New Delhi: Sundarbans, the largest delta in the world, consists of 10,200 sq km of mangrove forest, the largest mangrove forest in the world. While 4,200 sq km of the reserved forest lies in India, approximately 6,000 sq km of the reserved forest is in Bangladesh. Another 5,400 sq km of non-forest, inhabited region in India, along the north and north-western fringe of mangrove forest, is also known as the Sundarban region in India. However, Sundarbans, the land of tigers and mangroves, is facing the onslaught of climate change which is affecting the lives and livelihoods of the people. To understand the challenges being faced by Sundarbans and its people Banega Swasth India team spoke to Dr Pradeep Vyas, Indian Forest Service (Retired), Ex-Chief Wildlife Warden, West Bengal.
The Changing Sundarbans: An Increase In Sea Level And A Decrease In Mangrove Cover
Sundarbans is at sea level so a rise in sea level will submerge the islands for more time in high tides. So, less land will be available for the wildlife to move here and there, said Dr Vyas.
Sea-level rise or climate change-related temperature rise also increases the salinity and salinity influences the type of mangroves in various parts of the Sundarbans. There are two broad categories of mangroves – salt water loving and fresh water loving. Low salinity-loving mangroves serve as food to the herbivores. But, due to a rise in salinity, the area of fresh water loving mangroves is decreasing which affects the herbivore population which in turn may adversely impact the food chain and the tiger population that is dependent on herbivores for their survival.
This will lead to an imbalance that will certainly be against the interest of the Sundarbans, against the interest of the people of Sundarbans. An overall imbalance means extreme conflict between tigers and humans and all elements of Sundarbans, said Dr Vyas.
The Causes Behind Lack Of Freshwater Availability In Sundarbans
There are two main reasons behind the lack of fresh water in Sundarbans. One is the natural reason that is in the 16th century, a neo-tectonic shift happened which resulted in the land moving downwards in Eastern Sundarbans that is in Bangladesh. As a result, more of Ganges water started flowing towards Bangladesh and the availability of fresh water in Western Sundarbans which comes in India now, reduced. Secondly, during the developmental phase, through canals, fresh water was drawn for agricultural purposes.
Today, in the Indian Sundarbans, only the Hooghly river and Raimangal river have some elements of freshwater. Central Sundarbans has only backwater, said Dr Vyas.
The Impact Of Rising Salinity On Humans In Sundarbans
As explained by Dr Vyas, the three major impacts of climate change on Sundarbans are: frequent cyclones – the intensity may not be very big but the frequency has increased; rise in sea-level; increase in sea surface, which means more salt is getting dissolved and salinity is increasing.
Because of cyclones, people lose their standing crops and property and all of a sudden, for a few months, they become climate refugees. They have to start from scratch. When a cyclone comes, seawater inundates the villages. It’s saline water which means crops can’t be raised. In 2009, after cyclone Aila, we did a study and we found that even after a year of the cyclone, 23 per cent of the agricultural land could not be cultivated. We found that a big percentage of that was going to forest areas for livelihood. This means they were going for fishing mainly, putting more biotic pressure which is not a good thing.
In Sundarbans, one of the major sources of livelihood is fish culture and aquaculture. For the collection of tiger prawn larvae and crab, women and children enter waters, often waist and neck deep. It’s the saline water which has multiple health impacts on people.
Skin diseases, diarrhoea, and dysentery are very common due to saline water which is highly infected in many places. Humans are not tuned to drink saline water or tolerate the impact of saline water for long hours. Also, when children drop out of school to assist their parents in earning a living, it leads to loss of education, said Dr Vyas.
Nylon Net Fencing, A Way To Limit Human-Tiger Conflict In Sundarbans
Human-tiger or human-crocodile conflict has been prevalent for centuries in Sundarbans. According to Dr Vyas, there are 150 years old records stating that once, in a year, more than 200 people were killed by tigers. One of the factors responsible for human-wildlife conflict is the difficult terrain of Sundarbans. He explains,
For a predator like a tiger, it is not easy to hunt. Tiger is a hunter who goes for an ambush. It needs an element of surprise which is very difficult because the moment the tiger puts its front paw in a mud slash, it makes sounds and then it cannot rush to catch the prey. Because he may injure its paw. If the prey base is low, currently, I will not say there is any sign of low prey base because the recent trends of the population analysis of prey base show a slight increase along with an increase in the tiger population. But, if due to any reason prey base declines, tigers will not have any choice but to enter villages after crossing the river to catch easy prey.
During his tenure between 2001 and 2013, Dr Vyas came up with the idea of putting up nylon net fencing to limit the interaction between humans and tigers. Explaining the concept behind it, he said,
Firstly, tigers cannot jump very high in marshy areas. Secondly, all tigers are not determined to go to the village area. Some of them go out inadvertently. Initially, there was some resistance from our people and villagers were reluctant to accept it because it was a hindrance to their entry into the forest. On one hand, the fence was trying to prevent tigers from going to the village, whereas, on the other hand, it was preventing people from going inside the forest. We convinced the people, involved them in the management and now after 20 years, we see that it is one of the most important tools to prevent tiger straying. Even a team from Bangladesh has come to study nylon net fence and they have raised some of the fences in Bangladesh Sundarbans also.
Saving Sundarbans: The Need To Plant Mangroves
Mangrove afforestation is essential to save Sundarbans people, to protect the metropolitan city like Kolkata. These are all densely populated areas. If mangrove shields are not there in the Sundarban coastal areas, in that case, the Bay of Bengal cyclones which have become frequent due to climate change, may do far more damage to mankind or humans living in these areas. That is why mangrove afforestation is very much essential, said Dr Vyas.
Because of the lack of fresh water, Dr Vyas suggests planting those species of mangroves which can tolerate the high salinity currently prevailing in Indian Sundarbans. He also suggests going for climate adaptation models and research so as to develop techniques through which fresh water loving mangrove species like Sundari can tolerate slightly levels of salinity than the present level of high salinity.
You can listen to the full Banega Swasth India podcast discussion by hitting the play button on the Spotify player embedded above.
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