Global warming leading to a rise in sea levels coupled with unprecedented felling of mangroves have been sounding warning bells for the precarious biodiversity of the Sunderbans
By Prasanta Paul
It was barely afternoon on 20 May 2020 when threatening lumps of cloud enveloped the horizon and darkness of night descended over the City of Joy and a large part of West Bengal. The old timers of the city failed to recall a day in their lifetime when wind-speed touching between 130-140 kms/hr rattled doors and windows dangerously and blinding rain gave perfect company. The city and of course, the Sunderbans delta was witnessing an unprecedented deadly hurricane.
Well, you got it right – it was last year’s Amphan that raged over North and South 24 Parganas districts besides Kolkata, wreaking havoc and tragedy. The Sunderbans archipelago at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal bore the initial brunt as the cyclone tore through the region with a wind speed of more than 150 kms/hr.
By the time it reached the city, instead of lashing at a much reduced velocity, the storm raged for nearly an hour at 130 kms/hr, much to the surprise of environmental experts and meteorologists. Because they were under the impression that like previous cyclones such as Ailah and Phani, the vast belt of mangrove forest in the Sunderbans would arrest the devastating wind speed of Amphan.
The question that has still kept these experts on tenterhooks is why the mangrove forest terrain failed to barricade the devouring wind during Amphan when it had succeeded during previous cyclones. One unanimous view that has emerged so far, is that of the fast deteriorating mangrove forest cover in the archipelago. Down the years, the unprecedented thinning of the cover, reminiscent of the slow but steady melting of ice in the Arctic region, has been a matter of grave concern for conservationists and foresters. For the gradual reduction of the forest cover has caused tremendous adverse impact on the fragile biodiversity of the delta.
The Sundarbans Reserve Forest (SRF), located in South-west of Bangladesh adjoining Bay of Bengal, is the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world. The three wildlife sanctuaries in the South cover an area of 139,700 hectares and are considered core breeding areas for a number of endangered species.
Situated in a unique bio-climatic zone within a typical geographical situation in the coastal region of the Bay of Bengal, it is a landmark of ancient heritage of mythological and historical events. Bestowed with magnificent scenic beauty and natural resources, it is internationally recognized for its high biodiversity of mangrove flora and fauna both on land and water.
Citing the instance of the 2004-05 Tsunami that struck Sri Lanka, Bali, Tamil Nadu and the Andamans, the experts have pointed out how the marauding Tsunami waves were arrested in various islands of Lanka and the Andamans by the thick vegetation along the beaches. However, in the case of the Sunderbans delta, neither the tidal waves nor wind speed could be contained when the Amphan struck.
The vast treasure trove of the mangrove forest that received the initial impact, miserably failed to deflect the storm. But why?
Mangroves are not trees per se; they are more a kind of shrub which grows in tidal, chiefly tropical, coastal swamps, having numerous tangled roots that grow above ground and form dense thickets over the years. They survive on sucking the salt out of earth and obviously, their growth will be on salty water. Interestingly, these shrubs have a typical resistant power to survive in hostile environment.
For instance, they have the in-built capacity to store excess salt that they suck from water, into the leaves for quite a long period. Once that salt is exhausted, the leaves automatically fall down. Thus, the mangrove forest determines the density of salt in the sea water near the coastline and the higher the density of the forest, the more it would have the capability to withstand the ferocity of storms and tidal surges whipped by them.
The latest satellite and research findings confirm that the fragile biodiversity of the delta has suffered irreparable damage in the last couple of decades, thanks to man-made and natural factors. First, the global warming has led to a rise in the temperature of the ocean water triggering higher tidal waves. The consequent rise in the water level has been resulting in the flooding and sinking of newer areas and islands.
The Sunderbans delta has been no exception; the Ghoramara island has already been devoured by the sea while the majority of the Jamuu island has gone under water. The mangrove forest in the twin islands has already been devastated, enabling the strong stormy wind to hit the shore and travel beyond the shore line of South 24 Parganas district. Incidents of rising waves powered by high-tide flooding the villages in the delta have significantly gone up, showing how the character of the delta has been changing
Secondly, notwithstanding this, people have turned a blind eye to this phenomenon and been engaged in felling the mangrove shrubs and bushes at will along the beach to extend the agricultural activities.
Aware that any directive to stop the villagers from continuing with the practice could jeopardize the vote-bank, the local administration is only winking at this reckless stripping of the forest cover. On top of it, smuggling of wood, particularly that of the famous Sundari tree has been quite rampant. The fast depleting density of the Sundari forest as evident from satellite images, bears witness to this trend.
Thus, standing on a critical crossroads is this beautiful archipelago. We hear often how threats to the natural world are reaching a critical juncture. We can still salvage what is left of nature, injecting much-needed funds and taking local and global interventions. Or, we can condemn our curious flora, fauna and ecosystems to whittle away as we continue to pollute the atmosphere and pillage our land and seas for resources. And then, wait patiently for the Doom’s Day!
The featured picture of Sundari Trees is taken from destroysundarban.blogspot.com
What's Your Reaction?
The author has served no less than Al Jazeera and German TV, and India’s Parliamentarian magazine among others! To his credit goes a deep-rooted empathy for social issues and humans. He has wide experience in covering the northeast of India. His coverage on the 2020 Amphan cyclone in eastern India has easily been the best around the world