For people in the ecologically fragile Sunderbans, life revolves around battling high tides daily and cyclones regularly. But every cyclone throws up new challenges to the Sunderbans and its inhabitants — something the people had not imagined, and policy makers are not prepared for.
Over just the past three years, the Sunderbans, which is home to close to five million people, has been battered by four tropical cyclones — Fani (May 2019), Bulbul (November 2019), Amphan (May 2020) and Yaas (May 2021). On each occasion, the region has suffered damage because of gale winds and breached embankments, leading to ingress of sea water.
In pictures | Cyclone Yaas uproots life
The intensity of the gale winds has ranged from 100 kmph to 150 kmph during each of the cyclones.
Experts say the solution to the perennial problem lies in long-term planning, adopting strategies that will minimise the impact of climate change, and disaster management suited to the region.
When the State administration launched a massive evacuation drive earlier this week on May 24 and May 25, little did the residents know that though Cyclone Yaas made landfall about 200 km south of the Sunderbans in Odisha, it would inundate large areas of the estuary. The cumulative effect of the full moon tide on May 26 and the cyclone led to the overflowing and breach of embankments in large areas of the Sunderbans.
While the India Meteorological Department had predicted a storm surge of 2 m above the astronomical tide level, water in the river and bay swelled due to full moon tide. As a result, on May 26 morning as Cyclone Yaas made landfall, large areas were inundated.
Three days after the cyclone, several areas of Sunderbans remain inundated, forcing people to huddle in cyclone shelters or spend days on embankments.
“The entire island with a population of 3,500 people is flooded. I have spent the past three days in the rescue centre near the panchayat office. Today, we got 1 kg of rice per person from the panchayat. I cannot return to my house,” said Sajera Bibi, a panchayat member of Ghoramara Island in the remote western part of the Sunderbans.
Ghoramara is one of the islands that has been sinking due to rising sea levels, where a few dozen houses and acres of land go under water every year.
Even so, the residents were not prepared to see the entire island under water. Ms. Sajera Bibi said the devastation caused by Yaas has been the most severe, something she has not seen in the past 40 years.
“Our relatives in Sagar are telling us to leave this place and move there. But how can we go when water is all around,” she asked.
Sagar Island, the biggest island of the Sundarbans chain and site of the famous Gangasagar Mela during Makar Sankranti, has also suffered damage. The sea water from the site where the devotees take a holy dip surged several kilometres inland crossing the Kapil Muni temple.
Namita Jana, who resides in the Dhablat Shibpur area in the southeastern part of the Sagar Island, says the entire area looks like a desert of mud. “We do not know whom and where to seek help and how to tell people of the situation in which we are living,” she said.
Another island in the western part of Sunderbans, the boat-shaped Mousuni, is also under water.
Not only islands, but even coastal areas like Kakdwip, Namkhana and Frasergunj have been submerged.
Not only the western part of Sunderbans that faces Bay of Bengal but large parts in Gosaba and Sandeshkhali block, in the eastern part of the delta remain under water three days after the cyclone and the high tide.
“At Kumirmari, located in a remote part of Gosaba, embankments have been breached in at least ten places and water from Raimangal river has overflowed. On Saturday morning at least 450 people were at the camp at Kumirmari Narendrapur flood centre as it is impossible for them to return to their villages,” Pranabesh Maity said.
Sanjay Mondal who operates a tourist boat “Sundarban Safari” often taking people to remote islands said there is a scarcity of drinking water because of inundation.
“At Kumirmari and Choto Mollarkhali we are trying to send drinking water and operate a community kitchen. People of Sundarbans can fight fiercest of cyclones but when saline water enters their habitation, they are helpless,” says Mr. Mondal.
Once the sea water enters the islands, not only are dwelling units destroyed but the crops are inundated and land cannot be cultivated because of the salinity, even the fish in the ponds die. The Sunderbans also has a high density of population where people survive on frugal economic means.
During the administrative review meetings carried out to assess the impact of the cyclone, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stressed on a permanent solution for the Sunderbans and low-lying coastal areas. “We repair the embankments every year and then a cyclone comes, and we have to repair it again. It is likely putting money in the water,” she said.
“Sunderbans has embankments of 3,250 km, and we have to look beyond engineering solutions,” says Tuhin Ghosh, director of School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University. Prof. Ghosh points out that estimates suggest that embankments have been breached at 70-to-75-gram panchayats.
Sunderbans comprises 18 blocks, 13 located in South 24 Parganas and five in North 24 Parganas districts. Despite the announcement of creating a separate district for Sunderbans, the proposal is yet to be implemented, says Ajanta Dey of the Commission on Ecosystems Management (CEM)-International Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN). She points out that it is still not clear who is authorised to predict the astronomical tide. “At places the cumulative effect of the high tide has been above five metres,” she says.
Also read | A daily battle with the sea at Sunderbans
Weeks after cyclone Amphan in 2020, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had written to NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar calling for a systematic review of the multiple challenges faced by the Sunderbans and for the preparation of a master plan for the socio-economic development of the region. There has been no follow up on the matter, experts say, and lack of scientific information in dealing with a complex estuarine delta which has become a hot spot of climate change is emerging as a challenge for the policy makers. Life for those residing on the region has become a daily struggle.
The cyclones and the tides also pose a challenge to conservation efforts of flagship species which are unique to the ecosystem. Shaliendra Singh, director of Turtle Survival Alliance whose organisation runs a conservation of Indian River Terrapin (Batagur Baska), a critically endangered species, says that the salinity of the ponds, where the animal is being observed, has increased and has to be brought to normal for the species to thrive.