Sundarbans in peril: interlinkages between science and society for addressing climate change

This year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) will be held in Glasgow in November. In the lead up to the conference, we’re asking our editors and authors to share their research at the interface of climate and ecology. In this post, Associate Editor Punyasloke Bhadury explains why protecting ecosystems is a priority not just for nature, but for society.

Sundarbans, the world’s largest continuous mangrove biotope consisting of nearly 100 islands, shared between India and Bangladesh and encompassing an area of approximately 10,000 km2, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and RAMSAR site. Formed at the delta of the three major rivers in South Asia (Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna),the mangrove is strongly influenced by freshwater flow on a daily basis along with diurnal tidal regime from the coastal Bay of Bengal (BoB).

The mangrove is named after “sundari” (Heritiera fomes), the dominant species across Sundarbans, and is home to rich biological diversity including the swamp tiger, endangered Gangetic and Irrawaddy dolphins, pre-historic mangrove horseshoe crabs, among others. It also contributes immensely to the coastal blue economy (and GDP) of many countries along the BoB rim including India and Bangladesh.

Sundarbans Biological Observatory Time Series (SBOTS) in Sagar Island, Sundarbans which is monitored by scientists and local communities to track climate change and resilience. More details

Impacts of climate change

Over the last three decades, there has been marked changes in riverine freshwater flow into Sundarbans driven by anthropogenic climate change along with accelerating impacts of warming on the coastal BoB.

These observations are compounded by increasing evidences of rise in sea level and changing salinity, intrusion of salt water inland, rapid coastal erosion and observable changes in shift of mangrove vegetation patterns (Heritiera populations shifting to marine tolerant Avicennia spp.).

There has also been a high propensity of cyclones originating from the BoB due to increasing warming and these have routinely hit the Sundarbans (e.g. ‘Amphan’ in 2020 and ‘Yaas’ in 2021).

These cyclones could have caused catastrophic damages to major cosmopolitan cities such as Kolkata and beyond, but Sundarbans stood along the way and bore largely the brunt of these cyclones causing unprecedented ecological, social and cultural damages within this broad ecosystem.

Massive inundation of seawater and loss of economic resources in Sagar Island, Sundarbans after the cyclonic storm ‘Yaas’ in May 2021

The combined manifestations of anthropogenic climate change in Sundarbans are directly felt on a daily basis by the local inhabitants whose livelihood are dependent on the available bioresources such as the rich coastal fisheries.

Translating science to society

Over the last decade, our ongoing research in Sundarbans addresses the fundamental links between ocean-climate nexus and the importance of translating science to society.

We are training the next generation of eco-protectors of Sundarbans, such as the local fisherfolks, towards conservation of vulnerable species and linked critical habitats. These next generation of eco-protectors are engaging with tourists to narrate the history of Sundarbans in a changing climate and addressing imminent challenges such as removing plastic pollutants from Sundarbans.

Such participatory approach is a growing example of how local communities are adapting and engaging in resilience, while also exploring alternate means of livelihood.

Local fisherfolks such as fisherwomen are involved in participatory approach for conservation of habitat and biodiversity of Sundarbans

Ecological Sensitive Areas

Our continuous engagement in translating science to society also involves a completely new dimension to protection of many critical habitats of Sundarbans – the declaration of ‘ecologically sensitive areas (ESA)’.

ESA is a game-changing concept we have proposed and are working with the government to accept and implement in parts of Sundarbans that are rich in biodiversity.

Involving local communities, policymakers, and planners at local and national government levels, we hope this new approach to conservation enables local to regional scales of climate change impact to be addressed suitably for long-term sustainability and adaptation.

We expect the ESA approach to enrich coastal biodiversity and contribute economically by harnessing bioresources such as crabs, oysters and coastal fisheries which should ultimately lead to substantial uplift in income for local communities, in particular the fisherwomen of Sundarbans.

Nature-based Solutions

The other side of ESA approach is rather bold and being explored presently – integrating local traditional knowledge in nature-based solutions (NbS) through direct participation of the communities who are bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change.

The ESA-NbS application is particularly important in areas of Sundarbans which are most prone to sea-level rise and coastal erosion. Directed by the local communities, along with scientists and policymakers, it will pave a new climate resilience approach for protection of Sundarbans.

While there are initial positive directions which gives us plenty of hope, the enormous challenges posed from anthropogenic climate change are huge and continues to increase on a daily basis.

The world community must be affirmative, pledge and adhere to NDC commitments in the upcoming COP26 so as to ensure charismatic biodiversity rich habitats including Sundarbans, its unique culture and communities are not lost by 2100.

For more information on this year’s COP26 meeting, read the BES Guide to COP26 – also archived in Applied Ecology Resources.

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