Event ReportsPublished on Jun 04, 2019
Sundarbans is facing twin challenges of increased population pressure in the north and rising sea levels in the south, occasionally teamed with cyclones from the Bay of Bengal.
Between Scylla and Charybdis: Transboundary cooperation and adaptive capacity in the Sundarbans

In September 2011, India and Bangladesh inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on conservation efforts in the Sundarbans — one of the largest mangrove forests in the world and home to the Bengal tiger. In spite of signing the policy document, little actionable outcomes have materialised.

Sundarbans is facing twin challenges of increased population pressure in the north and rising sea levels in the south, occasionally teamed with cyclones from the Bay of Bengal. There seems to be a requirement of a ‘breathing space’ between a Scylla (from the north) and a Charybdis (from the south).

In its maiden Friday Afternoon Talk — an initiative by Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata — Dr. Anurag Danda, ORF Senior Visiting Fellow, highlighted the criticality of the fragile ecosystem that constitutes the Sundarbans. He discussed the options that India and Bangladesh can exercise in dealing with the heightened challenges, as well as the ways in which the countries can collaborate.

Located in the southern part of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta, the Sundarbans is rich in biodiversity, particularly its dense mangrove forest. While Brazil has seven mangrove species and Mexico six, Sundarbans has 35 different species of mangroves — along with 237 species of fish, 355 avian species, 38 crustacean and 49 mammalian species. Many of these species are endemic. It is therefore critical that strong efforts is undertaken towards maintaining the ecological balance.

In terms of jurisdiction, the Sundarbans represent a single ecosystem that is divided between two countries — India and Bangladesh. Certain areas of the Sundarbans (sanctuaries and national parks) are also UNESCO world heritage sites and Ramsar sites.

The region is facing a number of challenges. While the Indian part of the Sundarbans reel under the threat of pollution from urban sewage draining out of the Kolkata Metropolitan Area, an increasing amount of water traffic — dominated by large old vessels — is adding to the pollution. The Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans has to regularly deal with threats of extreme events like cyclones. There is also a dearth of resources with the forest officials in Bangladesh. Bengal tigers are particularly vulnerable because of human-animal conflicts. Forest officials remain ill equipped — they lack tranquilisers as well as resources that are required for rehabilitation. As a result, killing the wild beast becomes the only viable option in such a scenario. However, one of the biggest threats in the delta is the loss of land taking place because of rising sea levels. This is more acute in the Indian part of the Sundarbans as aggradation of sediments is very less in comparison to Bangladesh. Parts of Namkhana, Boyra, Shyamnagar, Pathar Pratima, located within the Indian administered region, are already sinking. With increasing temperature, rising sea and increasing intensity of tropical storms in the region, the residents are being forced to adapt.

Dr. Danda also highlighted various challenges that come in the way of jointly governing the Sundarbans. While forest areas of the two countries are well defined, there is no agreement on what constitutes the ‘Sundarban region.’ In India, the Dampier-Hodges Line created by the British in 1828 is considered the northern boundary which include forested as well as densely populated parts of Sundarbans. In Bangladesh, only forest areas are considered as part of the Sunderbans, although there is a demarcated Ecologically Critical Area and a 20 Km buffer called Sunderban Impact Zone. This also creates challenges for joint governance. In the MoU, importance is given to conserving biodiversity based on its intrinsic value. However, there remains ambiguity in the definition of “implementable” (implementable adaptation strategies is one of the key goals of the MoU). The term implementable is relative which creates problems for policy makers. There is no clear indication as to who decides what is implementable.

The MoU also prescribes a plan of action to map and delineate human settlements on both sides for a better understanding of the relationship between human settlements and surrounding ecosystems. Thereafter, the MoU specifies the development of a management plan that would utilise this information in order to address issues of livelihood deprivation on account of floods and other climate-related disasters, man-animal conflict, pollution, resource depletion, among others. Article VI of the MoU explains that in order to strengthen the management of Sundarbans, India and Bangladesh should collaborate on collecting and sharing relevant information and explore the possibilities of joint exercises. However, the article is not complete in terms of its scope and fails to recognise intricate details.

Forest officials can execute solutions, but they are not policy makers; they are not trained in formulating local policies. Moreover, tourism, socioeconomic development, disaster management do not fall within the ambit of the forest department. Regardless, forest officials are asked to take a frontal role in these matters as they are the only arm of the State responding during emergency situations.

Dr. Danda cautioned that if there is no change in the status quo, by the next 100 years, the whole Sundarban ecosystem will undergo an irreversible change, that will impact lives and livelihoods of people. The need of the hour is to find an alternative pathway of relocating people settled in the northern fringes. This can be achieved by encouraging systematic out-migration in different phases — all in the bid to allow afforestation. This will also bring partial ecological restoration in the region and a ‘breathing space’ for its wild dwellers. Simultaneously, an institutional management framework needs to be adopted that will actively work towards the goals and deliverables. The working group, jointly constituted by India and Bangladesh, should also be as inclusive as possible while respecting each others’ sovereignty. Governments of both countries need to be proactive. India and Bangladesh must take into account the reality that stares at them.

This report is prepared by Jaya Thakur, Junior Fellow, & Sayanangshu Modak, Research Assistant — ORF Kolkata.

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