SOS to Copenhagen from the Sunderbans

Posted: 11 December 2009

Author: Ajitha Menon

Tanushree Patra, a woman from the remote island village of Govindopur Abad in the Sunderban delta area of West Bengal, is at the Copenhagen climate conference. As world leaders discuss the pros and cons related to global warming and climate change, Tanushree, 32, is highlighting her first-hand experience of living in one of the three worst-affected climate hotspots of the world.

Sunderban is one of the most ecologically vulnerable places in the world. Global warming is wrecking the delicate ecology of this estuarine region, which stretches from West Bengal to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Women building embankment in Sunderbans
Women building embankment in Sunderbans
Women of Govindopur Abad in the Sunderban delta area of West Bengal working on building embankment. Due to climate change, there has been a rise in the water levels threatening the existence of the villages in the Sunderbans. Photo credit: Jayanta PalWFS
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by the end of this century the sea level could rise by 0.8 metres due to global warming. But studies indicate that even an increase of 0.6 metres could totally submerge the Sunderbans.

The area is an alluvial archipelago, with creeks, streams and rivers meandering around the largest mangrove forest in the world. It's also home to the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger. The villagers living in the islands dotting the area are already facing the brunt of rising sea levels. "Rivers breach embankments regularly while cyclones and floods have become a way of life. Incoming saline water has ruined agriculture, mainly paddy cultivation, and is threatening the conservation of the mangrove forest," says Tanushree.

Submerged islands

Some islands are already completely submerged, causing about 10,000 villagers to become climate refugees. They have set up temporary shelters on the larger Sagar Island. According to a report from Jadavpur University's School of Oceanographic Studies, there are 102 islands on the Indian side of Sunderbans, a World Heritage Site and world's largest delta formed by the rivers Ganga, Meghna and Brahmaputra. They say rising waters could engulf many of these islands bu 2015, rendering some 70,000 people homeless.

"We are not perpetrators of carbon emission or global warming, but we are one of the primary victims by virtue of our geographical location. We have been suffering for years," said 58-year -old Suchitra Bala Patra. The sentiment is echoed by Dr S.P. Gon Chaudhuri, Managing Director of the West Bengal Green Energy Development Corporation:

"Along with the area around the Nile in Africa and the Philippines and Cambodia belts, the Sunderban is one of the worst victims of global warming for no fault of its own. Conservation and protection of this area should be an international responsibility. Sunderban, with its mangrove forests, is a carbon sink for the Indian subcontinent, absorbing carbon emission."

Studies indicate that sea surface temperature is rising in the Bay of Bengal as well as the North Indian Ocean Basin. Consequently, there has been a 26 per cent rise in the frequency of severe cyclones over the past 120 years in this part of Bay. The last cyclone, Aila, wrecked the Sunderbans.

As Sibani Khatua, 29, points out, "The regular cyclones have made survival extremely difficult for the villagers in Sunderbans. Homes, cattle and standing crops get washed away, income generation comes to a standstill, there is nothing to eat, and there is no drinking water.

"My mud house got completely washed away in Aila. Even now we are sheltering in the cowshed, which miraculously escaped with minor damage. Several other houses in our village were washed away. My wife lost her cattle including eight sheep and one goat. The saline water, which came in with the high tide ruined all the standing crops," reveals Utpal, Tanushree's husband.

Tanushree Patra with her group of 'Surja Sikha' women
Tanushree Patra with her group of 'Surja Sikha' women
Tanushree Patra with her group of 'Surja Sikha' women. At Copenhagen, 32-year-old Tanushree will endeavour to highlight her first hand experience of living in one of the world's three worst-affected climate hotspots. Photo credit: Jayanta PalWFS
Tanushree, with a Masters Degree in History, came to Govindopur Abad island as a young bride of 24 in 2001. Since then she has witnessed several cyclones and their aftermath, including the worst - Aila. "Let alone the cyclones, even the routine flooding of our village from the surrounding Curzon creek during high tide is causing damage to crops because of salinity. A major part of agricultural land has become unproductive because of this. A large number of water borne diseases are also spreading amongst human beings and animals because of the flooding," she says.

"I am educated and I had some idea about what to do. So, I mobilised a group of women to plant trees and build higher embankments around our village," she adds. Tanushree set up the 'Surja Sikha' Self Help Group with 10 women for the purpose. The group has also started sheep-breeding as an alternate source of income.ers. The SHG has also motivated other villagers to build embankments around their island under the government's 100-day employment scheme.

Organic farming

When a civil society organisation, visited Govindopur Abad after the Aila cyclone, they were struck by Tanushree's achievements and helped bring about her participation in Copenhagen as part of the Peoples' Coalition on Climate Change team who represent 20 communities across India.

Tanushree has no qualms about stating her case to an international audience. "Measures like large-scale planting of mangrove trees, conservation of wildlife, increased use of solar energy for motor vans, boats and launches plying in the area, organic farming instead of the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, planting of crops which would survive in saline water conditions are needed.

"The most important requirement is building permanent embankments for the rivers. Constant flooding is the biggest danger right now," she says.

Women of the 'Surja Sikha' Self Help Group
Women of the 'Surja Sikha' Self Help Group
Women of the 'Surja Sikha' Self Help Group that has been set up by Tanushree Patra. Besides conducting regular tree plantation to replenish the depleting mangroves, the group also started sheep-breeding as a means of alternate livelihood because crops were being destroyed by the saline flood waters regularly. Photo credit: Jayanta PalWFS
"No hybrid paddy can be cultivated here anymore because of the salinity but some indigenous paddy still grow. We are also now witnessing a curious phenomenon: summer days no longer have their characteristic heat, and winters are no longer as cold as they once were. This is also damaging the crops. We need some kind of technological support to ensure agricultural production in our villages and also the creation of alternative employment opportunities," says Sipra Pradhan, 35, a member of Surja Sikha.

While Tanushree is speaking her mind in Copenhagen, the West Bengal government has made a case for the delta area through a charter of demands that the official Indian delegation will present at Copenhagen. The demands include financial assistance, advanced scientific technology transfer to mitigate the damage caused by cyclones, measures and projects to safeguard the mangrove forest and the wildlife there.

If Copenhagen is to have meaning, it is vital that the world listens to the insights provided by Tanushree and others like her, and takes steps to address their concerns.

© Women's Feature Service