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Climate Change in Bangladesh and Why Preserving the Sundarbans is So Important

 Mangrove Tunnel, the Sundarbans

Mangrove Tunnel, the Sundarbans

The Sundarban (translated as "a beautiful forest" from Bengali) is the world's largest halophytic mangrove forest. The section of the Sundarban that lies in Bangladesh was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, due to its "‘Outstanding Universal Value’, biological diversity and the ecosystem services the area provides."  The Indian Sundarban was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1987.  (https://www.nature.com/articles/srep21234). The image above shows one of the many mangrove tunnels that grace the approximately 200 islands in the Sundarbans, which perhaps explains why it is often referred to in the plural.  These islands are disappearing due to sea level rise, which is happening here faster than in other places in the world, with many scientists predicting that the Sundarbans will be under water in 15-25 years.  Some say the Bay of Bengal is rising twice as fast as other oceans, while other environmental scientists have indicated that the average sea level rise in the Sundarbans is 5.9 mm yr-1 versus 1.0-2.0 mm yr-1 elsewhere.  (http://environmentalprofessionalsnetwork.com/sundarban-the-worlds-largest-natural-mangrove-forest-in-bangladesh/)  

Located in the world's largest natural delta, which is formed by the the termini of three rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, it is home to 334 species of saltwater tolerant trees and 269 species of wild animals including the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Ganges River Dolphin and crocodiles. (http://environmentalprofessionalsnetwork.com/sundarban-the-worlds-largest-natural-mangrove-forest-in-bangladesh/)  The Sundarbans occupies 10,000 sq km in Bangladesh and India, with 60 percent in Bangladesh.  As of 2015, it was estimated that 8 million people lived in and near the Bangladesh side of the Sundarbans while 5 million lived in and near the Indian region . (https://www.cnbc.com/2015/02/18/millions-at-risk-from-rapid-sea-rise-in-swampy-sundarbans.html). Eighty percent of the people depend on fishing for their livelihoods.  However, this industry and the ecosystems of the Sundarbans are being faced with many threats in addition to sea level rise. Other threats include increased salinity, climate change and cyclones, oil and coal spills, pollution from rivers that flow into the delta, deforestation and increased silt, and reduced flow from dams and water grabs by India that are  robbing the ecosystems of fresh water. 

The most serious threat to the Sundarbans continued existence is the proposed 1320 MW Rampal Power Plant currently under construction, which would burn 5 million tons of coal a year that would have to be transported through this delicate ecosystem.  The plant is projected to come online in 2019, perhaps sooner according to government officials.  In May 2016, a bulk cargo vessel carrying 1,245 metric tons of coal sank in the Shela River, the fourth incidents in two years.  The image below shows that almost two years later, coal is still being cleaned up.  Environmentalists are also concerned that the plant will draw its water from the Passur River, the lifeline to the Sundarbans, and will discharge wastewater back into that same river.  They believe this will threaten the future viability of the mangroves, which also act as an important carbon sink for the entire world. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/07/18/a-new-power-plant-could-devastate-the-worlds-largest-mangrove-forest/?utm_term=.bcd3e62d7d7b)

 Removing Coal from the Shela River

Removing Coal from the Shela River

Water pollution will obviously impact fishing, which is central to the Blue  Economy–a concept that began to receive worldwide attention in 2012 and is used in the context of economics, agriculture, and conservation as a way of moving from scarcity to abundance by focusing on what is locally available.  Given that the Sundarbans is the largest delta in the world, it is no surprise that fishing is the major means of livelihood for people in the area. Additionally, it provides food security for this developing country, which is among the most densely populated in the world.  This is especially important as many of the rivers, especially those around Dhaka have become so polluted as to become classified as dead.  Rivers like the Buriganga can no longer support fish.

 Fishing Boats, Dublar Char

Fishing Boats, Dublar Char

In addition to water pollution from coal ash ponds, there would be serious air pollution that would contributed to global warming and affect the health of people, trees, and ecosystems.  Effects of air pollution would "cover the entire Sundarbans ecosystem, Satkhira, Khulna, Noakhali, Comilla, Narsingdi and Dhaka districts in Bangladesh and Ashoknagar, Kalyangar, Basirhat and Kolkata of West Bengal."  (http://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/6000-premature-deaths-40yrs-1401421).  This would make the already unbreathable air in Dhaka even worse.  In Nasrul Islam's book "Bangladesh Environment Movement, History, Achievements and Challenges," he says Dhaka has been described as "a gas chamber for slow poisoning," and goes on to say that it is destroying the body and brains of its citizens–especially children.   I can attest that this is true after my visit, where one hot day I almost succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.  The air quality in Bangladesh is so polluted already that bringing another coal fired plant on line can only have disastrous consequences for both the environment and the population.  UNESCO has recommended the immediate cancellation of the project.  A Greenpeace study found that the plant would cause "at least 6,000 premature deaths and low birth weights of 24,000 babies during its 40-year life." (http://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/6000-premature-deaths-40yrs-1401421)

 Dusk Over Dublar Char Fishing Village in the Sundarbans

Dusk Over Dublar Char Fishing Village in the Sundarbans

During my recent trip to the Sundarbans my host, Sharif Jamil, took me to visit the Dubalr Char Fishing Village.  It was almost dusk when we arrived and I was struck by the incredible beauty and peacefulness of this scene.  The motors of most boats were quiet and there was a stillness in the air and water.  I could see why people in other parts of the country would risk coming here for five months to fish, despite the dangers they face from man-eating tigers and crocodiles.  The air is clean, and though the water is laden with silt from deforestation, it is not black and foul-smelling like it is in Dhaka, and there are still many fish, though many that are caught in this area are smaller than those in India.  The Blue Economy has not been operating at capacity, with many resources exploited or mismanaged, and all fishing in the Sundarbans is dependent on the health of the forest.

Sundarbans Gathering of Fisherpeople in Dublar Char to Discuss Threats to Their Way of Life0517.jpg

The people are used to facing many threats besides the wild animals.  The temperatures have become increasingly hot in summer and the reduced flow of the rivers coupled with rising seas has altered the mix of the ecosystems forcing them to go further into narrow canals and up streams to fish.  This of course increasing their likelihood of tiger attacks. Many women in fishing villages become widowed.  They live far from civilization and lack access to hospitals or medical care.  The village leader told my host, Sharif, that someone had died from a heart problem three days earlier and would have lived if he'd been able to get medical care.  Sharif wondered if floating hospital could be obtained for the Sundarbans.  The storms are much, worse every year due to climate change, and the rising seas are swallowing more and more land every year.  Each time and island is submerged and more mangroves disappear, another layer of protection for the region and country vanishes.  The mangroves are essential to the survival of these people and indeed the nation's continued viability as ell.  This is one of the many reasons that building a 5 million ton a year coal burning plant 14 km from the edge of the Sundarbans would be so detrimental.  The air and water pollution that would result would kill the forest and pollute the water.  The health of the fish will be impaired and stock will be greatly diminished.  Already, after the oil spill of 2014, many dolphins and crocodiles died and the reproductive cycle of fish and crustaceans was disturbed.

 Rinsing the Small Fish to Make Chapa Shuntki

Rinsing the Small Fish to Make Chapa Shuntki

From late October until the monsoons come in April, the fisherman collect and dry fish to make the fermented fish product, Chapa Shuntki.  After the fish are rinsed, they are dried and then sorted as can be seen in the images below.  All phases are carried out by fisherman in close contact with the environment.  If the water is polluted, their health will be undoubtedly compromised from constant contact.  You can also see from the photographs how small these fish are, indicating problems with the Blue Economy in Bangladesh, especially given the over 165 million people that live here and need to be fed.

 Sundarbans Blue Econony Lags Behind India's, and it too is at Risk from the potential destruction of the forests.

Sundarbans Blue Econony Lags Behind India's, and it too is at Risk from the potential destruction of the forests.

 For Sundarban's Fishermen, the End of Each Drying Season is Filled with Uncertainty

For Sundarban's Fishermen, the End of Each Drying Season is Filled with Uncertainty

 Sorting the Small Fish for Chapa Shutki

Sorting the Small Fish for Chapa Shutki

 Man in Dublar Char Carrying a Fishing Net

Man in Dublar Char Carrying a Fishing Net

 Fresh Tiger Tracks Along a Narrow Canal in the Sundarbans

Fresh Tiger Tracks Along a Narrow Canal in the Sundarbans

In 2015, a census of Royal Bengal Tigers was undertaken in Bangladesh and it was estimated that the population was down to 106 from 440 in 2004.  The Royal Bengal Tiger has been listed on the red list of endangered species since 2010.  A current census that will take two years to complete is currently being undertaken by the forestry department.  The tigers used to help protect the mangroves, since they kept fishermen away from the dense forests, but due to increased salinity and flooding that is forcing the fishermen deeper into the Sundarbans, the continued existence of both mangroves and tigers is at risk 

 Trucks Going to the Rampal Power Plant Construction Site

Trucks Going to the Rampal Power Plant Construction Site

The image above was taken on February 26.  Construction was set to begin in March and the project is slated to be completed by the 2019-20 fiscal year.  The $1.7 billion project is being jointly undertaken by Bangaldesh and India and it is estimated that over a 60-year period, it could produce 38 million tons of coal ash.  (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10807039.2017.1395685?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=bher20

 Illegal Poaching of Mangrove Wood

Illegal Poaching of Mangrove Wood

The image above shows a person taking wood from the Sundarbans, which is illegal.  The government banned tree harvesting in 1989, but poachers continue to exploit the forest despite the fact that exploitation is directly linked with the habit loss of the Royal Bengal Tiger and other endemic species in the Sundarbans.  

 A Line of Dead Trees from Sea Level Rise, the Sundarbans

A Line of Dead Trees from Sea Level Rise, the Sundarbans

As was mentioned before, many islands are being swallowed by the sea.  Along the shorelines of remaining islands, there is frequently a line of dead trees from where the land has been eroded from encroaching saltwater and waves that undercut their banks. 

 Dead Trees and Encroaching Water from Sea Level Rise, the Sundarbans

Dead Trees and Encroaching Water from Sea Level Rise, the Sundarbans

As we traveled around in our boat for a few days, I spied a lot of driftwood in the waters and along the shores, signs of the ongoing destruction of the mangrove forests even before the Rampal plant becomes operational.  The image below, of the fisherman in the mist and the washed up roots of a mangrove tree on shore expressed the current fragility and temporality of the diverse ecosystems and fishing industry that have been here for generations and have been protected since the early 19th century.  Now that the country is experiencing industrial development without proper pollution controls, just like we experienced a hundred years ago in the West, the future of this region is at risk. 

 Driftwood and a Fishing Boat in the Mist, a Threatened Ecosystem and Livelihood   

Driftwood and a Fishing Boat in the Mist, a Threatened Ecosystem and Livelihood

 

The image below shows the banks of the Padma (Ganges) River and the receding water levels resulting from the Farraka Barrage, the dam in India that diverts water to avert their own water crisis.  According to some estimates, India is predicted to be "water-stressed by 2025 and water-scarce by 2050," To avert political unrest, the country is grabbing water. As a result, Bangladeh is already experiencing water scarcity "with villagers forced to watch crops shrivel, walk hours each day to collect water, risk dehydration, and even interrupt their education." (http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/south-asia/article/1986238/bangladeshs-water-shortage-woes-stark-contrast-countrys)

 Padma River with Reduced Flow

Padma River with Reduced Flow

The image below shows a shrinking stream in UNESCO World Heritage site in the Sundarbans.  This image was taken at the end of February, roughly a month before the start of monsoon season.  When the storms begin, the area will quickly go from parched to flooded.

 A Stream in the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Low Levels Near the End of the Winter Dry Period

A Stream in the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Low Levels Near the End of the Winter Dry Period

 Parched and Cracked Earth in the Sundarbans

Parched and Cracked Earth in the Sundarbans

The image above shows how cracked and parched the earth is in this region, and the image below shows trees that have died from lack of sufficient moisture during the winter dry season.

 Dying Trees and Parched Earth, The Unesco World Heritage Site in the Sundarbans

Dying Trees and Parched Earth, The Unesco World Heritage Site in the Sundarbans

 Endemic Crested Serpent Eagle Eating a Snake

Endemic Crested Serpent Eagle Eating a Snake

The Crested Serpent Eagle is also on the IUCN Red List for Endangered species for the potential destruction of its habitat.

Sundarbans Deer and Monkeys on the Beach6902.jpg

The Sundarbans are home to monkeys and spotted deer, which are among the most beautiful in the world. The Rufus Orange Kingfisher and the Brown-Winged Kingfisher are also prevalent here.  It was magical to watch these creatures coexisting together on the shorelines and near the forests. There are obviously many more creatures that we did not see, but I appreciated all the biodiversity I did witness here  It made me feel so alive after leaving the pollution of Dhaka and the haze hovering a large majority of the country.  

Sundarbans Rufus Orange Tree Kingfisher6932.jpg

The Sundarbans is clearing a treasure worth preserving for its biodiversity and the livelihood it provides to its residents.  The mangrove forest is also critical to the viability of the country as a whole given rising seawaters, and to the entire planet as a major source of carbon sequestration.  Scientists in Bangaldesh and from the United States and other areas are convinced that adequate sources of power can be found through more sustainable methods such as wind, solar, and biomass.  The country is one of the most densely populated on earth and as a result has a large garbage problem.  Though deriving energy from alternative sources like these was more expensive in the past, it is cheaper now and it would free the country from dependence on other nations for coal, etc.  For the sake of the Sundarbans and the planet, the wisest choice is to abandon plans for the completion of this plant or convert it to a more environmentally friendly mode of energy production.