Saving the Sundarbans

Nilanjana Bhowmick on the double whammy of natural disaster and Covid-19 that has brought a vulnerable ecosystem to the brink.

The Sundarbans, an island-dotted deltaic region of the River Ganges, is a confluence of an endangered mangrove ecosystem and human impoverishment. Last year it was struck by a double whammy – a deadly pandemic and natural disaster – and has been struggling since. In May 2020, Cyclone Amphan displaced 2.4 million people here and further afield, while the country was in the thick of a Covid-19 surge.

The Indian Sundarbans is home to 4.5 million people and it will take a long time to regain some kind of equilibrium in the wake of these twin calamities. The region has already been fronting the adverse effects of climate change for decades as sealevels rise and islands sink. Rebuilding is a way of life here, but the consequences of Covid-19 have complicated things – and further endangered the mangroves.

Mangroves worldwide are in decline. The Sundarbans region – spread over India and Bangladesh – has lost 24.5 per cent of its mangroves over the last 30 years, mostly due to erosion. This is set to get worse, because as migrant workers from the Sundarbans returned home after the long Indian lockdown, they had few survival options except to fall back on illegally exploiting the mangroves.

This is an area of high migration; one in five households here has at least one family member who has left for the cities in search of work. Migration increases after natural disasters. After Cyclone Aila hit in 2009, many women sought work in other parts of West Bengal. Their remittances played a major role in the rebuilding effort. But in 2020, in the aftermath of Amphan, Covid-19 made leaving to look for work impossible. Instead, people who had already migrated found their way back as they lost their jobs during the lockdown.

Only 52 of the 102 islands here are inhabited by humans; the rest are forests, forming the core area of a tiger reserve where people are not allowed. But lack of work is now pushing the desperate into the tiger reserve territory to collect honey, fish for crabs, and undertake illegal logging and even poaching. This has aggravated human-animal conflict. At least 18 people were killed in tiger attacks in the first 9 months of 2020, with 12 of these incidents reported since April, when migrants returned home. These are official figures; the actual number could be higher.

This renewed dependence on the forests is extracting a huge cost both in terms of human lives and the health of the mangroves, which provide the last shield against storms and rising seas. According to a Refugee International report: ‘Covid-19, Cyclone Amphan and monsoon flooding have shown us what a multifaceted and complex series of disasters look like today – and likely in the future.’

The region had just about rebuilt itself after Aila. But economic austerity – the legacy of the pandemic – could stall efforts this time.

How the Indian government handles this complex crisis, and how the region is rebuilt and the mangroves protected – or not – in an era of increasing environmental disasters, will offer valuable lessons for the future. The Sundarbans is a warning for vulnerable ecosystems worldwide – because this is not the last pandemic, and neither will Amphan be the last cyclone.