Why saving the Sundarbans is so urgent
The severe cyclonic storm Bulbul originated from the Bay of Bengal advancing with a speed of 140 kph and started dwindling when the mouth of the storm crossed the Sundarbans and hit the mangrove forest at a speed of 70-80 km per hour. It's been over 10 years since cyclone Aila ravaged the Sundarbans in 2009, and the devastating cyclone Sidr in 2007 with a wind speed of 250km an hour hit the forest. The Sundarbans resisted the latter before it began to fade.
Playing the role of a shield against the ferocity of Bulbul, the dense forest full of various trees and bushes saved the coastal community from destruction. The storm entered Bangladesh through the Sundarbans and then hit Khulna, Satkhira, Bagerhat, Barguna and other districts. However, it claimed 12 lives in seven coastal districts as it uprooted trees, caused the collapse of houses, damaged crops and prevented people from taking their ailing ones to hospitals from cyclone shelters. Hundreds of people died in two similar storms in 2007 and 2009; but thousands of others survived as the Sundarbans stood as a safeguard between the habitants of the coastal districts and fierce winds during this volatile situation. The Sundarbans has always been like a mother to Bangladesh, protecting this country from the onslaught of cyclones and tidal surges. The recent cyclone, once again, reminded us of its importance.
It is proven that the mangrove forest has contributed largely to reducing the loss of life and damage to property from storms and cyclones as it reduces the impact of waves, storm surges and high winds during hazardous times. At least 4,589 trees were damaged under the pressure of Cyclone Bulbul in the Sundarbans, according to a report prepared by Bangladesh Forest Department (BFD); the report didn't consist of information regarding any wildlife being affected by the cyclone. However, infrastructure worth Tk 62.58 lakh was damaged in the Sundarbans due to the cyclone (The Daily Star, November 16, 2019).
Though the Sundarbans is a guardian angel for us, our actions and interventions are risking its biodiversity and also causing extinction of many wildlife species.
The way the ecological quality of the forest is declining is very upsetting. Notwithstanding preservation commitments from governments, the Sundarbans is under threat from both natural and man-made causes. The fact that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the official advisor on natural World Heritage, has recommended that the Sundarbans be classified as a 'World Heritage in Danger' should worry us all. The forest is also suffering from increased salinity due to rising sea levels and reduced freshwater supply.
The proposed coal-fired Rampal power station situated 14 km north of the Sundarbans at Rampal upazila of Bagerhat district in Khulna, is anticipated to further damage this unique mangrove forest according to a 2016 report by UNESCO. The ecosystem of the Sundarbans has become very vulnerable to pollution.
Climate change, too, poses a threat to this great forest due to a rise in sea level, along with the establishment of industrial projects around the Sundarbans. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report and a report by UNESCO, an anthropogenic 45 cm rise in sea level likely by the end of the 21st century, combined with other forms of anthropogenic stress on the forest, could lead to the destruction of 75 percent of the Sundarbans mangroves. Already, Lohachara Island and South Talpatti Island have disappeared under the sea, and Ghoramara Island is half submerged.
Agricultural activities had destroyed around 17,179 hectares of mangroves within three decades (1975-2010). Shrimp cultivation has destroyed another 7,554 hectares. With severe threats from coal-fired power plants and other industrial activity—over 150 active industrial projects—close to the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest is in grave danger.
Loss of the mangrove forest will result in the loss of the protective biological shield against cyclones and tsunamis. This may put the surrounding coastal communities at high risk. Moreover, the submergence of land mass has rendered up to 6,000 families homeless and around 70,000 people are immediately threatened with the same. This is causing the flight of human capital to the mainland, about 13 percent in the decade of 2000-2010.
This should come as a wake-up call for the authorities, for whom it would be advisable to make the conservation of the Sundarbans a priority. The Sundarbans not only acts as a shield from natural disasters, but also protects the biodiversity and geological features of the region and the livelihood of people. That's why Bangladesh has to take the highest measures posible to protect this unique forest.
Devising well-balanced coastal land-use plans, such as maintaining sustainable limits in logging and other harvesting activities of its resources are a must. Efforts in the direction of strengthening capacity building initiatives to reduce dependence on the land and forest, in collaboration with civil society organisations and regional stakeholders, can support internalisation of alternative livelihood opportunities. Community-based tourism can be encouraged as an alternative livelihood measure. While this may be a positive step for the community towards sustenance, it is important that the administration and community take equal responsibility in restricting the impact of this initiative on the forest to a minimum. People of the area should be made aware about the issues faced by the Sundarbans; they should also be made aware of the consequences of manmade hazards like deforestation, etc.
Investments are required in bringing the mangroves back. Various international organisations, NGOs or other banks should come forward to grant the funds to save the Sundarbans. The local community should be provided with funds so that they can consume other sources of nourishment. We should consider this mangrove as part of the coastal zone management, coastal development strategy and coastal zone policy.
To save the Sundarbans we need to leave it alone, without any human intervention. The only thing the government can do is to minimise human intervention. This includes preventing people from polluting the nearby areas, refraining from disturbing the animals and birds, discouraging boats to carry goods, prohibiting polluting the rivers with harmful substances or even the air, so that plants remain unharmed. If building the Rampal Power Plant proves to be one of the most damaging human interventions, then no matter what, the government should assert its intentions to save the Sundarbans. In this case, authority should be vested in the experts.
Over the years, our greed has worsened the situation and if we continue to ignore it, we will soon have to face the wrath of nature. We should play a positive role in conserving the mangrove forest, keeping in mind that if we save the Sundarbans, then it will save us too.
Mohammed Norul Alam Raju is Director at World Vision Bangladesh and Faima Rahman is Programme Policy Officer at World Vision Bangladesh.