The predicament of the Sundarbans: Islands engulfed by water, with no alternative destinations

In Mousuni Island, part of the Indian Sundarbans, Panchanan Dolui has experienced the upheaval of relocating three times due to floods and river erosion. With each move, he ventures farther from the receding island’s edge, grappling with the reality that there is no refuge from displacement. Situated in West Bengal state in eastern India and adjacent to Bangladesh, the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove ecosystem, consists of low-lying islands and serves as a crucial natural barrier against cyclones, storm surges, and other environmental threats. Despite its significance, the Sundarbans are witnessing rapid transformations.

The impact of climate change and rising sea levels has led to unpredictable weather in the region, highlighted by the occurrence of four cyclones – Fani, Amphan, Bulbul, and Yaas – hitting the eastern coast of India from 2019 to 2021. Kalyan Rudra, the chairperson of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, asserts that the Sundarbans are becoming increasingly unsafe for human habitation.

Recent cyclones have exacerbated the climate-induced displacement faced by Sundarbans residents in previous decades. Lohachara, one of the first inhabited islands, vanished beneath the sea in 1996, compelling inhabitants to relocate to neighboring islands, often without proper documentation or property deeds. Limited livelihood options and insufficient regional development have prompted many residents to adopt migration as a coping strategy.

Since Cyclone Aila in 2009, economic vulnerability has driven distress migration, leading men to seek informal work as migrants across India. The Sundarbans now witness a higher prevalence of women-headed households compared to other regions in India, marked by debt burdens, numerous dependents, and limited livelihood opportunities.

The increasing salinity of land, a consequence of severe cyclonic storms and tidal wave action, disrupts soil productivity. Salinity-resistant paddy farming, an essential climate change adaptation, has gained popularity. However, this surge in salinity has also prompted large-scale brackish water shrimp farming, causing land degradation and adversely affecting the health of women engaged in prawn seed collection.

The escalating salinity poses significant challenges to the reproductive health of rural women in the Sundarbans, contributing to pelvic inflammation and urinary tract infections. Additionally, it has resulted in the severe degradation of the mangrove ecosystem, impacting biodiversity and leading to a loss of forest reserves crucial for sustaining local communities.

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