Moushuni Island (West Bengal): Sheikh Alauddin, like hundreds of other residents living on West Bengal’s Moushuni island, has never heard the term, ‘global warming’. But he is living with its consequences.
“At night, we just pray to God, and hope the sea does not drown us,” the 60-year-old said in Poilagheri village on the sparsely populated island, part of the Sunderbans National Park and the world’s largest mangrove forest.
When the tide comes in, sea water laps at the top of a mud embankment that towers 6m above Alauddin’s adjacent house and is all that keeps it from being washed away.
After a 10-year study in and around the Bay of Bengal, oceanographers say the sea is rising at 3.14mm a year in the Sunderbans against a global average of 2mm, threatening low-lying areas of India and Bangladesh.
“At least 15 islands have been affected, but erosion is widespread in other islands as well,” said Sugato Hazra, an oceanographer at Jadavpur University in Kolkata.
A United Nations climate panel, which grouped 2,500 scientists from 130 countries, concluded last month that human activity was causing global warming and predicted more droughts, heat waves and rising seas. But for the Sunderbans, made up of hundreds of islands and criss-crossed by narrow water channels and home to India’s dwindling tiger population, the threat is more immediate.
“The crops have failed due to scanty rainfall, but where do we go?” said Alauddin as his family of 12 stares at their parched farmland.
A combination of drought and then heavy rainfall this year and increasing soil salinity have made it impossible to grow enough food to survive on traditional agriculture alone. Four million people live in the islands spread across 9,630sq km of mangrove swamps. UN climate experts predicted that temperatures will increase by between 1.8 and 4 degree Celsius, and sea levels will rise by between seven and 23 inches to submerge islands in the 21st century.
The 400 or so families living on Moushuni know what is coming. Two nearby islands disappeared beneath the sea after residents were forced to leave, and the sea has swallowed about 100sq. km of mangrove forest in three decades in the Sunderbans. “Global warming and rising sea levels are already having a telling effect on the tiger’s habitat,” said Pronobes Sanyal of the National Coastal Zone Management Authority. Sixty- year-old Ayesha Khatoon stood on top of a mud embankment that has been breached seven times in the past 10 years. “There was a lovely mud road surrounded by trees and we had three acres of farmland, which the sea swallowed in the last few years,” recalled Ayesha. “No one visits us now and they have left us all to die.”
Rapid felling of trees on the islands—in part to fuel two small power plants—is adding to erosion. Alarmed, West Bengal’s minister for the Sunderbans, Kanti Ganguly, said: “We have taken a decision to raise the heights of the mud embankments and increase mangrove cover in Sunderbans.”
Oceanographer Hazra says it might be too late.