Rising waters in the Sunderbans create climatic refugees

Posted: 15 June 2007

Author: Kalpana Pradhan

There is much speculation about the future effects of sea level rise on coastal communities as a result of climate change. But, according to this report from Sagar Island, in West Bengal, climate refugees are already fleeing from the catastrophic rise in sea levels in the Indian Sundarbans.

Amid all the talk about future climate change, spare a thought for the refugees of one of the first inhabited islands in the world that has been submerged by the rising seas - a result of global warming.

Ghoramara Island in Sunderbans
Ghoramara Island in Sunderbans
Ghoramara Island in Sunderbans is experiencing massive coastal erosion. Photo © Women's Feature Service
Called climatic refugees, these families of the engulfed Lohachara Island in the Sunderbans (the world's largest mangrove forest, in the Ganges river delta), now live in makeshift homes on neighbouring islands. Eking out a living as daily wage earners, the only wealth most of them have are memories of their comfortable days as landed farmers on the island.

Unfortunately, they are not alone in their misery: two-thirds of the neighbouring Ghoramara Island is also inundated with rising waters, and evacuees from both the islets have been rehabilitated as refugees on Sagar Island. Incidentally, Sagar has also lost land - around 7,500 acres - to the sea.

Researchers of Kolkata's Jadhavpur University came across this startling reality during their six-year study of the impact of climate change in the Sunderbans.

Lost paddy fields

"I lost everything to the sea... I never thought I would have to beg to feed my family. I never thought my grandsons would be deprived of a school education because of the lack of money. My only son now suffers from tuberculosis," cries Rohima Bibi (58). The horrors of environmental devastation have taken a toll on Rohima Bibi, who looks 20 years older than she actually is. Once a resident of Lohachara, Rohima Bibi's five 'bighas' (1 'bigha' = 1,333m² approximately) of paddy fields lie beneath the Bay of Bengal. Penniless and homeless, her only identity now is that of a refugee of Sagar Para Colony on Sagar Island.

Rohima Bibi is just one of around 2,000 people who have taken refuge at Sagar Para Colony, Rudranagar Colony, Sumati Nagar Colony, South Haradhanpur colony and Ganga Sagar Colony. Housing climatic refugees, these settlements have been established on land allotted by the West Bengal government. The more fortunate have migrated to mainland areas.

"I have shifted homes at least five times before arriving here (Ghoramara). We had agricultural land on Lohachara and never knew the rigours of poverty. Now we find it difficult to afford even a meal a day," says 35-yar-old Kalpana Mondal. With their fortunes consumed by the swelling seas, Mondal and her husband have been reduced to being daily wagers. A one-time farmer with seven 'bighas' of agricultural land, Mondal's husband is now a fisherman, while she supplements their meagre income as a daily labourer.

Refugee family from Ghoramara Island
Refugee family from Ghoramara Island
A refugee family from Ghoramara Island in Sagar Island. Photo © Women's Feature Service
As a result of the hard work and lack of proper nutrition, Mondal falls ill recurrently and her daughters are anaemic. "We don't have enough money for food for the three children, let alone medicines. Like most of the people here, we are now 'bhumiheen' (landless)," she says.

Everything lost

Mondal and her family live on the riverbank of Ghoramara in a makeshift home covered by polythene sheets. What was once the Ghoramara rural market is now a temporary refuge for the homeless.

"The government has told us to move, but where should we go? We don't have money. We lost everything to the rising seas. Even now, we live in terror: the Hooghly river, with its strong undercurrent, erodes a bit of the riverbank everyday and come the monsoons, we will spend sleepless nights. We have no choice because we are penniless," weeps Bani Das. Her family, which once tilled its own plot with great pride, now works on someone else's land.

Incidentally, around 200 years ago, Ghoramara was among the first of the islands in the Sunderbans forest region to be turned into a British outpost. At that time, it was spread over 3,912 hectares. Today, two-thirds of the island has been submerged, says Ajoy Das, the local village head.

"We are trying to move people to the Sagar Islands' refugee colonies," says M. L. Meena, Principal Secretary, Department of Environment, West Bengal.

"It is very difficult to provide land to all the people from the drowned island. I think the number of refugees is more than 10,000. However, at Sagar Island, we have allotted land to around 2,000 climatic refugees. Very soon, 200 more refugees from Lohachara will get land. We are in the process of drawing up a list," explains Sheikh Ismail, village head of Sagar Island. Despite offering rehabilitation, Sagar has its own share of global warming victims. Seven of its villages have been submerged and Sheikh Ismail dreads the coming days.

70,000 homeless

Official records, show there are 102 islands on the Indian side of the Sunderbans. And, according to Dr Sugata Hazra, Director of Jadavpur University's School of Oceanographic Studies, over 70,000 people will be rendered homeless in the next 13 years due to the rising seas. The government should lose no time in taking immediate steps to stop sea erosion, he urges.

In fact, thousands of refugees on Sagar Island are planting mangrove saplings - popularly known as Sundari, Dhundal, Passur, Genwa and Garjan - along the sea-facing zone of the island.

Doing their bit to reduce the impact of global warming are the 400 students of Gangapara Colony School, set up for climactic refugee. The children attend environmental classes to learn how to protect their island. The growing number of refugee students - from 85 students in 1984 to 400 this year - reflects that the apocalyptic warnings of environmentalists are now a harsh reality.

"Those refugees with political connections were able to secure government jobs in Sagar and their children get an education. But we are poor and ordinary people," said Guria (35), a resident of Sagar Para Colony. While the government has allotted land to her family, it is saline and unfertile. "We have to depend on our daily jobs to earn. My mother-in-law goes out begging for alms to make ends meet," she adds.

Salinity is again a repercussion of global warming. "The rise in the sea level will result in increased salinity along the coastal area, threatening the conservation of the Sunderbans' mangroves, spread over 10,000 sq km. Even farmers in coastal zones will be affected in the coming years," warns eminent environmentalist Dr Pranabesh Sanyal. Since the Sunderbans is home to over 200 Royal Bengal Tigers, the depletion of the forests is also a threat to the big cat.

"I know it is alarming. We have already started work to stop erosion of the Sagar Island. We need help from the central government. We also seek suggestions from scientists on ways to save the islands," says Kanti Ganguly, West Bengal's Minister of State for Sunderbans Development.

Womens Feature Service

Related links

70,000 threatened by rising seas

Factfile: Rising Seas