An IPCC climate change report, published just before the recently held global climate summit at Katowice; Poland, has made it clear that areas like Sundarban will become extremely vulnerable to coastal flooding in near future due to enhanced sea level rise; if the global temperature increase exceeds 1.5 degree compared to pre industrilised period. Sundarban, a world heritage site and one of world’s largest mangrove forest areas, is spread across Bangladesh and state of West Bengal within India.
In case of a 2 degree rise scenario, the impact may be “catastrophic” for world’s biggest contiguous mangrove ecosystem as well as nearly 13 million people living in and around the approximately 20000 square kilometer area. Various scientific organizations have predicted a 3 degree or even more temperature rise scenario if the developed countries do not immediately take strong actions to minimize carbon emission. According to experts, Sundarban will become particularly vulnerable as its sea level rise is already “more than double” compared to global average.
Sea rising faster in Sundarban
“Sundarban’s current sea level rise in both India and Bangladesh is 8 millimetre or more, more than double of global average, which is already leading to lot of erosion. In case of a further increase, the situation is likely to turn disastrous” observed Sugata Hazra, a professor in school of oceanographic studies in Jadavpur University in Kolkata. “Sundarban has always been impacted by extreme weather events; and the situation will definitely turn worse with greater temperature rise” observed Saleemul Huq , a London based Bangladeshi climate expert associated with number of international organisations.
The finding vindicates an earlier scientific report – IUCN World Heritage Outlook 2; a conservation assessment of all natural world heritage sites published in 2017 by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – which had shown that changing climate is the biggest threat to the conservation of Sundarbans’; spread over more than 10000 square kilometer mangrove forested area in India and Bangladesh and home to Royal Bengal tigers. The report further pointed out that Bangladeshi and Indian Sundarbans are set to be affected by both long term and immediate climatic impacts and remarked that “sea level rise, hydrological alteration and coastal erosion have been severe, and the long-term impact of climate change … is a cause for concern”.
An action plan on climate change, prepared by the department of environment in West Bengal government, also vindicates the growing climate threat in Sundarban. “The Sundarban in West Bengal has a high exposure and sensitivity to climate change with a low adaptive capacity making it very vulnerable” reads the state government report. The report has stated that tell-tale signs of climate change are already visible and predicts that situation will worsen further.
A research paper prepared by Md Shams Uddin of United nations Development Programme (UNDP) and others – Climate change impacts on the Sundarbans mangrove ecosystem services and dependent livelihoods in Bangladesh – pointed out that major mangrove species like Sundari (Heritiera fomes) and Gewa (Excoecaria agallocha) may decrease significantly by the year 2100 due to sea level rise in the Bangladesh Sundarban compared to 2001 .The report observed that ecosystem services like fisheries, tourism, biodiversity, carbon sequestration among others may be affected by the trend.
Not only in Sundarban, but climate change has been identified as “the fastest growing threat” among 241 natural world heritage sites being scanned by IUCN, with climate change found to be a high or a very high threat among 62 sites ; a 77 per cent increase over 2014 figure of 35 sites, when similar study was last made. “It also remains by far the largest potential threat” reads the report. IUCN report also observed that “funding and capacity are currently inadequate and, if not addressed, may in the near future lead to increasing challenges … particularly under increasing future population and climatic pressures”.
Joint action is required
“Sundarban may have been divided between two countries but actually is one continuous ecosystem. We had discussed the issues with your ministers… both countries need to act together” said Bangladesh’s former environment minister Anwar Hossain Manju to Sundarban Beyond Border sometimes back. “Sundarban is definitely a key issue. I myself have visited Sundarban recently and a deliberation is on between two countries” stated Indian environment, forest and climate change minister Harsh Vardhan to Sunarban Beyond Border recently at the sidelines of Katowice climate conference.
“It’s a great opportunity for both Sundarban to work together to minimise climatic impacts through better adaptation. Other threats can also be reduced through joint action” said Anurag Danda, a climate adviser to WWF. Huq also pointed out that both countries need to come together for highlighting the climate concern of Sundarban and find remedies to the threat. The IUCN report has also stressed on the need to have joint action to save transboundary Sundarban.
Sundarban forest; at a glance
Total forest area in Sundarban – 10260 sq. km
Sundarban forest (India) – 4260 sq. km (protected 2300 sq km)
Sundarban forest (Bangladesh) – 6000 sq. km (protected 1387 sq km)