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How Has Climate Change Impacted Food Security In India’s Sundarbans

With cyclones becoming more frequent and intense over the past decade in Bay of Bengal, here is how climate change has impacted food security of people living in Sundarbans

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How Has Climate Change Impacted Food Security In India’s Sundarbans
The impact of climate change on food systems in Sundarbans has been long evident, with people struggling for food and nutritional security, say experts

New Delhi: The Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stressed that there is a direct link between climate change, extreme precipitations, and greater risk of regional-scale flooding, and food insecurity. Sundarbans, located in the tidally active lower deltaic plain of the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna (GBM) basin and home to the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world, is being hugely impacted by various climatic factors and shocks. While Sundarbans is no stranger to cyclonic storms, the increasing frequency and the intensity of such storms in the past 15 years have caused widespread damage to land, people, their livelihood and food security. Cyclones are now a routine in the Sundarbans region, each causing more damage than the previous one.

– Sidr (2007)
– Aila (2009)
– Phailin (2013)
– Hudhud (2014)
– Komen (2015)
– Mora (2017)
– Titli (2018)
– Fani (May 2019)
– Bulbul (November 2019)
– Amphan (2020)
– Yaas (May 2021)
– Jawad (December 2021)

It is not only the high speed of the wind that causes destruction but also the saline seawater that it injects into the soil and water sources that destroys cultivation and kills fish. In Sundarbans region, people are primarily dependent on agriculture, fishing, and aquaculture including crab, prawn, shrimp seeds collection and honey collection for food and livelihood. According to the experts and people living in the Sundarbans area, households in the region have been facing food shortages due to a reduction in crop production, damage to the aquatic species and increased food prices due to the supply shocks caused by the climate extremities.

While talking to NDTV about the climate extremities in Sundarbans, Ananda Banerjee, Author and Conversationalist said,

Any delta region is ecologically fragile. It is a place where new lands will be formed and old land will submerge. Also, cyclones are a regular occurrence in the Bay of Bengal. However, the cyclonic storms coupled with tidal waves and seawater intrusion are becoming more frequent and intense and the erratic pattern in air temperature, precipitation and rise of sea level is already visible in this climate hotspot, making the life of islanders more vulnerable. Cyclones and high tides cause long-term damage to their farms, stored food, fish ponds, vegetation and trees. Even before the islanders can rebuild their lives and fix their food sources from the previous one, another cyclone hits them. The entire delta water has turned saline. Also, since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a surge of return migration and loss of jobs that is making living conditions dismal and adding to their food insecurity.

How Has Climate Change Impacted Food Security In India’s Sundarbans

Sundarban has a unique tidal phenomenon. During high tides water level seems to rise around 6-10 feet

According to Dr Medha Nayak, Head, Conflict Mitigation Division, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), who also comes from the cyclone belt, the people living in the Sundarbans region have never been unfamiliar with the threat of cyclones but the climate extremities have pushed them into a lot of trouble lately. People are spending most of their time in recovering from the climate extremities, she said.

Especially in the last 10 years, we have seen so many cyclones and also there is no pattern anymore. Earlier, we could assess the weather and predict the impact, but now, you cannot simply assess the weather change as now, cyclones can happen during any part of the year. There has been a heavy atmospheric change. People living in Sundarbans are worst hit because of these climate extremities because they are living in abject poverty. WTI has been offering alternate livelihood to them but they keep returning to the things available in nature because they are extremely poor and do not have a shed on their head, so how will they take care of the chicks or goats that we give them to rear and earn a living from.

How Has Climate Change Impacted Food Security In India’s Sundarbans

Poultry is one of the sources of livelihood for the people of Sundarbans

She added that now, people wait for the cyclone to happen and then wait for the normalcy to return but they will not leave the land as they have accepted these uncertainties as a way of life.

Agriculture, A Severe Victim Of Climatic Shocks In Sundarbans

According to Sayantoni Datta, Co-founder, Jaladarsha Collective, a group of people working with farmers in Sundarbans, change in the climate, as evident from the erratic rainfall pattern, repeated loss of land and salinity of soil and water. She said that this has caused huge damage to agriculture which has led to food insecurity in the area. She explained that any change in the rainfall pattern means that the rains do not come when the seeds are sown, they come when the harvest is to be reaped and as a result, a large percentage of the standing crop is lost. She stressed that in a region like Sundarbans, where other than rainfall there is no other source of irrigation, rains determine agriculture productivity in terms of the crops to be produced, the farming system to be adopted and the sequence of farming operations to be followed. She said,

The changing pattern of rainfall in the Sundarbans has made cultivation of crops difficult for farmers. Earlier farmers could grow vegetables like gourds, pumpkins, okra, chilli and tomatoes but the situation became worse post Aila cyclone in 2009. Aila injected a huge amount of saltwater from the sea into the land. All the soil, pond water and groundwater turned saline. Once the seawater enters the soil, it becomes uncultivable and takes almost 3-4 years to go back to its normal state. It needs at least 2-3 seasons of rain and organic fertilisers to restore the soil quality.

Further explaining about how erratic rainfall affects the farmers, Ms Datta said that during the post Amphan cyclone period, in 2020, when once again the saline seawater entered farms and ponds, Jaladarsha Collective experimented with salt-tolerant vegetable seed varieties. She said,

We convinced some farmers to shift to vegetables instead of paddy. We gave them salt-resistant seeds. That year, fortunately, the rain was on time and irrigation could happen properly, so the yield was good. Those farmers could make up for the losses they suffered in paddy through vegetables. But in 2021, the rains did not come on time which badly affected the mustard crop and the vegetables. Then Yaas happened and we went back to square one.

She further said that Sundarbans were particularly famous, even in the past, for growing rice. It was even exporting rice to the Middle East and other parts of the world. She added that the cropping pattern in the areas is largely a single crop of rainfed paddy cultivated during the Kharif season (rainy season). During the rabi season (dry season), cropping is difficult due to the lack of irrigation facilities and soil salinity. However, some farmers have started experimenting with crops for improving their climate resilience. The Department of Horticulture and the Department of Agriculture, along with local administration are guiding them in this. She said,

In order to deal with the low food production, people often use chemical fertilisers, which further adds to the issue of soil pollution. However, now, a lot of farmers have switched to organic farming as they have realised that the chemical fertilisers are affecting the soil badly and the fertiliser cost is also increasing and so losses are very high for farmers. So, for farmers, it makes sense to do low-cost agriculture so that even if they incur losses, they haven’t made huge investments. So, obviously, organic agriculture makes sense but they never get a good market. The prices at which they are selling are very low. So, this is really affecting the occupation of the community there.

According to 54-year-old Dukhashyam Pramanick, a small farmer who produces rice, betel and some vegetables in the Uttar Surendra Ganj village, as rainfall is so unpredictable now, he cannot remain dependent on farming alone and so during the non-agriculture season, he works as wage labour under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, even though he faces health issues like stomach ache and weakness. Mr Pramanick who is below the poverty line (BPL), lives in a hut near a tidal river Mridubhanga with his family which has a son, two nephews and his wife-, all of whom work with him on the farm. He said,

I was born in Sundarbans and started working on the farms at the age of 10. In the past 40 years, I have seen the agriculture situation become worse. My house is only 100 metres from a river that has turned saline in front of my eyes. So much destruction has happened due to the cyclones. Year after year, we have faced crop failure and losses. We would have died of hunger, had it not been for the government’s Public Distribution System (PDS) and good NGOs who help us with food. Post cyclone, to restore the soil fertility, we add organic fertilisers and wait for the rains to come and then add more fertilisers and wait for the salinity of the soil to reduce. This process may take up to 2 years. Also, whatever vegetables we grow in a year is only during the rainy season. During the rest of the months, the land is basically left unused.

In order to manage freshwater for irrigation, Mr Pramanick buys water from farmers who have a pond. He transports the water to his farm using a motor and a pipe. But in the event of cyclones and high tides that breach the concrete embankments built to protect the pond and farms, then there is no other way except for waiting for the rains to replenish the pond with fresh water.

He said that recently they have also started growing salt-tolerant paddy and while the quality of the rice is not good, the government still buys it from them.

Sudipta Mondal, Block Development Officer, Sagar Island Administrative Block, South 24 Parganas highlighted that the local administration with the support from the state government is doing whatever it can to help the farmers. He said that input subsidies are being provided to the BPL (Below Poverty Line) farmers for sunflowers and pulses by the Sundarban Development Board (SDB). The Department of Horticulture and the Agriculture Department, along with the local administration and the Gram Panchayat do the assessment of the loss that can happen in the event of a disaster beforehand only, in order to compensate the farmers at the earliest. He added that apart from this, the government is running integrated farming programmes for the distribution of seeds, training and demonstrations on plant protection and pest management.

How Has Climate Change Impacted Food Security In India’s Sundarbans

A woman tending to mangrove saplings in a nursery in Manmathanagar, Indian Sundarbans

Recently, farmers with the help of different Government and non-Government scientific organisations are trying to adopt salinity-resistant traditional crop variety for better production. We have successfully experimented with a variety of paddy called ‘Nona Sarna’ and piloted it last year. This variety can be grown in saline conditions. This year, we are promoting this variety. Apart from paddy, farmers produce betel plants majorly. The farmers work hard to sow and establish betel farms but a lot of the times, because of cyclones, those farms get damaged. They do get compensation from government’s horticulture department. The existence of Mangrove forests is extremely important as it provides protection to people, their farms and animals from the ocean tides and storms. Every year, we plant Mangroves in at least 160 hectares of the land with the Forest Department and Local Development Officer after conducting a joint survey and identifying the gaps in the forest or if there has been some damage due to cyclone, said Mr Mondal.

The Decline Of Aquatic Species Due To Climate Extremities And Overexploitation

According to Mr Mondal, people of Sundarbans have traditionally been fishers in terms of skill and culture. The women fishers in the region are mainly engaged in the prawn seed, shrimp seed and crab collection. However, because of the increasing brackish water in the ponds and pressure of strong winds, fish and other aquatic species are on the decline. Overexploitation is also a major reason for the drying up of fish catch.

How Has Climate Change Impacted Food Security In India’s Sundarbans

Women of Indian Sundarbans deep in the water, fishing

While talking about his experience as a fisherman, 27-year-old Shatranjan Das said that it is becoming increasingly hard to catch fish. He said,

The fish caught in the last decade is much less than the previous experience. Previously we used to catch more fish every day but now even after spending almost the whole day, we are able to catch some that is just enough for domestic consumption. I have an ageing mother, a wife and two small children at home. Fish and rice are our major food. To get fish in the peripheral zones has become so hard that we have no choice but to go into the deep sea. Because of the low catch, my income has declined a lot and so we are unable to buy any fruits. So, fruits are not consumed in my house at all. Only some vegetables like saag apart from fish and rice. But when we have a good amount of fish, we eat fish even during breakfast to meet our nutritional needs.

Mr Mondal, Block Development Officer of Sagar Island said that the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture has been taking measures towards the development of fisheries. He further said that the district administration has been helping the household build a farm in the home premise for aquaculture. He said,

Almost every household of the 46,000 households in my block (Sagar Island) has a pond for fisheries. They may not be able to use it for commercial purposes but they are able to produce enough for feeding the family. These ponds also get damaged during cyclones. This happened last year also during Yaas and people are still struggling to cultivate fish at home. They will be able to do so from next year after the pond is replenished by fresh rainwater.

How Has Climate Change Impacted Food Security In India’s Sundarbans

A man fishing in the Gomti river in Indian Sundarbans

Undernutrition Among Children And Hunger In The Community

Subhankar Banerjee, Founder of SOUL (Source of Unconditional Love), a non-governmental organisation that works with the children of the ‘Sabar’ tribe and their families in Sundarbans, said that there is widespread malnutrition among children and hunger, especially nutrition hunger, is rampant in the community. Mr Banerjee who organizes health camps for the community said,

During our health camps, we have found that over 90 per cent of children in this area are severely acute malnourished (SAM). Malnutrition is tremendous here. The children may not appear abnormal or sick but as soon as you start their health checkups, you will find that their bodies are in dire need of nutrition. Most of the people in the Sundarbans face stomach ailments because the groundwater that is used for drinking is increasingly turning saline. Anaemia and calcium deficiency is another big health issue that affects both females and males. Coupled with poor dietary practice due to various social and economic reasons, deficient hygiene practices to add on to the reason of young children and women suffering from anaemia.

Ms Sayantoni Datta highlighted that rapid population growth, food shortages, overextraction of fish and fluctuation in food prices post disasters are also behind food insecurity in Sundarbans. She said that with many migrant workers returning to their villages in Sundarbans and two super cyclones – Amphan and Yaas, the rural community experience livelihood and food crises. Food that has been stored throughout the year becomes scarce due to storms.

Fruits are becoming extinct from the diet of people in Sundarbans which impacts their nutritional needs. Fruit trees have been damaged by cyclones several times. Take the example of a banana tree. Banana is a source of so many nutrients but now banana trees are rare in many parts of Sundarbans and by the time they are bought from the market and reach villages, they become very expensive in the local market. So, only those who can afford to buy fruits will have them in their diet. There is a need to explore the kinds of indigenous fruit varieties that can grow in this landscape. Also controlling/minimizing the market price of necessary food items is important to increase the food security of poor and marginalised people.

Anita Jana Pradhan, a 21-year-old mother who lives in Sumatinagar village of the Sagar Island block with her two daughters and husband, is the primary breadwinner for her family as her husband is sick and cannot earn on a regular basis. She works on other people’s farms and also gets 100 days’ work under the MGNREGA. She said,

We face food shortage almost all round the year. Fruits are not part of our diet but we do eat vegetables whenever we can. Anganwadi is functioning in my village and we get rations regularly from the ration shop. But my children are underweight and their immunity is not good because of which they keep getting ill and frequently suffer from fever and diarrhoea.

While talking about how she manages food during and post disasters, Ms Pradhan said,

When cyclones hit the village, I take shelter in a flood centre with my children and husband. Due to early warning, I manage to store some food in a safe place. Post cyclone, I collect food from the flood centre that is distributed by Panchayat and NGOs. Post cyclones, we get relief material and cooked food as support from the government camps. Some NGOs also provide us food baskets and hygiene kits.

According to Jharna Bhuniya Mondal, a 44-year-old woman who has been working as an Anganwadi Worker for the last 21 years in Sumatinagar village of the Sagar Island block, while there are underweight children in the village, there are no Severely Acute Malnourished (SAM) children. There are 81 children, 10 pregnant women and eight lactating mothers enrolled at her Anganwadi centre and are getting the following services under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS):

– meals like rice, egg, vegetables and nutrela
– primary health care such as regular weight check of children and pregnant mothers
– take Home Ration were supplied during the Covid pandemic to ensure the health and nutrition of mothers and children

Why Do People Continue To Live In The Challenging Situation?

According to Dr Medha Nayak, with the increasing threat of climate extremities and declining purchasing power, causing serious threats to the life of the population, it might be expected that people would choose to leave such challenging areas. However, here, people remain attached to their homeland due to sentimental and economic reasons. She said,

A lot of people, mostly men, do migrate but many stay back because they just do not have money to go and settle in cities as even the worst shanty is going to be costlier than the life they are living in the villages. So, they have just accepted that this is how life is meant to be. They know that people will come to provide them with aid when a disaster hit the area. In fact, by now, they know exactly which documents (Ration card, Aadhar card among others) are required to get relief and compensation by the government.

Dukhashyam Pramanick, a farmer said that there is nothing the government can do to stop the storms as huge damage to the landscape has already been done. He said,

I have no complaints against the government. We live in a place where cyclones and high tides will occur. But I will not leave this place. My whole family is also here and they will also not go. First of all, we belong here only- we were born here and we will die here. Also, we do not have any money to move to the city. Where will we live? What will we eat? Who will give us work?

Shamali Das, a 40-year-old housewife who lives in Uttar Surendra Ganj village with her husband, a fruit vendor, two daughters (22 and 20-year-old) and one 15-year-old son, said,

As soon as there is an announcement of the cyclone or storm, we go and take shelter in a high school nearby. During this, we manage to take with us our document and other necessary items but our possessions including foodgrain gets destroyed each time. But how can we leave and go somewhere safer? We have no money. We will have to spend our life here only. Many days, post calamity, we survive by eating only one time or not eating at all for days. The covid lockdown was a difficult time but I can’t say that we faced anything extraordinary due to it. We are always in the loss. My husband buys fruits from the wholesale market but because we cannot afford a refrigerator, the fruits become bad in just 1-2 days because the temperature has gotten so high already. Summers are getting harsher and harsher here. It was not used to be this hot in the month of April 10 years ago. I worry, how will survive?

Sudipta Mondal stressed that the local administration has been strengthening the early warning mechanism at the block and village levels in order to protect lives, food and property and to support the people living in Sundarbans. He said,

The equipment required to predict and make announcements about the upcoming cyclones- the warning system has improved. This helps the government departments to prepare for the challenge. People are getting support from the Public Distribution System also through the Above the Poverty Line (APL) card, the Below Poverty Line (BPL) card and the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. People who were affected by Aila are still getting the Aila Ration which includes three kilograms of extra rice. Even ICDS is providing support to the people here as it is in other parts of the country. Children enrolled in schools up to class 8 are getting midday meals. Adults can take up work under the MGNREGA scheme. People here are aware of the fact they live in a climate-sensitive region and that cyclones here are a fact of life.

Disaster Response Policies Need To Include Sustainable Food Security In Cyclonic Storms Prone Sundarbans

According to experts, disaster impacts food security and hunger in a big way and in coastal areas like Sundarbans, where cyclones and floods have become a part of life, the food and nutritional security have to become a part of our disaster relief policies. However, the way our current disaster response policies are, food security is not an ingrained part of it. While talking about how the country’s disaster response addresses food security, Professor Anil Kumar Gupta, Head – Division of Environment Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction, The National Institute of Disaster Manageme}nt (NIDM) highlighted that disaster is a state subject and has the primary responsibility to manage it and plan relief strategies. The Central Government has the advisory and supportive role, he said. He added,

In the state, apart from the state government, it is the district administration and the local administration also that is responsible for managing a disaster. Out of these, the district administration is the most important. As per the law also, all the districts are required to prepare the district level disaster management plan and that includes the likelihood of a disaster and the possible challenges the administration and the community can face during a disaster including food and nutrition.

He added that providing shelter, food, water and sanitation during a disaster is a part of relief management. But in regions like Sundarbans, more sustainable measures are needed at the village, block and district levels. He said,

In Sundarbans, the food availability and productivity both are affected because of disasters because cyclones and floods not only destroy crops but also damage the food and seed storages. The district administration should anticipate all this and its repercussions and plan resource mobilisation and stockpiling of food during and after the disaster. There has been a major development in this regard in 2020. Till 2020, the amount under the National Disaster Response Fund and State Disast myer Response Fund could be spent only on the response activities during disasters. But there are many things that must be done 2to mitigate the disaster before it even occurs, especially in disaster-prone areas like Sundarbans. For example, the warehouses storing the grains must be protected by making it water resilient in the flood-prone area for stockpiling food in the anticipation of a disaster. So, for this also funds are needed. So, the government of India has modified NDRF and SDRF to National Disaster Response and Mitigation Fund and State Disaster Response and Mitigation Fund. So, now money is available for proactive interventions as well. With this, a big paradigm shift has come which can be used by the state and district administration to address the issue of food security in the region and strengthen its preparedness in the partnership with the people and NGOs.

According to experts, people are now becoming dependent on the government and non-governmental organisations for food and so the question of long term food security is very important as people cannot live on handouts for long. Pradnya Paithankar, SDG Manager at UN World Food Programme said that as predicted by the IPCC, changes associated with global climate will affect the coastal regions of India including Sundarbans which will further increase the intensity of cyclonic storms along with continuing sea-level rise. She stressed that there is a need to} move beyond the traditional short-term, relief-based responses to more sustainable measures focusing on long-term economic recovery and self-reliance.

NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ populationindigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (WaterSanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity,  that is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.

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