Exploring the Vulnerabilities and Resilience of the Sunderbans and its Communities

by Sweta Bhushan

Mangroves are dense ecosystems connecting natural freshwater and saline habitats. Sunderbans, the largest mangrove forest on the planet spans 10,000 sq km across India and Bangladesh. Situated at the Delta of three rivers — Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna, the Sunderbans is extraordinarily abundant with unique biodiversity. Ecologically, they serve as protection towards the coastal areas by reducing the impact of cyclones and acting as massive carbon sinks. They are also helpful for maintaining water quality. Presently, 4.5 million people reside in the Sunderbans collectively across both the Indian and Bangladeshi parts of it. The livelihoods of communities living near mangroves are dependent on them. The Ramsar Convention has recognised the Sunderbans in the list of ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ in 2019. The effects of global warming, industrial emissions and resource exploitation by local communities have caused havoc, leading to the unintended loss of these biodiversity-rich forests. This essay explores the effect of climate change on the mangroves and their communities and discusses ways of achieving long-term resilience.

Sunderbans, Communities and Climate Change

Mangroves are ecologically-sensitive areas, owing to their geographical character. The ecosystems are naturally vulnerable to various weather events such as cyclones, rising sea levels, floods and coastal erosion. The malleable soils of the mangroves, which act as drains for innumerable nutrients, further keep shifting due to natural hydrological pressures. When such natural triggers confront anthropogenic activities, the environmental impact on the ecosystems magnifies, resulting in high-risk regions.

Fig. 2: Ecologically vulnerable nature of mangroves (Source: Author)

Within ten years, from 2000 until 2010, a study shows that although Sunderbans has not experienced extensive damage, it has seen a loss in terms of tree cover, leaf area and biomass richness (Ishtiyaque et al., 2016). These have occurred in parts of the Sunderbans due to both natural and anthropogenic activities. Another study which uses a 30-year time series of Landsat data notes a reduction in green areas of the Sunderbans due to increased salinity caused by rising sea levels (Carroll et al., 2019). Changes like these are climatic but occur mainly due to anthropogenic activities practised all over the world. In addition to this, the study highlights that while the mangroves are naturally resilient to cyclones, long-term climatic changes could affect their response (Carroll et al., 2019).

Communities based in the Sunderbans practise a range of livelihoods like agriculture, fishing, shrimp farming, aquatic farming, sourcing timber and Non-timber Forest Products (NTPF). Furthermore, they are one of the largest cultivators of paddy due to the optimum soil quality. The economy and the mangrove ecosystem are deeply interlinked within the context of these communities. But these activities can have a crippling effect on the resilience factor of the Sunderbans.

Interdependency of Mangroves and the Communities

A compelling interdependency between the people and the mangroves exist. As shown in figure 3, the local communities of the Sunderbans rely on the land and water, that is, forest and the fresh and saltwater ecosystems, for their livelihoods. The river habitats help them with aquatic farming, shrimp farming, etc whereas the forests help them with agriculture, sourcing honey, medicinal plants, edible forest products, timber, etc. The communities are essentially the producers of these goods which henceforth reach consumers living in adjacent villages, towns and cities. Settlements like this are heavily populated, which drive the demand for supplies. Sequentially, the producers extract more goods from the Sunderbans, thereby degrading the environment. Additionally, towns and cities release high amounts of carbon emissions, causing pollution and warming. This ultimately contributes to rising sea levels, irregular weather patterns, frequent storms and cyclones at the regional level.

Fig. 3: Large scale and small scale chain reactions concerning the deterioration of the Sunderbans (Source: Author)

The sturdy nature of the dependency between the livelihoods of the communities and the forests and the sea portrays a strong link between the natural and built environment. A minute change in the natural habitat is bound to leave the communities vulnerable while the practices of several livelihoods affect the environment in turn. While this is arguable for most activities that humans engage in, it is crucial to note the relationship in this context due to the environmental capital contained by the Sunderbans and the economic status of the communities. Therefore, the populations experience multi-dimensional vulnerabilities which include economic, environmental, social and physical vulnerabilities. The intensity of these vulnerabilities increases during a disastrous event like the effect of cyclones Amphan and Aila.

When Disaster Strikes

The mangroves are the first in the line of impact when cyclones occur. The water forces cause saltwater intrusion into agricultural lands and farming ponds. Consequently, this increases the salinity of the soil, resulting in no yield and destruction of nutrient-rich soil. This affects most forms of livelihoods present in this region. Increased salinity also affects freshwater availability for the communities. Crab-collecting and fishing communities are the highest on the livelihood vulnerability index (Basu & Basu, 2020). Additionally, the settlements face extreme infrastructural damage, leaving many homeless.

Lohachahara, Suparibhanga, and Bedford, three islands in the Indian Sunderbans, which were mangroves a hundred years ago, have been left barren today (Ghosh et al., 2014). The eastern coast of India is very cyclone-prone due to activities in the Bay of Bengal. Increased warming leads to harsher climatic discrepancies, in succession, giving rise to more cyclones. With improper infrastructure, policies to build resilience and sustainable management, the communities are just as helpless as the mangroves themselves. Upon experiencing a loss of livelihood, the workers consider one of three options: to rebuild, to migrate or to venture into other occupations, which may result in further destruction. The impact of Aila stalled agricultural and aqua-cultural activities leaving people to opt for forest-based businesses. Such practises in the future could further hamper the forest ecosystems (Rahman et al., 2017).

Fig. 4: The aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, in South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal (Source: Rupak De Chowduri, Reuters)

Is the Sunderbans building Resilience?

The State plays a significant role in managing mangroves. The Directorate of Forests in the government of West Bengal is in charge of the Sunderbans. Their responsibilities include funding the construction of embankments built to prevent saltwater intrusion. But often, the funding is intermittent, leading to incomplete construction. The Bengal Embankment Act, 1882, which addresses the role of the government in the creation of embankments, has not been revised for 132 years, thereby disregarding contemporary challenges. The efficacy of several programmes, like The Social Forestry Programme and the Awareness Programme initiated by the Department of Sunderbans Affairs, Govt. of West Bengal, remains unmonitored. The Forest Rights Act, which allows forest-dwelling communities to live and consume forest resources, making them responsible for forest conservation and management, is unimplemented. The forests are thereby managed by out-of-touch bureaucrats, increasing the vulnerabilities of the forest communities and leading to stunted ecological preservation.

At a local level, communities and individuals employ adaptive, makeshift strategies but they remain highly physical vulnerable due to property damage. They choose to rebuild their homes and livelihood setups only for the next storm to destroy it. While they help build damaged or incomplete embankments, there seems to be no actual long-term resiliency. A study notes several adaptation strategies adopted by the locals in the Indian Sunderbans. The strategies include the use of indigenous technical knowledge (ITK), ‘Integrated Farming System’, practising composite fish culture, use of traditional crop varieties, etc to tackle climate change (Dutta et al., 2020). Despite such coping mechanisms, a devastating super cyclone like Amphan has left the forest and its communities in absolute distress. It brought a large amount of destruction to residences and all agricultural fields. The embankments built to prevent saltwater entry have been rebuilt twice in 2020 already. Financially vulnerable communities could do little to change their circumstances. Through this situation, the low resilience factor of the mangroves, as well as the communities and that small-scale adaptation, may not help achieve the desired amount of resiliency, are highlighted.

Several NGOs operate from the Sunderbans and help in building resiliency through providing aid to local communities post disasters. But this kind of resiliency is very short-lived and dependent on other entities for various resources. The overlapping ecosystems of the built environment (communities) and the natural habitat (Sunderbans) complicate devising straightforward, self-sustainable and long-term ways of building resiliency.

Fig. 5: Villagers rebuilding embankments (Source:  Anil Mistry, Bali Nature & Wildlife Conservation Society)

Retreat of Populations

To address the issue of long-term sustained resiliency, several researchers and the World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF India) have proposed an extreme plan of relocating the communities. The report argues that adaptive strategies like building infrastructure in high-risk zones should not be encouraged. Instead, ‘Vision 2050’, suggests the relocation of vulnerable communities from high-risk regions to safer ones in a phased and systematic manner. The report also notes that the State is to be responsible for funding this ‘organic’ outmigration. According to the plan, no individual is to be forced to leave their homes but rather voluntarily agree to shift to a safer environment. It highlights the importance of the regeneration of these forests and estimates 1190 sq km of land will be rejuvenated by 2050, provided the populations agree to migrate.

Fig. 6: Excerpt from the Report – Away from the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Planned Retreat and Ecosystem Regeneration as Adaptation to Climate Change (Source: WWF India, https://bit.ly/2KX1IE4)

While sustainable development is a means of adapting to climate change and building resiliency in several contexts, the eco-sensitive nature of the mangroves does not allow for such a model to thrive. In my opinion, Vision 2050 is an attempt to cut the cord of cause and effect by separating two interlinked vulnerable entities — the communities and mangroves. Once segregated, both entities can be relieved of some vulnerabilities. For the realisation of this large-scale plan, a high level of cooperation between the government, communities and the local bodies will be crucial. Additionally, the relocation site may even mimic a familiar forest habitat driving sustainable development. In my opinion, this model allows for reduced stress on government bodies in the long run as opposed to constant vigilance, which the expansive and muddy Sunderbans demand. Considering the arguments discussed above, the following aspects of the relocation model make me see it as a long-term opportunity to build resilience for both the communities and the mangroves —

  1. Nature of Livelihoods of the communities leading to the destruction of the Reserve;
  2. The region inevitably being prone to flooding, storms and cyclones;
  3. Individuals resorting to other sources for income generation, further aggravating climate change;
  4. Disasters affecting the communities, thereby leading many of them to migrate anyway;
  5. Homeless people post disastrous events.

While this is an extreme and expensive plan, drastic steps such as these may be the solution to reverse the harm inflicted on environmental sites. If explored further, this may also lead to two very healthy habitats establishing richer biodiversity in the region — one, housing the communities and the other, the mighty rejuvenating Sunderbans.


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Sweta Bhushan is an architect who has worked on research-oriented interior and architectural projects in Mumbai. She is interested in topics related to the urban context and the environment. She plans to work in these topics through the intersection of research, technology and design. Currently, she is a fellow of the Anant Fellowship for the Built Environment at Anant National University, Ahmedabad.

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