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Sinking delta rattles inhabitants

As sea levels rise, Sundarban island residents move to the mainland where some are forced to resort to begging or prostitution.

Amod Mandal has lost four houses in 15 years on Ghoramara Island in the Sundarbans. Shaikh Azizur Rahman for The National
Amod Mandal has lost four houses in 15 years on Ghoramara Island in the Sundarbans. Shaikh Azizur Rahman for The National

GHORAMARA ISLAND, INDIA // After returning home from the site of a dyke being built to stop the sea from submerging the island of Ghoramara, Amod Mandal walked over to the edge of the island where a chunk of land had broken off the night before, just metres from his mud-walled home.

Waves crashed over the surface as Mr Mandal surveyed the cracking ground. He knows that in a few weeks he will have to move further inland to build another house, his fifth in 15 years, having already lost four to the steady encroachment of the sea. "The hungry sea will eat up the whole island," Mr Mandal said. "This area is very unsafe now I have to run away from Ghoramara soon. But I don't know where to go because all islands in this zone are unsafe and I do not have money to buy land or house in the mainland.

"Our forefathers made a mistake by deciding to settle on this island. I inherited a big paddy field and I was a rich farmer until some years ago. But now all the island's agricultural land has vanished under the sea, forcing me to become a poor, daily wage labourer." The other inhabitants of Ghoramara located in the Sundarban Delta, around 80km south of Kolkata, share Mr Mandal's fear, as rising sea levels caused by global warming threaten to wipe out all low-lying islands in this part of eastern India.

A group of enterprising farm labourers first settled Ghoramara in the 18th century in search of fortune. They cleared the forest and on the fertile lands each family drew up large plots where they harvested rice for export to the mainland. But in recent years the island has lost more than two-thirds of its original 90sqkm to the sea, with almost 98 per cent of the island's farm land disappearing in the past 15 years alone. There were once 10,000 island residents, but three-quarters have now left.

The problem extends across the Sundarban Delta, which includes the world's largest mangrove forest, threatening an ecological disaster in the Bengal basin region, scientists have said. The 25,000sqkm Sundarban forest delta stretches across the lower reaches of the basin, 60 per cent of which lies in Bangladesh and the rest in the Indian state of West Bengal. The Sundarbans are a part of the world's largest delta formed by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. The whole tract reaches 130km inland.

Analysing satellite data, scientists at Kolkata's Jadavpur University found that all the Sundarban's islands are under threat. Land with human habitation and no mangrove forest cover is vanishing at a faster rate. Two islands - Lohachara and Bedford - have vanished in the past decade, their former inhabitants now living as refugees on neighbouring islands. The delta sea level is rising at 3.14mm a year, much faster than the global average of 2mm a year.

"Sea is fast eating into Ghoramara and Moushuni islands. It is only a matter of some years before these two islands completely vanish under the sea," said Sugata Hazra, director of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University, which has been studying the Sundarban Delta for almost two decades. "The Sundarbans appear to be a lost cause. If the present rate of sinking of land continues, in the next two decades 12 smaller islands and part of some larger islands will go under the sea and more than 200,000 people will lose their homes."

Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] are forecasting that problems here will be exacerbated by more severe storm surges, droughts and floods. The local government is building dykes to try to halt the erosion of Ghoramara and other inhabited islands, but these, government officials say, can only delay the process, not halt it. About 10,000 refugees from vanishing Ghoramara and already vanished Lohachara have fled to Sagar, the biggest Sundarban island, where they have been allotted small plots to make a living. But Sagar is also under threat from the sea, having lost 30sqkm in recent years.

And a number of former residents from Ghoramara and Lohachara, many of whom had been well off, have fled to Kolkata where they have turned to pulling rickshaws and begging, with some women even resorting to prostitution. The rising sea is also posing a serious threat to the already endangered Royal Bengal Tiger population of the Sundarbans' forests, believed to be home to 400 of the animals. "Because of the rise in the sea level, many southern Sundarban forest waterholes used by the tigers have turned completely saline in recent years and tigers do not like it," said Pranabesh Sanyal, a wildlife expert and former director of Sundarban Development Board.

"Many tigers are shifting their base to the northern ends of the forest. As they move inland, they get closer to human settlements which make them vulnerable in many ways." The irreversibility of the rising sea levels means there is little hope for saving the islands, according to analysts, meaning relocation of their residents is the only remaining option, both for their safety and that of the tigers.

"It is impossible to fight nature in this situation. So, the government should plan rehabilitation of these troubled people in safer areas in the mainland soon," said Shahanshah Jehangir, a conservationist in Kolkata. "If thousands of these climate refugees attempt reclaiming northern Sundarban forests, the government will not be able to stop them and the tigers will face a more serious crisis." * The National