When will the negligence over the Sunderbans be stopped?

Siam Sarower Jamil | Published: 00:00, Jun 07,2020 | Updated: 16:30, Jun 07,2020


Clippings from newspaper on protests demanding protection of the Sunderbans; Teacher-Student Centre, University of Dhaka, February 14, 2020. — Nahid Riyasad

Siam Sarower Jamil talks about the importance of the Sunderbans after yet another cyclone

SUPPOSE you have a wall in front of your house. For this wall, flood water, strong wind will not be able to enter your house. For the southwest coast of Bangladesh, the Sunderbans do exactly that. Recently, the forest has acted as a shield again to protect the coastal area from the cyclone Amphan. If the forest did not exist, the cyclone could have caused a great deal of havoc on our coast.

Most of the worst cyclones in the history of the world have hit the Bay of Bengal in the south of Bangladesh. A website called ‘Weather Underground’ lists the 35 most severe monsoon cyclones in the world. 28 cyclones on this list are in the Bay of Bengal. Cyclone Amphan is the 28th. This terrible cyclone is again reminding us of our friend. I am hopeful that our friend will save us. Of course, the past says so.

The casualties of the cyclone Fani was also limited and the main reason was the Sunderbans. It is not easy for a strong cyclone to penetrate the natural protection wall of the Sunderbans. Even during Bulbul, its speed was slowed down significantly at the Sunderbans point.

If there had been another natural protection wall like the Sunderbans on the south-eastern part of the country or on the Bhola-Noakhali-Chattogram coast, more than 138,000 lives might not have been lost in 1991. If Bhola had green protection like the Sunderbans, five lakh lives might not have been lost in the tidal wave in 1970. This shows how much we need the Sunderbans to protect us from the danger of darkness. For this reason, whenever hazards comes, we remember the Sunderbans to save us as always as a friend.

During natural disasters, there are two types of impacts on forests. The fast moving wind then the tidal wave. Because of the Sunderbans, the cyclonic winds are interrupted and reach Khulna and Bagerhat locations at relatively low speeds. Experts say that the speed of the cyclone in the forest where it was 100 kilometres per hour, it lost its strength after crossing the forest and going to the locality and turned into a gust of wind. On the other hand, the height of the waves is greatly reduced as the tides are blocked in the Sunderbans before reaching the locality.

The Sunderbans have previously acted as a shield to prevent strong cyclones. Particularly, from cyclone Sidr on November 15, 2008 and cyclone Aila on May 25, 2009, the forest protected the coast from a massive damage. However, the disaster caused extensive damage of the forest.

The Sunderbans are the largest mangrove forests in the world. It is located in the coastal areas of Satkhira, Khulna and Bagerhat districts. About 80 per cent of this forest falls in Bangladesh which is about 10,000 square kilometres. The rest is located in the 24 Parganas of the Indian state of West Bengal. About 150 years ago, the size of the Sunderbans was twice as large as it is today. At that time the entire area of greater Jessore and Barisal were the Sunderbans. At present the Sunderbans is about 90 kilometres north-south and 75 kilometres east-west. Considering the boundaries of Dhaka from Tongi to Narayanganj, the Sunderbans is equal to about 20 Dhaka cities. 

From time immemorial, the people of this region used to procure almost all the necessities of life from the Sunderbans. Again, the Sunderbans has turned into a huge defensive wall against various natural disasters. We witnessed some of how the cyclone Amphan, which swept over the Sunderbans in Bangladesh and India on May 20, reduced the loss of life and property in our south-western coastal districts.

The value of the environment does not matter to us because we do not see the value of the contribution of a balanced natural environment to our overall life. To the common people therefore the Sunderbans is just a forest; gives fish, honey, wood and so on. But the Sunderbans continue to make another important contribution invisible to our eyes. That is, its role to protect us from storms, tidal waves and cyclones.

Most of the cyclones those form in the Indian Ocean due to geography, hit our coastal areas to a lesser extent. The Sunderbans, as a natural shield, protect people, homes and crops in the south-western coastal areas of Bangladesh. Those who live in coastal areas know how the Sunderbans has protected a large portion of the people, their livestock and households from Sidr and Ayla and so on.

Naturally most of the people consider everything financially. In the context of Bangladesh, it is like a destiny. But in addition to the direct financial value, the various benefits of the environment are scientifically recognised today. According to a study, the Sunderbans is providing us with 24 ecosystem services. According to the report, the amount of ecosystem services per hectare in the Sunderbans range from 105 to 840 USD per year. These ecosystem services include protecting coastal areas and reducing the loss of life and property from cyclones.

Here is a summary of a report analysing the intensity and damage of two relevant cyclones that have swept through the coastal areas of Bangladesh in the past. On November 12 1970, a cyclone hit the Barisal region. Its speed was 224 kilometres per hour. About five lakh people died in it. The cyclone did not hit Bangladesh through the Sunderbans. On the other hand, cyclone Sidr hit the coast of Bangladesh at a speed of 210 km over the Sunderbans in 2007. It killed 3,373 people.

As the velocity is roughly the same, a comparative financial value analysis is done considering the number of people killed in these two cyclones, the average life expectancy of the people of Bangladesh, per capita income, the government’s annual expenditure on Sunderbans conservation, et cetera. It shows that the way the Sunderbans save people’s lives every year, its financial value is 19,400 crore taka.

This time Amphan flew over the Sunderbans. The cyclone first hit the Indian ocean islands. It entered Bangladesh at a speed of about eighty kilometres per hour. Later, after entering the Sunderbans, it began to weaken gradually. Our coastal people were protected from major damages from Amphan. There was no tidal wave. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme, mangrove forests are capable of reducing 70 to 90 per cent of the tidal surges caused by cyclones.

The Pashur river is still a lifeline in the Sunderbans. The lion share of the upstream fresh water in the Sunderbans comes through the river. But due to the Farakka Barrage, the flow of water in Pashur river has decreased by 90 per cent since 1975. As a result, salinity in the Sunderbans has increased by 60 per cent compared to the past. As a result, the type of forest vegetation is changing. Due to the increase in salinity, Shundari trees are now rare in the Sunderbans of Satkhira and Khulna. The height of the forest is gradually decreasing, which may not play an effective role in preventing cyclone-tidal waves in the future.

Speaking at the inauguration of Tree Planting Week at Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka on July 16, 1972, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said, ‘We did not create the Sunderbans by planting trees. Naturally, nature has done it to protect Bangladesh. The Sunderbans along the Bay of Bengal is the barrier. If it is not protected then one day Khulna, Barishal, Patuakhali and some parts of Cumilla will go into the sea and these will become islands like Hatia and Sandwip. Once the Sunderbans are destroyed, there will no way to protect ourselves from the sea. ' 

It is easy to guess how clear the importance of the Sunderbans was to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as a politician. In the newly independent country, he realised that if the Sunderbans could not be protected, there was no other ways to protect Bangladesh from storms and environmental disasters. Sadly, even after 49 years of independence, we have not been able to bear in mind such important statement. Ignoring mass people’s opinion, the government is implementing a power project at Rampal next to the Sunderbans.

Next to it, another power plant of furnace oil, airport and several activities for industrialisation are going on near the forest. 150 industrial plots have been given to the industrialist around this forest. Of which, 26 are seriously harmful to the environment. There are red category industries. If these projects are implemented, the Sunderbans may be dropped from the UNESCO World Heritage List. It would be a great disgrace and a shame to the world as a country and a nation.

The Sunderbans is called Bangladesh’s lung, endless source of livelihood and life-sustaining natural shield. The importance of the Sunderbans has become indifferent to us as we do not see much of these benefits to the naked eye.

Has Amphan moved us a little in that indifference?

Siam Sarower Jamil is a young journalist and environmental activist.

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