudwip, Namkhana, Mousuni, Dakhsin Surendranagar, Dhanchi, Dalhousi, Bulchery, and Bhangaduani – are expected to lose between 3 and 32 per cent of their land mass by 2020. Assuming, current sea level rise predictions and local conditions do not change, in the next 50 to 90 years, 50 per cent of the critical land mass across Indian part of Sunderbans will be inundated. Severe cyclonic storms over the Bay of Bengal have registered a 26 per cent increase over the last 120 years, intensifying in the post-monsoon period.

The primary occupation of the people here is mono-crop agriculture. But increasing soil salinity is the greatest cause of worry. There was a time when the embankments managed to stall seawater flooding the land. But due to cyclonic storm Aila, the embankments collapse, sea levels are increasing, tidal surges are going up, and cyclones are devastating the region. In some areas, salinity has increased beyond the safe threshold for agriculture. However, due to the low returns from agriculture due to increase salinity of the water people turn to fishing. There are 70,000 active fisherfolk in Sunderbans but rise in sea surface temperature is expected to affect fish stocks also as fish are extremely sensitive to water temperature. Also due to shortage of prey in the forest and water level rise forced to stray the Royal Bengal Tiger which is now become a perennial issue. The big cat which is slipping towards extinction as the last census report says only 85 of them are left in Indian Sunderbans.

Livelihood options for Sunderban's residents are shrinking. Overdependence on natural resources for livelihoods and rapid increase in population in an ecosystem under siege from the effects of climate change has jeopardised even this subsistence economy. A recent study says that about 75 per cent families have one or more members living and working outside the state. The large swathes now depend on remittances sent by migrants, who are essentially environmental refugees fleeing the effects of climate change and shrinking resources.

4.5 million poor citizens living in this fragile ecosystem of Sunderbans. For them climate change is now a part of their daily battle for survival. While global negotiations towards mitigation of climate change have remained inconclusive, sea levels have risen inexorably, cyclones have buffeted it, and rainfall patterns have kept changing for the worse, making lives more difficult and development of the area more expensive. Till now, their only response has been migrating out of the region, which clearly underlines the absence of options and the poor adaptive capacity of the people.

(All photos copyrighted Sudipto Das)

>> Gallery: Nowhere People

>> Photographer: Sudipto Das

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