Tired of Running From the River: Adapting to Climate Change on India’s Disappearing Islands

Rising waters are quickly submerging the Sundarbans and drowning its livelihoods. As the region’s men leave to find stable income, women make the best of what remains.
Rural India Climate Change

Due to an absence of hospitals and doctors on Ghoramara Island, people have to travel across the Bay of Bengal to get medical assistance in Kakdwip. All photos by Anuradha Sengupta.

Sheikh Khadim lives on the shore of the island of Ghoramara, which sits within the Hooghly River’s drainage into the Bay of Bengal. “My house used to be there,” he says, pointing to the swirling waters. He wears a vest and lungi, a cloth wrap common to rural India. All that stands between his beautiful mud home and the water is an earthen embankment, and with the monsoons around the corner, he says, it may give way. “We don’t know what will happen then.”

“I am tired of running from the river.”

Khadim lives with his wife, three grandsons, and daughter-in-law. He has no choice but to live here—there is no land left for the family to move to. This is the third house he has built in the last decade. Once, he had several bighas (an irregular traditional unit of measure, usually less than an acre but sometimes as much as 3 acres) of land, but the small lot on which his house now stands is all that is left. He fears the river may swallow this, too. “We have shifted thrice. I am tired of running from the river,” he says.

His wife Arzan Bibi suffers from arthritis. Their only son works as a day laborer on the mainland, which is a 40-minute boat ride from Ghoramara. Three boys in their teens cluster around. “My grandsons,” Bibi says proudly. “This one wants to learn to repair cars,” she smiles, pointing to the eldest. “But I tell him not to dream too much. God knows what our future has in store.”

Global Warming Climate Change India

Sheikh Khadim with wife Arzan Bibi.

Ghoramara is located about 100 miles south of Kolkata, and is part of the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove delta straddling India and Bangladesh. It is the largest of its kind in the world and a UNESCO heritage area. The name is Bengali for “beautiful forest,” and the ecology of this low-lying delta system is among the most fragile on the planet.

Organizations including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have warned that areas like the Sundarbans will bear the brunt of climate change due to rising sea levels. Scientists predict much of the Sundarbans could be underwater in 15 to 25 years, rendering some 13 million people in the 200-odd islands in India and Bangladesh homeless and forcing a massive exodus of climate refugees.

The region’s residents are struggling to cope. In addition to rising seas, they face erratic weather patterns, severe floods, heavy rainfall, and intense cyclones. Over the years, homes have been swept away, families broken apart, fields ravaged by floods, and livelihoods destroyed. The devastation seen here confirms what experts have been warning: The effects of global warming will be most severe on those who did the least to contribute to it, and who can least afford measures to adapt or save themselves.

Ghoramara has lost more than 50 percent of its land to the sea in the past decade—its area is now about 2 square miles—forcing villagers like Khadim and his family to rebuild homes further inland or move out of the area. Those with the money have already moved. Local government has promised to shift several families to neighboring Sagar Island, and Khadim is hoping his family will be one. Those who go are given land to till and build homes on, but the choice is made much like a lottery and there are no guarantees. Preference will be given to families who have lost their land to the river repeatedly. Sagar Island already houses thousands of refugees who have fled the tides.

“I can’t sleep sometimes, the sea gets so violent at night,” says Preeti Maity a sixth-grader in the local school. “My house is made of the same mud as the dikes. You don’t know when the land under you will give way.” Maity, like many others, has taken shelter in her school during floods; a pukka—or permanent—building, it is one of the few local structures that doubles as a shelter. The ravages wrought by the tides are visible in the remains of abandoned mud homes, destroyed coconut fronds, and rotting wood.

Scientists predict much of the Sundarbans could be underwater in 15 to 25 years.

Several islands have already gone underwater. Some, like Supuridanga, were not inhabited, but when Lohachara went under, it displaced 7,000 people. “It was visible from Ghoramara,” says Pratima Das who used to visit her sister on the island. In her 70s, Das spends her evenings sitting by the embankment near the river, gazing across at the mainland. “I don’t want to move. It is so quiet here, you can hear the sound of the river. She remembers her childhood days when Ghoramara was bigger and closer to the mainland. “We would shout out and people on the mainland could hear us,” she says.

Changes in the region due to climate change have been visible for a long time. “Increased erosion, embankment breaches and rising salinity have been three major, most incriminating impacts,” says Aditya Ghosh, a research associate with the South Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg in Germany. “In my research I have found 82 reported incidents of major flooding and embankment breaches affecting more than 500 households in the period between 2010 and 2015.” Ghosh has been working on the Sundarbans since 2010, and covered the region extensively as a journalist between 2000 and 2004.

“Years of ineffective, unplanned, and chaotic governance have made the Sundarbans a soft target for any abrupt environmental change,” he says. The fragmentation of land, for example, coupled with an increasing population has had a devastating impact on the livelihoods of those who live there.

Ghosh found a sixfold increase in marginal labor—those who worked less than six months in a year—between 1991 and 2012, while the number of those who were employed for most of the year remained constant. “This indicates that, not only the entire population increase in these three decades failed to find meaningful occupations, it also reveals that a part of existing main workers who had employment security, gradually slipped into marginality,” he says.

The Sundarbans relies mostly on small-scale farming, fishing, honey gathering, and other natural-resource-based practices. “All my income comes from the jungle,” says Anil Mondol, a fisherman who has also been collecting honey from the forests for 27 years. Mondol sells the honey to the forest department at about $2 a kilo. Being stung by bees is little worry compared to the risk of encountering crocodiles, snakes, and Royal Bengal tigers. But he says the honey harvest has been decreasing as flowers are drying up due to extreme weather conditions.

India Climate Change

Anil Mondol has been a fisherman and honey collector for 27 years. He doesn’t get as much honey as he once did. He says the heat has been bad for the flowers.

The frequent incursion of saltwater has also affected the quality of soil and groundwater. In Hingalganj, close to the Bangladesh border, the effects of salination are visible in the vast stretches of dry and cracked land.

“Aila just destroyed our land,” says Potit Mondal. He is referring to the May 2009 cyclone that affected millions of people in India and Bangladesh. At least 399 people died, huge numbers of livestock were lost, roads were destroyed, and crops were wiped out. The floods devastated both homes and low farmlands, leaving the area waterlogged for many months. Post-Aila soil tests carried out by the European Commission of Humanitarian Aid found salinity had reached a depth of about 1.5 meters in most areas.

“We couldn't grow anything on our land for two, three years after that,” Mondal says, sitting in a half-built house full of mud and rubble in the middle of a cracked, arid field. His daughters Bitika and Suchitra play on the road beside the house. “My son is in the hospital,” he says. “He has typhoid.” His wife and eldest daughter are there as well, looking after the boy. He says their drinking water has become quite bad. “To get potable water here, you have to walk 1 or 2 miles.”

Arid lands also mean fodder is in short supply. “We have no grass to feed our cattle and goats. We had 10 to 12 cattle grazing on our fields earlier. Now there are just two or three cows,” Mondal says. Close by is a ramshackle tent made of a few sticks and black plastic sheets. This is where he and his family are staying until their house is built.

After Aila, Mondal and his family lived in a similar tent for several months, surviving on handouts from aid agencies. Villagers also helped each other by sharing resources, but he left to look for any low-wage, daily labor he could find. That’s how he got by for a while: working in construction and in factories in the southern states making coconut fiber for coir mattresses. “I’d get [about $5] for 12 hour shifts,” he says.

He has just returned from six months in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka, and a major IT hub. After working for the past two years, he has been able to save up some money and is building this house, one better and sturdier than the mud hut that Aila destroyed. It has to be finished before the monsoons arrive.

India Climate Change Water

Boats ferry people over the Ichamati river near Hingalganj. 

As land is ruined or lost, men in the Sundarbans are forced to leave for most of the year in search of work, and women and children are left behind. “Women have to bear a disproportionate burden as well as increasing marginality,” researcher and former reporter Ghosh says. Women are left alone to take care of the children and the elderly, as well as earn money to run the house. Sometimes, only the children are left behind, and they often suffer from malnourishment and psychological problems. As waters continue to rise, Ghoramara’s isolation from the mainland is increasing.

Here, everyone is at the mercy of the ferryman and the river. The small vessel that carries people back and forth is the only connection to the mainland. It makes four trips a day—if the weather permits—but with monsoons around the corner the trips will become riskier. A crossing used to require only about 20 minutes, but now, due to higher waters, increased siltation, and stronger currents, it takes closer to an hour.

The island’s 3,000-odd population —down from 40,000 before people began fleeing the tides—must rely on the ferry for almost every kind of public utility service, including hospitals, banks, and groceries. Ghoramara has one primary health center which is open only until noon. “It takes over an hour to get a patient to the nearest hospital on the mainland,” says Snigdha Shahmal, a health worker from Ghoramara who shifted to the mainland after marriage.

Grain Bank Meeting Climate Change India

A grain bank in a Hingalgunj village. 

But people here are resilient. Some, unable or unwilling to leave, are planting hardy native crops, using integrated farming methods, and banking seeds as effective countermeasures against the threat of starvation caused by natural disasters, land erosion, and high soil salinity. Some farmers are rebuilding their lives by working in tune with nature, switching from modern high-yield rice seeds to native saline-resistant varieties like Dudheswar, Nonasree, and Hogla. These were in use long before large-scale, commercial agriculture, fertilizer, and seed companies took over.

These seeds and accompanying training in integrated farming methods were sponsored by the Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC), a nongovernmental development organization in West Bengal that focuses on sustainable agriculture, disaster, and climate change adaptation.

“DRCSC has been giving out desi (indigenous) varieties of seeds that can withstand salinity levels, but we have limited resources,” says Chinmoy Mukherjee, who lives in Hingalganj and works with the DRCSC. “There are 350 families here. We work with 40.” These families are often headed by women.

Champa Munda has two daughters and one son. Her husband is away in Kolkata most of the year working in construction. “He comes every two months, stays for a couple of days and is gone again,” she says. Munda raises goats and pigs, which sell for about $70 at market.

To manage the burden and create a support network, women here join self-help groups, many under state-supported entrepreneurship programs. These provide employment to millions via economic activities such as farming, animal husbandry, food processing, knitting, and production of natural fabrics.

India Climate Change Families

Champa Munda with her daughters.

In Nebukhali village in Hingalganj, several women are bringing together the household, livestock, and farm in holistic, self-sustaining cycles. Staple crops are mixed with other plants and livestock. Waste from one area becomes input for another in a system that virtually replicates those found in nature.

They began the process by first reshaping low lying lands that had been used to trap water to grow commercial rice. A pond was excavated in one area, and the dug-out soil was used to grow vegetables. Now the pond holds ducks and fish—the ducks give eggs and their excreta becomes feed for the fish.

Throughout the Sundarbans, DRCSC-supported self-help groups assist in the construction of small biogas facilities, which process agricultural waste including cow dung into fuel, cooking gas, and fertilizer. They also conserve beneficial insects and worms that are good for the soil, and identify and grow several nutrient-rich cultivated and uncultivated plants like betho, a highly nutritious edible weed.

Grain Bank India Climate Change

Women load bags of grain into a grain bank. 

Women here have also established grain banks to store surpluses—security for a rainy day, and relief from debt or high interest. The grain bank, or “gola,” is essential for the food security of households. A thatch-roofed hut is built atop an elevated platform—usually made of concrete—to protect stored grains from rodents and other pests, floods, and storms. Inside, large tightly woven baskets and mud pots hold varieties of saline tolerant rice and vegetables. Everyone commits a portion of their harvest, and, to get the bank started, the DRCSC’s area resource training center makes a matching contribution.

Farmers share their knowledge and these practices through seed exchanges and fairs, but the number of those who adopt sustainable methods is still quite low. Many cite the initial work and cost required for landscaping; and even though the state and NGOs offer subsidies, farmers are reluctant to take loans. They opt instead for quick-money ideas and the easy returns of commercial farming, even as these methods continue to degrade what little land remains above water.

But Munda, who manages the family and farm while her husband chases a more stable income amid Kolkata’s housing boom, sees reasons for hope. Nothing she can do will stop the rising tides, but her newly acquired farming skills will help her make the most of the land she has left. “I feel we are better prepared now that we have the knowledge to regenerate our soil,” she says. She scans the skies looking for signs of the coming rains that will not only water her crops but also wash away soil salinity. “Perhaps the gods will bless us in the monsoon season,” she says.

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