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Paradise eroded

Paradise eroded

The delta of Sundarbans is under threat from coastal erosion. The world's largest mangrove forest covering 26,000 sq kms in India and Bangladesh, which is also the habitat of Royal Bengal Tigers, is in danger from rising sea levels. With a significant loss in the forest cover at the Sundarbans Delta – the third of the largest contiguous mangrove ecosystems in the world – the government would have to chalk out a comprehensive plan to preserve them. Long-term damage to the highly productive mangroves on the Indian side occurred during the colonial era, when dense forests were cut to facilitate cultivation. Even climate change appears to be an embryonic threat to the entire 10,000 sq km area that also connects Bangladesh towards the east, withstanding millions of people with food, water, and forest products. There is also a unique population of tigers that live here, adapted to move easily across the land-sea interface. The Sundarbans present a glaring example of what loss of ecology can do to a landscape and its people; evidenced as islands shrink and sediment that normally adds to landmass is trapped upstream in rivers by dams and barrages. Such a huge loss is not compensated by the paltry limited benefits available elsewhere in the islands from additions. As a confluence zone of fresh water brought by the big Himalayan rivers and high concentrated salinity, these islands are a crucible of biodiversity that helps the 4.5 million that live on the Indian side. It is significant that the mangrove tree species, including the Sundari, which has historically helped the local economy in the construction of boats and bridges, make up as much as a third of the global trove of such trees. Quite on the expected lines, the region has attracted a large number of colonisers. As a result, the population within Indian territories has risen from 1.15 million in 1951 to 4.4 million in 2011.

Though some parts of the Sundarbans are legally protected as national parks and sanctuaries – with a special focus on tiger conservation, its future now depends on local actions that will protect the banks from erosion, along with the policies that address the pressures created on natural resources by the lack of human development. Strengthening the banks with fortification against erosion with endemic plant and tree species that can thrive in changing salinity conditions can provide co-benefits to local communities. And, since the Sundarbans harbour, a raft of bird and animal species, a well-drafted and sustainable ecotourism holds the potential to raise awareness and funds. With its uniqueness across the globe, it is also a strong case for international climate finance to be channelled to India and Bangladesh for the region's preservation. It is vital that local communities are pulled out of poverty, which would also relieve the pressure on natural resources. The disappearing shoreline of the Sundarbans can be saved if immediate action is taken to plant mangroves along the banks, monitor sea-level conditions, maintain embankments, and tone down the 'so-called poverty alleviation measures'. It's either this or a countdown to catastrophe.


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