Cracks in the shield: How the Sundarbans is dying and making Bengal prone to cyclones

The delta’s mangrove forests have historically protected the state from cyclones. But deforestation and climate change have taken a heavy toll.

ByShaunak Ghosh
Cracks in the shield: How the Sundarbans is dying and making Bengal prone to cyclones
Shambhavi Thakur
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It was the evening of May 18, 2020. Bengal, like the rest of the world, was in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. The Indian government had imposed a strict nationwide lockdown to contain its spread. As a result, most people were in their homes.

At 5.43 pm, hell broke loose, literally. Cyclone Amphan struck the state’s shores, tearing a path of destruction.

Amphan, which originated in the Bay of Bengal, was the worst cyclone to hit Bengal in nearly 300 years. With wind speeds after landfall of 155-165 kmph, it was categorised as a Category 5 supercyclone — a cyclone attaining wind speeds of 260 kmph at sea before landfall. According to estimates by the state government, Amphan affected nearly 60 percent of the state’s population and caused damage amounting to about Rs 1 lakh crore.

The worst affected area was the Sundarbans, a collection of islands in the delta where the Ganga and Brahmaputra meet the Bay of Bengal. The area is home to one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. The cyclone passed through the Sundarbans, sweeping away homes and ruining farmland.

This was reiterated by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who said on June 5 that 28 percent of the region had been completely destroyed, an estimated 1,200 sq km of a total area of 4,263 sq km. “Sundarbans is finished,” she said at a press conference.

This isn’t the first time the Sundarbans has borne the brunt of a cyclone, and it won’t be the last. In the last 23 years, the area has witnessed 13 supercyclones. Since 2019, there have been three cyclones in 12 months – Fani in May 2019, Bulbul in November 2019, and Amphan this May.

This trail of devastation assumes greater proportions when you recall that 70 percent of the people in the Sundarbans live below the poverty line, with a per capita income of Rs 13,300 per month.

Fifty-four of the Sundarbans’ 102 islands are inhabited by around 45 lakh people, according to the 2011 census. Most of them depend on agriculture for livelihood, growing paddy as the major crop. Other occupations include fishing, pisciculture, honey gathering, and catching crabs.

Six months after Cyclone Amphan, the people in the Sundarbans are still picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. This begs the question: what makes the Sundarbans so vulnerable to cyclones? And what does being battered so frequently mean for its ecology and people?

The short answer to the Sundarbans’ woes is its proximity to the Bay of Bengal. Cyclones frequently originate from this northeastern curve of the Indian Ocean, including 26 of the 35 most dangerous cyclones in history, according to Weather Underground.

And the only thing that could protect the area — and therefore the rest of the state — is the Sundarbans mangrove forest, which is dying.

Deforestation, and a black market for timber

“The rest of Bengal, particularly Kolkata, never realises the true intensity of the cyclones, just because of the Sundarbans forest cover,” said Jayanta Sen.

Sen is an environmentalist who has worked on conservation of the Sundarbans for over five years. His NGO, Purono Kolkatar Golpo, swung into action after Amphan, trying to rehabilitate the people of the Sundarbans and carrying out a tree plantation drive along the coasts of some of its islands.

Sen’s theory is backed up by research. Mangrove forests are well known for their ability to reduce the intensity of storms. In 2013, the University of Florida pointed out that mangroves can even reduce hurricanes — the North American cousin of the cyclone — from Category 5 to Category 3 through what is called the “mangrove reduction effect”.

But over the last 250 years, cracks have formed in the protective shield offered by the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. In 2012, the Bengal State Action Plan on Climate Change noted that five percent of its forest cover had been lost since 1989, in spite of the area being designated as a protected biosphere reserve.

Sundarbans' mangroves which act as a shield to cyclones.

Sundarbans' mangroves which act as a shield to cyclones.

Arun Sarkar, a resident of Satjelia village.

Arun Sarkar, a resident of Satjelia village.

A noticeable indication of this loss is the vanishing Sundari tree, the dominant species of mangroves in the Sundarbans which gives the area its name. The tree is now a rarity, classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“In our childhood, Sundari trees lined the border of our island,” said Arun Sarkar, a resident of Satjelia village in Dayapur island. “Now, we hardly see any.”

The Sundari is dying from a “top dying” disease. There are numerous reasons for this, as a report by the Indian Institutes of Technology noted, and they include “excessive flooding”, “increased soil salinity”, and “cyclone-induced stress”.

Deforestation is to blame as well. It was rampant until 1987, when the Sundarbans mangrove forest was declared a Unesco world heritage site. Now, the West Bengal Trees Protection and Conservation in Non-Forest Areas Act of 2006 provides for a penalty of one year’s imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs 5,000 for cutting trees in the Sundarbans.

Yet, trees are still being felled in these parts. The mangrove forests now support a sprawling underground industry of timber smuggling.

Ratan Mondal, a resident of Satjelia, admitted that he cuts the branches of trees such as the Sundari as it’s his “only source of livelihood”. The frequent cyclones have destroyed his paddy fields, he said, forcing him to fell trees deep in the forest.

Ramesh Mondal, a resident of Dayapur, said most of the trees that are felled are sold across the border, to Bangladeshi traders. “A foot of timber from a Sundari tree can cost around Rs 500,” he said. “So, imagine what a 10-foot or 15-foot tree can earn us.”

An investigation by the Bangladeshi newspaper Daily Star spells it out: timber from the Sundarbans is sold in the black market for up to Rs 1,750 per cubic foot. It is transported to Bangladesh through the well-connected network of rivers, and sold at a floating market in the border district of Nesarabad, exchanging hands through boats and trawlers. It’s an open secret, involving forest officials on both sides of the border.

Residents of the Sundarbans told this reporter that they have turned to this illegal trade in part because they no longer have land to farm.

According to the state government’s Action Plan on Climate Change, agricultural land in the non-forest areas of the Sundarbans shrank from 2,149 sq km to 1,691 sq km between 2002 and 2009, mainly because of frequent storms, primitive agricultural methods, and a rising population. Though honey gathering and fishing still provide sources of income, selling timber is more lucrative.

This is corroborated by Arun Sarkar, who said people have “no option other than the jungle to survive”.

As a result, the Sundarbans mangrove forest has shrunk from 16,700 sq km to 9,630 sq km in the last 200 years, across both India and Bangladesh, leaving it unprotected from the annual cyclones.

The mangroves are dying, Sarkar said. “If we travel to the forests, we can see a large number of mangroves whose leaves have turned yellow,” he said. “This means they’re dying.”

Rising temperatures and salinity

There’s another major reason for the proliferation of cyclones in the Sundarbans and the destruction of its protective cover: climate change.

Mangroves grow in water with a temperature between 10 and 19 degrees Celsius. If the temperature fluctuates even slightly from this happy medium, the trees begin to die.

According to the 2012 Bengal Climate Action Plan, the Sundarbans has experienced an average temperature increase of 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade over the last 30 years — almost eight times higher than the global average of 0.06 degrees.

Compounding the issue is the fact that the sea level in the Sundarbans has risen by 1.2 inches per year compared to the global average of 0.14 inches, according to the study.

“This happens mainly due to the low pH level of the water, which happens due to depleting levels of oxygen in the water,” said SK Mukherjee, a professor of marine science at the University of Calcutta. “This again can be attributed to the depletion of the mangroves, which have the capability to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide in both water and air.”

He added: “The rise in sea level, coupled with the rapid rise in temperature, gives rise to cyclones in this part of the world.”

The higher temperatures and proximity to the sea have also led to higher salinity in the Sundarbans’ waters. Salinity increases whenever a cyclone strikes, since seawater enters the rivers and then the riverine islands. This increases the saline content of the soil which, in turn, leads to stunted growth and weak roots for the mangroves.

One solution, environmentalist Jayanta Sen said, would be more rainfall. “With more storms and more saline water from the sea coming in, the rainfall would balance out the freshwater content in the Sundarbans rivers,” he said. This isn’t happening. The Sundarbans receives an average annual rainfall of around 1,920 mm, and it’s falling nor increasing.

A question of embankments

Realising the area’s vulnerability to flooding, the British built embankments out of mud over 100 years ago. This embankment girdle of 3,122 km is maintained by the state irrigation and waterways department.

The ravaged mud embankment of Choto Mollakhali.

The ravaged mud embankment of Choto Mollakhali.

The spot where Arun Sarkar's house stood, before Cyclone Aila destroyed it.

The spot where Arun Sarkar's house stood, before Cyclone Aila destroyed it.

In 2009, Cyclone Aila destroyed 778 km of the embankments, though local people estimate the loss to be much higher. Afterwards, for the first time since the British departed, the Bengal government launched a project to rebuild them, under the aegis of the state irrigation department. Costing Rs 5,032 crore, the project proposed to rebuild the British era mud embankments with concrete, bricks and polypropylene sheets.

That was in 2009. Ten years later, the project is still incomplete. An official from the irrigation department said, on the condition of anonymity, that “only 20 percent of the funds have been utilised, and only 100 km of the proposed 1,000 km has been rebuilt”. The official refused to provide further information.

Even where the rebuilding happened, it has not always been successful. On Dayapur island, villagers said that chunks of the new cement embankment “wash away every time a cyclone occurs”.

“We villagers sometimes rebuild the embankments with cement bags,” said Arun Sarkar. “Government officials do sometimes come and help us but the construction quality is not up to the mark, as you can see.” He pointed towards a section of the embankment, where the cement had worn away after Cyclone Amphan.

On Choto Mollakhali island, the villagers said the government never sent anyone to rebuild the embankment. “This is the embankment I have seen since my childhood,” said Mousumi Mondal, gesturing towards the mud embankments built by the British. They are in bad shape. “The cyclones and even the slightest bit of rain makes the embankment melt,” Mondal explained. “We then have to walk in knee-deep mud for days at a stretch. It’s really difficult for us.”

After every cyclone wreaks havoc, the villagers get together to rebuild the embankments. But there’s only so much they can do; the result is usually fragile. So, when the next cyclone hits, the embankments break, the seawater rushes into fields and villages, and crops are destroyed.

Arun Sarkar is uncomfortably familiar with just how vulnerable the Sundarbans are. Eleven years ago, he lost his home to Cyclone Aila.

“We used to have a house there,” he said, pointing towards a stretch of river along the coast of Dayapur island. “That area was a field; I used to play there as a child.”

Both house and field are gone, swallowed by the rising waters. The islands flooded, 332 people died, and more than 40,000 homes were destroyed, including Sarkar’s.

Since then, Sarkar has rebuilt his house. But for him, and the thousands of others here, it’s only a matter of time until the next cyclone comes along.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

***

This is the third story in a five-part series on the disastrous consequences of the Assam floods and the Amphan cyclone in Bengal. Read the other parts here.

This story is part of the NL Sena project which 43 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Aditya Deuskar, Deshapriya Debesh, John Abraham, Aditi Prabha, Rohit Unnimadhavan, Abhishek Daevil, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our next project, ‘Love Jihad’: Myth vs Reality, and help keep news free and independent.

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