Bengal is losing ground. Literally. Sea-level rise driven by climate change has already claimed two of the 54 islands in the Sundarbans, an archipelago on the Bay of Bengal.
Sitting in a vast, ecologically rich delta at the confluence of four rivers – the Ganges, Padma, Bahmputra and Meghna – the Sundarbans encompass the world’s largest mangrove forest. In Bengali, Sundarbans means “beautiful forest”.
The area is also home to over four million people. But, beset by flooding, drought and extreme weather, thousands have become environmental refugees. Sagar Island, at the mouth of the Ganges, is a destination for many, but it too is struggling with the effects of climate change.
“Either our island is sinking or the sea is rising,” says Jalaluddin Saha, a schoolteacher who lives on Sagar Island. He and many of his community have been forced to abandon their homes on the coast. Even after moving a mile inland, problems persist, with salt water flooding and ruining fields.
A March 2015 study by the Indian Space Research Organisation estimated that the Indian Sundarbans had lost close to 4% of its forest cover in the past decade and 9,990 hectares of its landmass.
The mangrove forests, once protected the Sundarban islands, provided a natural buffer against cyclones and the annual monsoons. But as the mangroves are succumbing to rising sea levels and increasing siltation, the low-lying islands are left at the mercy of the ocean.
WWF has been working with local people in the Sundarbans since 2005, investigating the impacts of climate change on their lives. In 2011 the organisation helped draw up the Sundarbans Delta Vision, which paved a way for engaging with government. WWF has also worked with the World Bank to help the beleagured islands and their residents.
For Jalaluddin and his family, however, it may be too late. “I don’t think I will build another house,” he says. “But I would not be surprised if my sons and grandsons are forced to move again.”