Sunderban bears climate change brunt as world leaders negotiate at COP

  • In its latest state of the climate report, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said that sea levels between 2013 and 2021 had risen by a factor of two, meaning sea level rises have doubled in this period.
A man points towards a pond filled with saline water that has killed fresh water fish and was brought upstream due to Cyclone Amphan, at Kakdwip in the Sunderbans, South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal, India on Frisday, May 22, 2020. (Photo by Samir Jana / Hindustan Times)
A man points towards a pond filled with saline water that has killed fresh water fish and was brought upstream due to Cyclone Amphan, at Kakdwip in the Sunderbans, South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal, India on Frisday, May 22, 2020. (Photo by Samir Jana / Hindustan Times)
Updated on Nov 08, 2021 02:01 AM IST
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By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Sheikh Abdul Rauf, now 50, has watched the sea invade his land. His hut is ramshackle, a combination of years of poverty and devastation from repeated cyclones. But until three years ago, he had land. The walk to sea, past his agricultural land, was about 25 minutes. Now, he watches the water 15 metres away from his hut, and contemplates the inevitable. His land has gone, his home may, too.

His father once told him that they had several hectares of land on the island. “But gradually almost all our land disappeared due to rising water levels. Now, I have a few bighas left, but there is no telling how long those will remain,” Rauf said.

Rauf is one of about 3,000 residents of Ghoramara, a remote island in the Sunderbans, the world’s largest delta known for its Royal Bengal Tigers and mangroves. And yet, Ghoramara now has another narrative. Of rising sea levels, and untimely cyclones, all the effects of the climate crisis. And even as nations make pledges at COP26, and leaders of the world converge in Glasgow to thrash out the way forward, in the Sunderbans, on India’s east coast, the climate crisis is in the here and now.

In its latest state of the climate report, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said that sea levels between 2013 and 2021 had risen by a factor of two, meaning sea level rises have doubled in this period. The WMO report said the mean global sea level rise was 2.1mm per year between 1993 and 2002 and 4.4mm per year between 2013 and 2021. In the coming years, WMO predicted that sea levels will rise further if the climate crisis-causing carbon emissions are not checked quickly.

In India, the ministry of earth sciences told the Lok Sabha this July that the sea level in the northern parts of the Indian Ocean had risen by 6.1mm per year between 2003 and 2013. The sea level rise is higher on the eastern coast, the ministry said.

Chairman of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, Kalyan Rudra, said the rate of land disappearing in the Sunderbans was even higher. “In the Sunderbans, the rise is much more because of the subsidence of land. While the IPCC report 2019 says the sea level is rising by 3.6mm every year, the delta is subsiding by 2.9 mm every year. These two put together show that water is gobbling up land at the rate of 6.5mm per year,” said Rudra, a noted river expert.

For Rauf, these terms and numbers are unfamiliar, but the evidence is before his eyes. “I don’t know what is causing the abrupt rise in the sea currents. Maybe, it is God’s wrath against us,”he said.


For those on India’s coast, particularly in areas such as the Sunderbans, the climate crisis has brought two dangerous changes. The first is the danger of losing land through submergence and the second, untimely and frequent cyclones. West Bengal and Odisha have faced very severe cyclones — Amphan in 2020 and Yaas in 2021 — which wreaked havoc, especially in West Bengal, where 102 people died in the two cyclones.

In 2019, close to nine million people were evacuated due to cyclones, according to a home ministry report tabled in Parliament in 2020. Globally, cyclones and hurricanes had displaced close to 30 million people in 2020, according to an estimate by advocacy group Climate Centre, adding that three of the four people displaced in the world were because of extreme weather events. On the ground in Ghoramara, this has meant that Rauf has had to build his home twice in two years.

Weather experts such as KJ Ramesh, former director general of India Meteorological Department (IMD), said that intensity and frequency of extreme weather phenomena such as cyclones and spells of heavy erratic rain have increased in the last two decades. “We have seen an increase in cyclone activity in both eastern and western coast. Eastern coast in 2020 saw back to back cyclones, which is rare. Science shows climate change has a role to pay in the changing pattern of cyclones,” Ramesh said. Data available with the Union ministry of earth sciences shows that in 2016, at least four cyclones hit the Indian coast, out of which only one was a severe cyclone. In 2020, the country was battered by five cyclones, all categorised as severe cyclones.

48-year-old Abani Mondal describes another real-world implication of these events. A resident of coastal Sandeshkhali in North 24 Paraganas district, Mondal says that the cyclones push saline water into the islands, rendering all agricultural land infertile, and killing sweet water fish in the ponds on land. “With government help, a section of the farmers started to grow salt tolerant paddy. But then the extremely heavy and erratic spells of rainfall this monsoon in July and September killed all the crop which we were banking on,” Mondal said.

Experts say that it usually takes at least two to three monsoon seasons to wash away the layer of salt. Conservationist Debal Deb, founder of the rice seed banks Vrihi and Basudhab, said: “The high yielding varieties which are usually grown in our villages cannot withstand saline water at all. So, it takes at least two to three years of good monsoon rain to wash away the salt from the upper levels of the soil and make the farmlands fit for agriculture. But if there are breaches in the embankments, saline water gushes in during high tide.”

Joy Krishna Halder secretary, West Bengal United Fisherman Association, who lives at Kultali in the Sunderbans, said: “Fishing and agriculture are the backbones of the delta. Now because of climate change we are being deprived even of that. As a result many people migrate to far off cities and towns in search of work.”


The impact doesn’t only affect humans. Studies have shown that the climate crisis has been taking a heavy toll on mangrove and local marine ecology in the Sunderbans, as it is in small island nations in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Punyasloke Bhadury, a professor from IISER who will speak at COP26 on how the climate crisis is affecting the delta, said: “The Sunderi tree (from which Sunderban derives its name) is getting wiped out because there is not enough fresh water available and rising sea level is increasing salinity, especially in the delta.”

35-year-old Ratna Guin, for instance, once caught the seeds of tiger prawns in the mangroves with great ease. “Fifteen years ago, we used to wade through the water in the winter for three to four hours and get healthy amounts. Now even after six to seven hours, you get nothing. Many women have stopped relying on this and have instead migrated to cities as far of as in Kerala, Gujarat and Andaman to work as labourers along with their husbands and sons,” said Guin, a resident of Kumirmari island.

Bhadury points out that while the unbridled collection of tiger prawn seeds has depleted stocks, the rise in sea surface temperature is also a factor. “The rising sea surface temperature is having an effect on the population of planktons. Many plankton populations are depleting while others have become more dominant. This change in plankton population is affecting the population of fishes and other aquatic animals such as prawns and crabs,” he said.

That is not all. Sunderbans is also witnessing ground water depletion because of the rising salinity. According to locals, Kharif crops depend mainly on the monsoon rains, while Rabi crop is primarily dependent on surface water. But as the rivers turn saline, and the ponds, too, after a cyclone, the residents turn to incommensurate use of ground water. “Earlier on some islands we used to get water digging just around 40 – 50 feet. Now we have to dig a few hundred feet to find water,” said Rabin Mondol, the project coordinator of Tagore Society for Rural Development in Gosaba.


Located at the southern tip of West Bengal at the confluence of River Ganga and the Bay of Bengal, Ghoramara is one of the 102 islands in the Sunderbans, spread across 10,000 square kilometers in state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. More than 4.5 million people live in the Sunderbans.

This has always been home, but many, including Rauf, now migrate to find work. “There is nothing left in Ghoramara. Many have left permanently and only come back on festivals or for social functions,” Rauf said. Two of his sons work in Kerala, and another works with him in Kolkata. All five came home when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the national lockdown was imposed. “The two cyclones (Amphan and Yaas) have again evicted us. Where are we supposed to go now?” asked Rauf.

The World Bank, in 2018, estimated that three regions — Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia — would generate 143 million climate refugees by 2050, almost six times of the estimated 22.5 million climate migrants in 2017 due to sudden onset of weather events such as flooding, forest fires after drought and intensified storms. “We are seeing short-term climate refugees in Western Ghats and Himalayas. We would see more of them across India because of climate change,” said noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil in a recent interview to Hindustan Times.

“There is no denying that lakhs of people migrate to other parts India from the Sunderbans in search of work. This became evident when the people, who were working as migrant labourers in other cities, returned to the delta during Covid. Many went back after the lockdown was relaxed. More than 500,000 people have migrated from the Sunderbans over the years,” said Bankim Chandra Hazra, Sunderbans affairs minister.

In the Sunderbans, if areas such as Sagar, Henry’s Island, Chaimari, Baghmara, Dalhousie Island, Baliara and Mechua are showing heavy erosion, others have disappeared already. “Some islands such as Lohachura, Bedford and Suparidanga have already been gobbled up by the sea,” said Sanjib Sagar, panchayat pradhan of Ghoramara. From a total of around 7000 people, a decade ago in Ghoramara Island, the population has reduced to around 3,000 on Ghoramara island. “Most people have moved to safer areas such as Kakdwip and Sagar. The young have migrated to other states,” he said.


Hazra said the government was aware about the climate crisis-induced problems and was doing its bit. “Mangroves are being planted to protect the villages from cyclones. Through MGNREGA jobs, which include digging ponds for rain water harvesting, planting mangrove and strengthening the embankments, villagers are being employed. Salt tolerant paddy seeds were distributed after the cyclones and villagers are being helped to start poultry and duckery,” he said.

Other government officials, however, added that a lack of resources was a cause for concern and that there was a lack of a clear climate change adaptation plan. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Thursday said that finance for climate adaptation was inadequate and needed to be scaled up five to 10 times the present levels. “As the world looks to step up efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions – efforts that are still not anywhere strong enough – it must also dramatically up its game to adapt to climate change,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director.

“From my experience, I can only say, we need a lot of money to make vulnerable areas adaptable to climate change. We need international collaboration for sharing best technologies and innovations,” said M Rajeevan, former secretary department of science and technology, Government of India.


    Joydeep Thakur is a Special Correspondent based in Kolkata. He focuses on science, environment, wildlife, agriculture and other related issues.

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