Nature is normally not angry, ferocious, wild, or tamable. More importantly, it encompasses humanity ~ mankind that is vibrant, thinking, wanting, and often greedy. But things are not going as well as they ought to be due to human wickedness. Nature is both harsh and kind but kinder to those who respect its boundaries and limits. Nature also affords local protection even in adverse circumstances.
“Modern man does not experience himself as a part of the nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side,” said E. F. Schumacher. It is this frame of human mind that incites natural retribution in a manner that is catastrophic and sometimes cataclysmic.
Globally, experts pay attention and devote great energies to prevent some catastrophes from taking place, in at least certain critical sites, with or without success. West Bengal’s Sundarbans is considered to be one such region. Contrary to what the name implies, the Sundarbans is neither just a beautiful forest nor is it just home to the Sundari trees. It comprises an ecosystem that forms the frontal area of the Gangetic belt.
For all the scenic beauty that the region presents with its unique mangrove forests; for all the biodiversity that it houses; for all the attraction that it has earned as the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, the region’s primary claim to fame is that it is the most powerful bulwark against natural cataclysms. Created at the confluence of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, the Sundarbans is the largest delta (26,000 KM2) in the world, spread across the mouth of the Bay of Bengal from India to Bangladesh.
The partition of India resulted in the division of the Sundarbans as well. The Indian portion of the region covers 9603 KM2 and the forest within the Indian territory sprawls over more than 4262 KM2, of which 2320 KM2 are made up of mangrove forests and the rest is water. On the Indian side are 102 islands, of which 54 are inhabited. The vast area of the Sundarbans is tidally active where erosion and accretion of land happens to this day. The rivers deposit sediment, estimated at more than a billion tonnes annually, at the sea mouth, which is then carried by high tides into numerous creeks and estuaries in the delta.
With every gush of the high tides, the islands get eroded and mudflats are formed. It is said that Bengal exists because the Sundarbans still survives. But the very existence of Sundarbans is seriously threatened by billowing sea levels, rampant deforestation and increasing salinity. It is estimated that global average increase in sea level during the 20th century was about 17 cm. The IPCC ( Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has come out with projections for the 21st century, which indicate a range of increase between 18 cm and 59 cm. But the inertia in the system will ensure that sea-level rise will continue for several centuries.
Adapting to global warming in the Sundarbans has been happening incrementally for decades. The rise in sea levels has meanwhile started showing its might. As many as 13 islands of the region face serious trouble and three of them have already submerged into the Bay of Bengal. The latest in the extinction list is the New Moore Island which Bangladesh refers to as South Talpati. Flooding is commonplace, so are natural disasters. Sidr (2007), Aila (2009), Phani (2013), Bulbul (2019), Amphan (2020) and Yaas (2021), all devastating cyclones, hit Sundarbans in quick succession and destroyed thousands of farmlands and homes.
Villages are disappearing, livelihoods are on the verge of collapsing. Now it is realized that trees of the mangrove forests actually protected residents from nature’s fury. But these trees were mistreated, owing to the natural instincts of humans. However, according to reports of both IPCC and UNESCO, an anthropogenic 45 cm rise in sea level likely within the present century, combined with other forms of anthropogenic stress on the forest, could lead to the destruction of 75 per cent of the Sundarbans mangroves. Indeed, Sundarbans is a sinking ship.
According to UNESCO, the deltaic Sundarbans plays host to 50 out of the 60 mangrove species of India with a wealth of mangrove flora in the forest. It is home to the world’s largest mangrove forests enriched with 36 true, 28 associated, and seven obligatory mangrove species. This is the only mangrove forest in the world inhabited by tigers (Royal Bengal Tigers). It plays host to a rich and unique biota, with a number of threatened reptiles. Its fauna comprises more than 163 bird species, 40 mammal species, and 53 reptile species.
It is also the habitat of the most economic marine estuarine species of fish including 15 prawn species, 67 species of crabs and 23 species of other mollusks. The century-old biosphere reserve of Sundarbans has been internationally recognized. Sundarbans was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987 and the Indian part of the Sundarbans has been recognized as a Biosphere Reserve in 1989. The world’s largest coastal mangrove forests are located in the ‘sinking’ Sundarbans. The forests constitute about twofifths of the Sundarbans regions’ overall surface area, with water covering roughly half of that area.
For the truthful and holistic description of mangroves we may quote from the Mangrove Action Project (MAP), a US-based non-profit organisation: “One perceives a forest of jagged, gnarled trees protruding from the surface of the sea, roots anchored in deep, black, foul smelling mud, verdant crowns arching towards a blazing sun… Here is where land and sea intertwine, where the line dividing ocean and continent blurs, in this setting the marine biologist and the forest ecologist both must work at the extreme reaches of their discipline.”
(To be Concluded)
(The writer is a retired IAS officer)