Swamp Bengal

West Bengal farmer Srikanta Doloi gestures as he describes the loss of his ancestral farmland after it was submerged on Ghoramara Island, in the Sundarbans, some 100 km south of Kolkata Dec. 11, 2009. Over the last three decades, Ghoramara’s land mass has been halved from nine square kilometers to just about 4.7 square km, because of rising sea levels, a cause for concern, according to climate specialists. (Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images)

MOUSUNI — The living drown and the dead float out of their graves as the rising sea engulfs Baliara village in Mousuni, an island facing the Bay of Bengal. Every third or fourth day, the high tide enters homes and leaves farms a wasteland.

At one edge of the Sundarbans ­– the world's largest mangrove forest – Mousuni used to have an embankment along Baliara to hold back the rising sea. That collapsed during 2009's Cyclone Aila. Since then, there have been three attempts to build sea walls, all of which have collapsed against the power of the sea. Scientists say seas around the world are rising due to climate change, but the Bay of Bengal is rising twice as fast as the global average.

I had first visited Baliara in 2009, two months before the cyclone hit. Badruddin Sarkar, retired headmaster of the village school, had then stood on top of the 18-foot embankment and pointed out to the sea to the homes he used to have – the first was overtaken by a rising sea in 1991 and the second in 2004.

Two months after I met him, a storm surge from Cyclone Aila topped the embankment, ruined Sarkar's paddy fields and freshwater fish farms with salt water, killed his livestock, and forced him to migrate to Kolkata, over 100 km away.

Now, Abdul Hanan, 61, retired headmaster of the school's primary section, pointed out the effects of the rising seas. There is no sign of the original embankment, girders from subsequent attempts to build a sea wall lie overwhelmed and abandoned, dead coconut and date palms dot a landscape of saline pools where nothing can grow.

At the confluence of the Muriganga – a distributary of the Ganga – and the Bay of Bengal, Mousuni is a bustling island of about 5,000 households. But over 2,000 of them are in Baliara, and they are under a sentence of displacement or death.

"How do you expect us to live?" asks a visibly angry Jasimuddin Sarkar, pointing to his farm that is under about a foot of dirty brackish water. He has tried to protect his home from the rising sea with plastic fencing, but the water keeps getting in. Peek inside the large hut, and you see are piles of soggy old newspapers. That is what the family uses to mop up the water from their furniture, their floor, their walls. They do it every three or four days.

So how do they survive? Jasimuddin's answer is the same as that of everybody in Baliara. "My son works in Kerala as a mason. He sends money home. That's how we survive." Others talk of their sons, brothers or husbands working as security guards, farm labor, masons, mall cleaners and so on.

It's not a situation that anybody likes – but where will they go? Jasimuddin says he knows nothing except paddy and fish farming, so what will he do elsewhere for a living? Over 150 families in Baliara have already left permanently. They could not sell their land, because nobody was interested in wasteland. They just left.

Has the government been of any help? Local panchayat member Himangshu Aich said those who could prove their farm ownership got a compensation of Rs. 10,000 per family after Cyclone Aila. And since then, the efforts of the government engineers to hold back the waves are there for all to see.

The Sundarbans straddle the Bangladesh-India border. The Indian part has around five million people. Nilanjan Ghosh, an ecological economist, has led a study that shows 1.5 million of these people will have to be permanently relocated outside the Sundarbans, because sea level rise will make it impossible for them to live there or earn a livelihood.

That means the number of people affected and to be affected by sea level rise in the Indian Sundarbans alone is higher than that of all small islands around the world put together.

The impending fate of these islands is a major subject of discussion at the annual talks of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. In contrast, the plight of people in the Sundarbans is not even mentioned in international climate talks, not even by the government of India.

It is not as if there has been no attempt to build climate resilience in this area. For well over a decade, WWF India has been distributing special varieties of paddy seeds that are salinity tolerant. It still works further inland, but in this area, the water and soil salinity levels have now gone well beyond the survivability of this variety.

The problem is far more fundamental than the solutions attempted so far. Apart from sea level rise due to climate change, the entire Sundarbans is sinking because dams and barrages in the Ganga and its tributaries upstream hold back the silt that forms the soil that forms the delta. No policymaker in New Delhi shows any interest in even starting to address that problem.

Is there a solution at all? Go around 2,000 kilometres from the Sundarbans, down India's east coast to Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu, and you will see one with potential.

Mangroves have been cut down all along the coastlines of South Asia, but there was still a large strand standing at Pichavaram when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit the entire region from Indonesia to East Africa.

Coastal villages to the north and south of Pichavaram were devastated, killing many. But the 16 villages shielded by the Pichavaram mangroves escaped with very little damage. The mangroves tempered the wave.

Now it is a protected forest through which you can take boat rides, an activity much loved by young couples. As the boatman poles through about a foot of water, you can get very close to the mangroves, which you cannot do in the Sundarbans for fear of tigers and crocodiles.

There have been some sporadic attempts to plant mangroves in the Bay of Bengal facing islands of the Sundarbans, but neither the authorities nor the residents seem to be aware it may be the only effective wall against a rising sea.

(In arrangement with indiaclimatedialogue.net, with whom Joydeep Gupta is Project Director. Views expressed are those of the website. Feedback at information@indiaclimatedialogue.net)

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