Soil and water

From wetland to wasteland? Danger threatens the fragile Sundarbans – The Organization for World Peace

As anthropogenic exploitation of the environment persists, fragile ecosystems struggle to survive. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sundarbans are home to the largest contiguous mangrove forests. Located in the tidal active lower deltaic plain of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin, the Sundarbans span the Indian state of West Bengal and neighboring Bangladesh. West Bengal contains about 4,300 square kilometers of mangroves, while Bangladesh is home to just over 6,000 square kilometers. The term Sundarbans – which literally translates to ‘beautiful forest’ – is home to an impressive diversity of flora and fauna; endangered species like the Royal Bengal Tiger, Irrawaddy Dolphin, Estuarine Crocodile and Indian Python find habitat in the Sundarbans. For years they have run the risk of becoming homeless as human encroachment in their neighborhood continues unabated.

Where the natural world and its animal population are threatened, so are the inhabitants of the human world. People residing in the delta, including the metropolis of Kolkata, depend on the Sundarbans mangroves to act as a buffer protecting against storms and floods common to coastal plains. The salt-tolerant trees and shrubs that form mangroves help protect coastal areas from increasingly intense waves and erosion. By serving as a barrier against flooding, they potentially reduce the damage caused by tropical storms. Healthy mangroves in the Indian state of Orissa saved many lives during the 1999 cyclone that originated in the Bay of Bengal. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami caused far less damage on India’s eastern coast, which remained under the protective shield of mangroves and other forests. A dense mangrove belt can effectively reduce the peak pressure of a tsunami wave. In deltaic mangroves like the Sundarbans, periodic erosion and cyclone damage are internal dynamics that can be balanced by the ecosystem itself, if left undisturbed. But human intervention has not only limited nature’s ability to replenish its losses, but has worsened environmental degradation and ecosystem imbalance in ways that are largely irreversible.

In recent years, deforestation has significantly reduced the thick expanses of mangroves. Global warming has increased the danger for the Sundarbans. Future sea level rise predictions are expected to exceed those of past decades, increasing the incidence and severity of coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion into surface waters and groundwater. A lethal combination of sea level rise and tidal hydraulics often results in the erosion of coastal and estuarine margins. The rate of erosion is perhaps highest in the west-central section between the Saptamukhi and the Gosaba estuaries, reaching up to 40 m/year. The rise in sea level will also accentuate the eddy effect in coastal rivers. As the salt front is pushed inland, the backwater effect will impede drainage, resulting in extensive flooding of forest land.

In addition, freshwater bodies can hardly come to the rescue. As the Hooghly River passes through highly urbanized Calcutta, it experiences significant pollution and its ability to transport fresh water to the Sundarbans is diminished. The oil spills exacerbated the pollution in the already contaminated ecosystem. The Haldia port complex has accelerated the destruction of the delicate ecosystem. Explorations by environmentally conscious travelers in the Sundarbans contribute to the exponential increase in soil and water pollution.

More than half of the islands on the Indian side of the Sundarbans are densely populated, which accounts for much of the pollution and removal of forest cover. Many trees have been razed to secure firewood for thermal energy because the available biomass is not sufficient to meet the needs of the villages. Large areas of mangroves have been converted to agricultural land. As animal habitation became the livelihood of mankind, the conflict between humans and wildlife escalated.D. The situation worsened so much that the villagers, due to their insufficient scientific knowledge and the threat of wild animals straying into human habitations, became reluctant to wildlife conservation techniques. Unjust means are adopted to exploit mangrove resources in an unsustainable way. Apart from a few scattered efforts, nothing substantial has been done to improve poverty-stricken rural areas.

As a shared resource, it is imperative that the governments of India and Bangladesh jointly lead the overall improvement and sustenance of the Sundarbans. The loss of the Sundarbans, in the long term, could potentially overwhelm neighboring cities, including the capital city of Kolkata. Spreading awareness at the village level, through the empowerment of local governments, could perhaps ensure a cooperative and symbiotic relationship between man and the environment.

The adverse consequences of widespread deforestation are not new to West BengAl. A dense green blanket – known locally as the jhaubons — of the Digha coast which has prevented soil erosion and controlled the occasional wildness of the waves has been sacrificed on the altar of expanding tourism. When the sea started a massive coastal erosion and flooding, an embankment was built from Old Digha to New Digha by rocky boulders. The rocks have accounted for many accidents on the beach. Lessons learned, it may be time to prevent the degradation of the coastline and its ecosystem. In the Sundarbans, a government crackdown on illegal wildlife-damaging activities, harnessing alternative energy sources, regulating tourism and reducing pollution could prevent a unique wetland from turning into a deprecated wasteland.