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


02 June 2016
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.

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.”

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.”

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.

Read the full article here: http://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/tired-of-running-from-the-river-adapti...