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'Everyday disasters' driving flight from Sundarbans

by Aditya Ghosh | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 7 April 2015 06:08 GMT

Bablu Kayal sits under the remains of his home’s roof in Khashimara village, on Ghorama Island in India’s Sundarbans. Tidal surges have destroyed his house five of the last eight years. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Aditya Ghosh

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Climate change is turning tidal surges - things families have long lived with – into losses they can no longer survive

SAGAR ISLAND, India, April 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The end for Shibshankar Pal's hopes of clinging to his home in India's Sundarban islands came the night of July 14, 2014, when surging seas advanced on the house he had just reconstructed following floods a year earlier.

A tidal surge of as much as 21 feet - double a normal surge - ripped through the island village and soon swept away his home in Kusumtala village, Namkhana. He and his family fled to a flood shelter for more than three months, but then decided they could not rebuild again.

Instead, they decided to migrate to the slums of Baruipur, the nearest town, leaving the land and village where he and three previous generations had lived. Pal now does odd jobs and his wife travels to Kolkata to work as a maid.

Worsening flooding and storm surges linked to climate change are driving a growing exodus from the low-lying islands facing the Bay of Bengal.

The islands, along with mainland parts of the Sundarbans, are part of a 4,000-square-kilometre UNESCO World Heritage Site, the world's largest mangrove ecosystem and a critical tiger habitat. But for some of the 4.4 million people who live in the Sundarbans, it is time to leave.

"The frequency of floods has increased a lot. Now a simple high tide or a tidal bore will breach the embankments and flood villages, destroy houses, paddy fields, ponds - in effect our livelihoods. It is no longer liveable," Pal said.

Like thousands living in villages such as Boatkhali, Mousuni, Kusumtala and Pakhirala, he has seen global warming turn high tides and tidal bores - things communities have long lived with - into losses they can no longer survive.


On some islands, population has declined by as much as 13 percent in just over a decade, according to regional data released in 2014 from a 2011 Indian national census.

Those migrating are the young and working-age men and women, leaving behind households of housewives, children and those too old to fend for themselves.

Altogether about 100,000 people have left 60 island villages in the region, officials say.

Meanwhile, adjoining small town areas on the mainland are seeing staggering increases in population. Between 2001 and 2011, Jaynagar town in the Sundarbans saw a 64 percent increase in population, Patharpratima a 51 percent rise, Minakhan a 46 percent increase and Kakdwip a 35 percent rise.

Since worsening tidal and storm surges are not recognised as 'disasters' by the state or humanitarian agencies, there has been no aid or relief, despite devastating impacts on homes, infrastructure and the farming, fishing and the fish farms that provide many jobs.

"Because such events aren't official 'disasters', no one addressed the human tragedy except local NGOs. There was no media coverage, no aid or relief," said Anshuman Das, head of Sabuj Sangha, a non-governmental organisation that is the partner of a European Commission-led disaster risk reduction effort in Sundarbans.

"If a tidal bore can cause this level of damage, one shivers to think what a storm surge or cyclone, all much stronger under the influence of climate change, will lead to," said Anurag Danda, head of the Sundarban adaptation programme for WWF.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report, released last year, predicted higher storm surges, more powerful tidal bores and stronger cyclones in a warming world - but the human tragedies associated with those changes are yet to be as well understood.

"The Sundarbans is sadly a powerful example of how creeping climatic changes accumulate disaster risks. The expansion of environmental threats to social ones highlights an urgent need for governance processes and systems to target this," said Mark Pelling, a geographer and expert on climate change-induced disasters at Kings College, London.


Secure jobs are one of the casualties of the changes. The share of workers with regular income and employment has declined dramatically in the last decades, from 49.63 percent in 1991 to just 22 percent in 2011, according to the Indian census data.

Meanwhile, marginal workers - who in 1991 represented 10 percent of the workforce, now account for 40 percent of those working, according to 2011 figures.

That loss of jobs and job security has led to surging migration, among not only adult workers but young boys and girls looking for ways to survive and shift their families to safer places.

"There is no land left to cultivate. Fishing and aquaculture have been destroyed. There are no jobs. We have to survive somehow, so the entire work-age population has migrated to Kerala from my village," said 18-year-old Tarun Kalsha, who migrated from Boatkhali village, along the coast in the Sundarbans region of Sagar.

Kalsha and 25 others from his village work in the construction industry as unskilled labours in Thiruvanantapuram, Kerala, about 2,500 km away from home.

"We live in sub-human conditions. It's so far away that our families are always worried. But if I learn roofing and tiling work over next few years, I can at least send some money home," he said.

Kalsha's family - his mother, a 16-year old sister and two younger brothers back home - are particularly vulnerable as his father died a few years ago. "My sister is also looking for a maid's job in Kolkata. It's very tough on me otherwise," he said.

Sheikh Munir from Beguakhali, Dakshin Aria village, migrated to mainland Kakdwip last year with his wife and daughter after flooding razed his island home. But "only those with enough resources can migrate out with (their) families, which is rare," he said.


The migrants find little institutional support, in part because the region's administration is still struggling to figure out how to deal with the rapid change.

"Over the last few years, it has been catastrophic. As more villages cease to exist, people have nowhere to go," said Bankim Hazra, a legislator from the region and chairman of the Sundarban Affairs Department of the West Bengal government.

"We cannot save many of the inhabited islands with the sea advancing and rising faster than ever, escalating disasters risks," predicted Kanti Ganguly, who grew up in the region and was the Sundarban Affairs minister between 1997 and 2011.

"About a million living in these islands need to shift elsewhere urgently," he said.

But finding new homes for that many people is a huge challenge.

"Where can we rehabilitate one million people? We just don't have the land, resources or resilience to absorb such shocks socio-economically. We need aid from the federal government or international community. We cannot budget for climate change at local levels," Hazra said.

The problems have left Bablu Kayal, 45, envying those facing even worse disasters.

Sitting under the bare bamboo frames of what was the roof of his home, at the edge of an advancing river in Khasimara village, Ghoramara Island, he laments that it was only a tidal bore and not a cyclone that destroyed his home last year for the fifth time in eight years.

"In Odisha (a neighbouring state) they were lucky to have a 'proper' cyclone. At least they got some aid, as it was an international event. Sadly I don't even have resources to migrate. We will probably just starve to death if there's another flood soon," he said. (Reporting by Aditya Ghosh; editing by Laurie Goering)

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