To protect the Sundarbans, Delhi and Dhaka must unite
Between the two countries, a joint commission on the Sundarbans with a joint secretariat could be set up to plan and implement climate resilience of the Sundarbans and communities dependent on this ecosystem.
Covering a forested area of 10,000 sq km and a population of 11 million in Bangladesh and India, Sundarbans is the delta of three mighty rivers — Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna. It is also home to several threatened species such as the Bengal tiger, Ganga and Irrawaddy dolphins, estuarine crocodiles and river terrapin. Sundarbans faces nearly double the sea level rise compared to other coastal regions, while also subject to an increasing frequency and intensity of cyclones that destroy lives and livelihoods. High levels of coastal erosion — 4.45 sq km/year – are destroying dams and homes. The rising salinity of groundwater and estuaries is reducing the productivity of fishponds and farmland, resulting in even lower incomes for poor and vulnerable households.
Despite its acute vulnerability to the climate crisis and natural disasters, it has a high population density of 980 persons/sq km in the Indian Sundarbans and between 370-850 persons/sq km on the Bangladesh side. Moreover, the average income is less than $1 per day. People also suffer from poor infrastructure. The high degree of climate vulnerability contributes to, and is a result of, such extreme poverty.
Both Bangladesh and India recognised the ecological importance of the Sundarbans early on. A 2011 memorandum of understanding focuses on bilateral cooperation to reduce disaster vulnerability, alleviate socioeconomic poverty, and enhance natural resources management. This led to the formation of a bilateral Joint Working Group (JWG) on the Conservation of Sundarbans. Unfortunately, the JWG met only once, in July 2016, thus making little or no progress. The two countries’ institutions at the national and sub-national levels are not fully equipped to address these issues either.
During Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to Delhi, the two countries called for the effective implementation of the 2011 MoU so that the “ecosystem of this deltaic forest and the people dependent on this ecosystem can live sustainably”.
Studies show that if Bangladesh and India cooperate on the Sundarbans, the benefits across several sectors increase substantially, such as by 60% in ecotourism, over 30% in fisheries and 35% in protection from cyclones and other storms. In addition, the net biosphere-atmosphere exchange of carbon in the Sundarbans is estimated at 2.79 tonnes/ha/year; thus, both countries help mitigate global emissions.
The successful implementation of the 2011 MoU and achieving sustainable development in the Sundarbans requires an institutional mechanism with skill sets and flexibility to work across multiple sectors, engage various institutions from the local to national level, and employ a mix of reliable and flexible funding sources. The two nations can learn from several international initiatives such as the Trilateral Wadden Sea Cooperation, Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, Mekong River Commission, and the Senegal River Basin Development Organization.
A joint commission on the Sundarbans could be set up. Institutionally housed in the ministry of external affairs in India and ministry of foreign affairs in Bangladesh, it could be co-chaired by two public figures, one from each country, enjoying minister of state rank. The current JWG could be converted into its high-powered board and a set of interdisciplinary experts. A joint Sundarbans secretariat (JCS) would plan, coordinate and communicate with diverse stakeholders, including working groups, to implement specific joint activities.
The JCS would plan and implement climate resilience of the Sundarbans and communities dependent on this ecosystem. In addition, it would coordinate and engage with other ministries — tourism, shipping, disaster management, agriculture, fisheries and rural development — in both the countries to develop and implement climate-resilient activities. It could also raise finance from global climate funds, the private sector, multilateral development banks, and private foundations. Key focus areas for bilateral cooperation could be fisheries management, biodiversity mapping, sustainable shipping practices, resilient housing and public infrastructure, response systems to chemical/oil spills, ecotourism, early warning systems, and nature-positive and nature-based solutions to enhance resilience. It could also leverage the private sector in water and sanitation services, multimodal transport, skilling, environmental bonds, and carbon markets.
Successful climate-resilient and inclusive development will serve as a global model for other deltaic regions and the Small Island Developing States. For the sake of the unique ecosystem of the Sundarbans and the nearly 11 million people there, India and Bangladesh should pursue out-of-the-box institutional innovations.
Sanjay Gupta is an independent international analyst and Uttam Kumar Sinha works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal