Rising sea levels and tidal erosion eating up Sunderbans

Rising sea levels are real. A trip to the Sunderbans, in the Bay of Bengal, shows how devastating it can be in tandem with insidious tidal erosion. One inhabited island has gone under and 7,000 people displaced in the past 30 years. This is just the tip of the iceberg. maureen nandini mitra brings back a reality check

Published: Monday 15 January 2007

Rising sea levels and tidal erosion eating up Sunderbans

-- (Credit: Ian Umeda)For the past 15 years or so, Rabindranath Das has been watching the ground slip away from beneath his feet. Back in the 1990s, his family had about 3.5 hectares (ha) of paddy fields along Ghoramara island's northwestern shores. But every year, especially during the monsoons, the Hooghly's strong undercurrents would erode a bit more of the riverbank's slopes, triggering sudden collapses of large sections of the bank. Every year, either the river or advancing embankments would swallow a fresh swathe of his family's land. Now, less than a quarter of a hectare and the thatched mud house they live in, remain. The paddy harvested from this field feeds Das's 12-member family--wife, young children and parents--for less than three months. So, every year he leaves his tiny island for the mainland for months at a stretch to work as a daily labourer harvesting paddy in other people's fields or excavating mud from riverbanks. The money he brings back helps make ends meet. But just about.There are days, he admits, when the kitchen fires can't be lit.

"Next monsoon, when they build the boundary wall around the island afresh, we will probably lose the last bit of our land. It will fall outside the embanked area. Like most of the people here, we too will become bhumiheen (landless)," Das says. But even then, he won't leave the island. So what if there'll be nothing left to live on, he intends to cling on to the only home he's known till the briny waters of the Hooghly and Bartala drag away the last bit of solid ground. "Till the day Ghoramara is here I will be here," he says. Unfortunately for Das, from the looks of it that day isn't too far away.

Down to Earth

Mohammed Sheikh Kaivuddin, imam of a mosque in Ghoramara, and his wife. About half-a-hectare remains of the 20 ha his family owned on the island some 40 years ago. "Earlier we used to grow paddy for ourselves and have some left over. Now what we harvest doesn't even feed our family. We have to buy rice from outside," he says

Settled some 200 years ago, Ghoramara, apparently so called because a raja of the area, Pyarimohon Mukherjee, lost his horse (ghora) to a tiger while on a hunt in the island, was among the first of the islands in the Sunderbans region to be turned into a British outpost. It once boasted of the Sunderbans's first post and telegraph office and police station. Now both have moved to the larger Sagar island. According to the local panchayat office, the island then had an area of 3,912 ha. It's less than a third that size today. What's left is going. Fast.

Expert opinion

Down to Earth
Sagar island. Nirmal Sahu had to move from Ghoramara to a quarter-hectare plot. Not much is left of the 4 hectares he had
Researchers at Jadavpur University's School of Oceanographic Studies (jusos) in Kolkata say Ghoramara has been reduced in size by 41 per cent since 1969, displacing 7,000 islanders over the past 30 years. They predict the 3 km by 3 km piece of land that still offers shelter and sustenance to some 5,400 largely marginal farmers, fishermen and daily labourers, might not last beyond 2020. In fact, they say in another 15 years the sea will lay claim to a dozen islands in the Sunderbans, six of which are populated, rendering about 70,000 people homeless. These predictions are part of a study researchers at the university have conducted over several years to assess the vulnerability of the ecologically sensitive Sunderbans island system vis--vis climate change. jusos has now compiled a report for the Union ministry of environment and forests.

The vanishing lands will mean displacement, and loss of livelihood for many villagers. But the state government, which is only too well aware of the Sunderbans's rapidly diminishing landmass, is yet to come up with a coherent resettlement plan.

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