Conservation news

In India’s Sundarbans, communities shrink as their island sinks

  • In India and Bangladesh, millions of people live in the Sundarbans islands and face losing their homes to rising seas caused by climate change.
  • The region was the first in the world to record an unfolding climate refugee crisis as people fled an island lost to the sea. More islands remain at risk of succumbing to the rising waters.
  • The government has long relied on building embankments to keep the seawater out, but in a report it co-wrote in 2014 it acknowledges that this measure is no longer sufficient.
  • One expert calls for restoring the Sundarbans’ original mangrove habitats to both mitigate the impacts of rising seas and storm surges, and to serve as a carbon sink in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions.

MOUSUNI ISLAND, West Bengal – Ashida watched the rising tide fearfully. Lifting her baby son onto her hip, the 24-year-old took a break from her morning duties and stood outside her house in the village of Baliara on a small island in the Indian Sundarbans, one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change in the world. It was the first day of the full moon, and the seawater slowly spilled over cultivation barriers that 15 years ago surrounded small farms. The water gradually filled the muddy fields, lifting fishing boats from where they rested on the ground. By 6:30 a.m. the new ponds were like a mosaic of mirrors reflecting the sky.

Twice a month, the tide comes in ripples, swelling the rivers that characterize the Sundarbans, a region of about 200 low-lying archipelagos in the Bay of Bengal and the largest delta in the world. Straddling India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans is most known, and studied, for its extraordinary biodiversity: mangrove forests, Bengal tigers, and hundreds of other wildlife species. But global heating has caused the islands to become known for something else: climate refugees. Despite the fact that this delta region is home to some 7.5 million people, the challenges the people of the Sundarbans face have received little attention in global climate talks.

Ashida sits outside her home in the village of Baliara, on the sea-facing side of Mousuni Island. The village is in one of the areas of the island most devastated by rising sea levels. Photo courtesy of Erin Stone.

Mousuni Island, far from the mangrove preserve, on the western edge of the delta, is one of the most at-risk islands in the region and a kind of timeline of the past to the future of the Sundarbans. The northern part of the island maintains a remnant of what was once a relatively predictable subsistence lifestyle: a patchwork of farmland surrounding mud and brick homes, threaded together by thin motorcycle pathways. On the sea-facing side of the island, where Ashida lives, the roads turn to brick, crumbling into the mud of the beach. This part looks to be going the way of Ghoramara, an island near Mousuni that lost three-quarters of its original size, leaving tens of thousands of people either scrambling to move or hoping for a miracle.

Mousuni and the rest of the Sundarbans are experiencing the worst effects of climate change: increasingly violent storms and coastal erosion that prompt devastating flooding. Ocean water has contaminated much of the island’s meager freshwater supply and left 70 percent of Mousuni’s land too salty to farm, destroying the majority of its inhabitants’ livelihoods. Increasingly erratic rainfall has furthered the destruction of agriculture there. For many, the only option is to leave. According to local government figures, half of the men on Mousuni now leave home for at least six months a year, traveling by foot, boat and bus to cities like Kolkata for work — an increasing trend in places heavily impacted by the climate crisis.

A hungry river

“The river was far away in our time,” said 71-year-old Lufti, Ashida’s mother-in-law, gesturing toward the water just a few hundred yards from her house. “Gradually mosques, graveyards, houses, everything was drowned into the river. It did not happen overnight, it decayed little by little.” There is no single natural disaster that locals can point to as the reason everything changed. They each have their own timelines etched into their minds: the first house that was destroyed by a storm, the hectares of land submerged by flooding each month, the years the monsoon came too late and fell too heavily, killing their crops.

Lufti, 71, is Ashida’s mother-in-law. Her son, Ramzan, works as a tailor in Kolkata because they can no longer farm their land. Still image from the film, “Losing Ground,” by Lisa Hornak.

The Sundarbans was never an easy place to live. Fresh water only came with the monsoons, and the mangrove forest that once covered the entire delta all the way to Kolkata teemed with wildlife, including some species that could be deadly to humans. For centuries, only the indigenous Adivasi people lived there. In the mid-18th century, the British East India Company guided its ships down rivers lined by ancient mangroves and established Kolkata as the main port of the Indian subcontinent. The city remains India’s oldest operating and sole major riverine port. Soon after establishing Kolkata as the colonial capital, the British set up a tract system to encourage people to settle in the Sundarbans, cut down the mangroves for timber, and clear the land for farming. The delta would be the colony’s food bank; it is still a major producer to this day. Only small earthen embankments were needed in some parts of the islands to protect farmland from the saltwater. Colonization would prove to be the first attack on the Sundarbans’ defenses; mangroves are a natural barrier against cyclones, and their deep-reaching, tangled roots protect against erosion.

Adapting to global heating in the Sundarbans has been happening incrementally for decades. In 1996, the island of Lohachara became the first populated island in the world to be engulfed by the sea, and its inhabitants the world’s first climate refugees. The Indian government relocated the island’s people to one of the largest islands in the Sundarbans, Sagar, which neighbors Mousuni. It would take a devastating storm nearly 15 years later for the Indian and Bangladeshi governments to publicly state that climate change was a major force impacting the lives of people in the Sundarbans. In 2009, Cyclone Aila killed close to 340 people across India and Bangladesh and left more than a million homeless. Aila was a major turning point in the lives of many locals, but it was not the start of their troubles and the river’s expanding appetite.

Geeta regards the rising sea from an embankment, still image from Lisa Hornak & Erin Stone’s film about Mousuni Island, “Losing Ground.”

Five years before Aila hit, Ashida’s husband, Ramzan, now 26, lost his childhood home to a flood. “I was in school, and when I came back I saw that the western part of our house had collapsed. My mother was running, she was very worried,” Ramzan said as he sat in the small brick room where he now eats, sleeps and works, often more than 16 hours per day, in an industrial section of Kolkata, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) from Mousuni. During that flood, the family’s livestock drowned. Their farmland and freshwater ponds were saturated with seawater, killing their fish. “We couldn’t cultivate anymore, the saltwater kept coming,” he said. A year later, at the age of just 13, Ramzan left for Kolkata to work as a tailor to support his family. “When I came here, I felt so homesick. I used to cry at night.”

Outside, the noises of the city are ceaseless — a far cry from the quiet beach where he spent his early years. The house Ramzan grew up in was surrounded by healthy farms and bright-green rice paddy fields, he recalled. Palm trees swayed pleasantly on the sandy beaches.  “Our country was so nice, it wasn’t this devastated before,” he said. He misses his mother, his two young children and Ashida; they talk on the phone at least five times a day. “He makes me laugh,” Ashida said. “He always worries about me more than himself.” Ramzan would much rather spend his days farming and with his family. “If we want to live together,” Ramzan said soberly, “we have to leave that land.”

Related: Climate change imperils Sundarbans tiger habitats

Ashida on embankment, still image from Lisa Hornak & Erin Stone’s film about Mousuni Island, “Losing Ground.”

Since Aila, the West Bengal government has mostly focused on infrastructure: repairing roads, building flood shelters, and constructing embankments. It also started a subsidized rice program to help ease food insecurity. A.R. Bardhan, the principal secretary in the state government’s Sundarbans affairs office in Kolkata, said the schools and hospitals are thriving, and that hunger is not a problem. “There is no shortage,” he said. The reality on the ground is much different. “Everyone has left,” said Adalat Khan, Mousuni’s local government leader. “People don’t have any source of food. To earn bread, they have to migrate to Kolkata or Kerala. Education has taken a back seat in this area. Times have changed. The government gives us false hopes.”

The government’s denial has spanned more than three decades of warning signs. Twenty years before Aila, and eight years before Lohachara’s submersion, the river took 46-year-old Geeta Maiti’s house, the house that the grandfather of her husband, Shugda, had built and their family had farmed for three generations. Over the years, the river started to widen, inching closer to their home. The rain patterns grew stronger. Then a storm came, and it was all gone.

At that time, the West Bengal government asked Shugda and other farmers whose homes and fields had been flooded to surrender their land to build an embankment for protection against future floods. They promised compensation for their contribution to the safety of the island. “We held a meeting among ourselves and decided to sacrifice our lands for the sake of survival,” Shugda said. The government never compensated them. The West Bengal government maintains that it gives “immediate compensation” when a person loses their home due to a climate-related disaster.

Ramzan, 26, sits in the room where he works, eats and sleeps in Kolkata. Since his family’s farm on Mousuni was destroyed by a flood, he has worked as a tailor in the city. Still image from Lisa Hornak & Erin Stone’s film, “Losing Ground.”

Geeta and her family now live in Kusumtula, the neighboring village to Ashida’s. At 10 years old, she was married to Shugda. She came from a nearby island and had been impressed by her new home: the farm yielded a healthy bounty of vegetables and fruit, including watermelon, the sweetness of which West Bengal was once famous for. They often had a surplus of food, selling it for a profit. As the years went by, more services came to Mousuni: a hospital with university-trained doctors, and schools that helped the literacy rate climb higher than the national average.

Now, watermelon no longer grows. Teachers no longer want to work in the schools, and doctors don’t want to work in the hospitals. To eke out a living on the land, farmers use more fertilizers and pesticides, which has led to dire health consequences. “Nothing has the taste it used to have in my father’s, my grandfather’s time,” Geeta said. “The younger ones, elder ones, everybody feels sick. We are eating for the sake of satisfying hunger only.”

Ashida’s house, still image from Lisa Hornak & Erin Stone’s film about Mousuni Island, “Losing Ground.”

Without drastic international action to lower carbon emissions fueling the climate crisis, hundreds of thousands of Sundarbans residents will likely be forced to migrate inland. Many can’t afford to leave and most don’t want to, the best alternative being dirty and cramped slums in India’s major cities. The islanders want the government to build a large embankment that encircles the island. “[Mousuni] could survive 20 years more,” Shugda said.

The West Bengal government has built several walls inconsistently in different parts of the island over the past two decades, but they were destroyed by Aila in 2009. Bardhan said that “all of the embankments have been restored,” yet almost a decade later, the concrete barrier that once provided some protection for the village where Ashida lives, remains in pieces across the shore. The embankment in Kusumtula, where Geeta lives, is still being built. Even so, an embankment is no solution. A 2014 report by the West Bengal government itself and the World Bank stated that “the embankment system initially constructed to protect the inhabitants has itself become a liability: it provides a false sense of security while being increasingly prone to erosion and failure” and characterized the quality of life for Sundarbans residents as “dismal.”

Sugata Hazra, director of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, said earthen dikes combined with mangrove restoration would be a better strategy. In that same 2014 report, the government outlined such actions, yet “these efforts are isolated and patchy,” Hazra said. “This needs to be upscaled because the magnitude of the problem is very big and cannot be tackled by spontaneous action.” Most of the locals are aware of this. “If we don’t work for the betterment of our environment,” said Khan, “Then in the next five to 10 years, Mousuni Island will disappear.”

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Baliara, still image from “Losing Ground” by Lisa Hornak & Erin Stone.

The steady rise of the sea is a difficult thing for governments to make policy around. It’s much easier to take action in the aftermath of a hurricane, a cyclone, or a wildfire than in response to the subtler manifestations of the climate crisis. But the slow death of the Sundarbans will impact the whole world. Still home to the globe’s largest mangrove forest, conservation of the Sundarbans is an effective natural method of combating global warming because mangroves absorb, rather than emit, carbon dioxide, creating a carbon sink. “We have passports, we have political borders, but there’s no atmospheric border,” Hazra said. “It is not a national issue anymore. It is transnational.”

Sometimes, even in Mousuni, climate change seems to be at arm’s length. The palm trees sway calmly in the wind, dogs lounge lazily along the roads, rice paddies ripple with a soothing whisper. Children laugh and play. Still, these moments have an edge. Particularly strong gusts of wind smash palm fronds together loudly and violently, recalling the tenor of a cyclone. Cows’ ribs and hip bones jut out, and at times the animals lap up each other’s urine as they relieve themselves — a reminder of the dwindling water supply. The children are too small for their ages, a sign of food insecurity. On the beach where Ashida lives, the palm trees are missing their heads and are bent sideways from the constant wind. The dogs bark and snarl, desperately pawing at the fishing nets laid out at the edge of the water.

That first day of the full moon, Ashida’s baby son spilled kerosene onto the 20 kilograms of rice that was supposed to hold the family over through the high tide. Now Ashida has to rush to the market to buy more before the water gets too high for them to leave their house. On the third day of the tide the sea will have risen to the height of the mud mesa their house is on, spilling onto the floor so they will have to move the stove onto the bed they all share in order to make anything to eat. Every month, Ashida notices the tides get higher. “In the condition of this land, what can I plan for my future?” she said. “A new house will get washed away eventually.”

Watch the film this report is based on, “Losing Ground,” here. It provides an intimate glimpse into the lives of people living on Mousuni Island, where rising sea levels and increasingly erratic weather patterns caused by global warming have forced most men, formerly farmers, to migrate to cities for work in order to support their families. Co-produced and co-directed by journalists Lisa Hornak and Erin Stone, the film debuted at Atlantic Selects in mid June, 2019.

Baliara at sunset. Image courtesy of Erin Stone.