Pontus and I went on a daytrip to the Sundarbans last week. I thought I’d write a bit about that.
The Sundarbans, which in 1987 was made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the world’s largest single block of mangrove forest.
What are mangroves?
Mangroves are large types of trees and shrubs of various types that grow in coastal tropic and subtropic regions. As a result, the trees and shrubs have developed mechanisms to cope with the salt water, waves, and the low oxygen level of the water. This has also given the trees and shrubs a very distinct look, characterised by its extensive root systems which are partly above the surface.
The Sundarbans is shared by India and Bangladesh at the mouth of the Ganges/Padma River. Approximately two thirds of the 10.000 square kilometres large forest is on the Bangladeshi side. The forest is a complex network of small islands, tidal waterways, and mudflats, and is inhabited by small communities primarily involved with fishing and farming. The Sundarban forest houses 334 different plant species and 693 known species of wildlife, which includes the South Asian river dolphin, the hawksbill sea turtle, and of course the royal Bengal tiger. In addition to sharing habitat, these animals are all under severe threat of extinction.
Man-made global warming is rapidly changing the Sundarbans. Studies have shown that nearly four per cent or 100 square kilometres of the Sundarban forest has disappeared due to land erosion caused by sea level rise. Several islands have been swallowed by the sea and the coastline is retreating at a rate of 200 metres annually. In fact, the sea level rise has doubled in just a decade, from 3.14 mm per annum last decade to 7.5 mm per annum today – the highest rate in the world. The accelerated sea level rise causes salt wedges from the sea to extend inwards towards rivers and creeks, leading to a quick decrease in fresh water. In the next three decades, the Sundarbans is expected to lose a minimum of 600 square kilometres to the sea, which will force the migration of many of those who inhabit the forest.
This forced migration will lead to more frequent encounters between humans and tigers. And this in a place where each year more people are killed by the tigers than in any other place on the planet On average, 50 people are killed by tigers in the Sundarbans each year.
Wild tiger numbers have never been lower than today and 97 per cent of all wild tigers have been lost in just one century, with as few as 3.200 still existing. Today, the Sundarban forest is habitat to the world’s largest tiger population. However, this population is extremely threatened by extinction, and a recent study estimates that only around 100 tigers can be found in the Sundarbans today – far less than previously thought. WWF has warned that if immediate mitigating action is not taken, the Sundarban tiger population may disappear within 50 to 90 years due to their habitat being destroyed by rising sea levels caused by climate change. The situation for the tigers is dire and “the mangrove forest of the Bengal tiger now joins the sea-ice of the polar bear as one of the habitats most immediately threatened as global temperatures rise during the course of this century,” said Keya Chatterjee, acting director of WWF’s climate change program. Or as Colby Loucks of WWF adds: “If we don’t take steps to address the impacts of climate change on the Sundarbans, the only way its tigers will survive this century is with scuba gear.”
Not only tigers inhabit the Sundarbans. Approximately 2.5 million people live in small villages surrounding the forest, and the forest itself provides the livelihood for an estimated 300.000 people, working as woodcutters, fishermen, honey gatherers, and more. Their livelihood is also severely threatened as the “big-time climate migration is looming on the horizon”, according to Tapas Paul, environmental specialist with the World Bank. Several thousand people have already left the Sundarbans, and scientists predict that the rising sea level will force many to follow, causing a exodus of millions of climate refugees.
These future climate refugees are people already living under harsh conditions. Half the population lives below the poverty line, more than two-thirds do not have access to safe water, and only 17% of the population have electricity in their homes.
Also surrounding areas of the Sundarbans are threatened, and research has suggested that Bangladesh will lose 17 per cent of its land by 2050 due to flooding caused by climate change, which would result in as many as 20 million climate refugees having to leave their homes. This would be the largest ever migration in the history of mankind.
The case of the Sundarbans and its population provides yet another example of the disastrous and unjust effects of climate change. Those worst affected will be the poorest and most disadvantaged. Those who have a minimal carbon footprint, consume the least resources, and are the least prepared to cope with the destructive and devastating effects of climate change. Those who have no role in global warming. They are already drowning.