Can planned human out-migration salvage the climate change-hit Sundarbans?
The concept of planned or managed retreat has gained traction globally as a coastal hazard management approach, particularly in countries like Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka, Barbados, the US and even the UK.
Now, Indian researchers have advocated a similar strategy for the Indian side of Sundarbans -- the world's largest continuous system of mangroves.
They envisage a planned retreat from the vulnerable to stable zones in the Sundarbans, but with the simultaneous regeneration of mangroves in the vacated region. The move, they say, also comes with economic benefits.
"According to our ecological economic analysis, the twin strategy of planned retreat and ecosystem restoration, a vision for 2050, could economically benefit the community by 12.8 times of the business-as-usual situation currently prevailing," Nilanjan Ghosh, professor and head of economics, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata Chapter, and Senior Economic Advisor, World Wide Fund for Nature, told IANS.
The notion is that the population will relocate to safer regions and the mangrove forests will be allowed to regenerate in that region by 2050, said Anurag Danda, Programme Lead -- Climate Change Adaptation, WWF-India.
The Indian Sundarbans Delta (ISD) is spread over an area of about 9,630 sq km in West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh. It is home to the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger and has garnered international attention for man-animal conflicts as well as its residents' daily battle against climate change.
Some 2.3 million people were affected by tropical storm Aila that struck southern Bangladesh and eastern India on May 27, 2009. Aila changed the face of the Sundarbans. Seven years on, the problems -- unemployment, poverty, man-animal conflict and climate change -- still linger.
Given the falling productivity of land, unabated ingress of saline water due to the rising sea level and physical as well as occupational displacement, a lot is at stake in one of the poorest regions of the world, which also ranks low in most human development indicators and harbours 4.5 million people primarily dependent on agriculture and fishing.
So, the researchers argue that a planned retreat from the sea, cushioned by natural ecological defences, doesn't signal failure of adaptation but instead opens a window to turn adversity into opportunity.
Going ahead with their contention, in the policy brief 'Planned Retreat and Ecosystem Regeneration as Adaptation to Climate Change', they state that the regenerated ecosystem is unlikely to be the same as the one that was removed when settlement was encouraged.
"Nevertheless, it has been found that the net benefits (benefits minus the costs) accruing to the community between 2050 and 2100, once this scenario of adaptation is
implemented, is 12.8 times of that of sticking to business-as-usual."
But why would the people leave their birthplace?
"We are endorsing an organic transition where the residents are not forced to leave but move out by choice. For that to happen, the way of life has to change. This means investment is needed to build infrastructure and re-skill the population to embrace alternative livelihoods. By 2050, the total regenerated area should be around 1,190 sq km," Danda explained.
This could also be a way to combat tiger-human conflicts, the experts reason. "If the way of life changes then the need to venture inside forests diminishes and so less of attacks," Danda pointed out.
Further, the gains from the regenerated mangrove forest would entail income from alternate employment, eco-tourism and from mangrove ecosystem services -- and possible income from access to the regenerated mangrove forest thus created.
To ensure the community's rights over their native land, ownership would rest with the retreating population, the researchers said.
The 102 islands of the archipelago come under 13 assembly constituencies administered by two separate Bengal districts: North 24-Parganas and South 24-Parganas.
The Vision involves a clear-cut identification and demarcation of the area of the ISD as a single administrative unit with restrictions on outsiders from acquiring land and thereby obtaining permanent residence in the area.
The Bengal government's decision to delineate Sundarbans as a separate district would also favour a planned retreat and ecosystem regeneration combo because of the resulting focused attention, the researchers highlighted.
But there are certain gaps that need to be bridged, pointed out sociologist Amites Mukhopadhyay, who has expertise in social anthropology of environment and development in South Asia with particular focus on coastal India and deltaic borderlands.
Observing that most policies end up being "sprinkling water from the top", Mukhopadhyay said to carry such proposals to fruition, the sociological perspective must be factored in as vulnerabilities in the region are not solely due to climate change.
"It sounds exciting as a policy document with a vision until 2050. However, merely translating ISD as an administrative unit may ease administrative bottlenecks but will do very little on the social front," Mukhopadhyay told IANS.
This is primarily because this is a region that shares its border with Bangladesh with people coming across and settling in the ISD, he said.
"Therefore, the question of outsiders coming and buying property to aim at permanent residence makes very little sense. People often are forced to migrate to the ISD and settle there. Further, people in the ISD are differently located (or) hierarchically placed," he elaborated.
He said the policy should also look into other aspects of vulnerability.
"Vulnerability is not merely caused by one's location on a particular island, but various economic livelihoods they pursue, land-use pattern and absence of economic opportunities," he said.
"It is necessary to know what people mean by infrastructure. Bridges, flyovers, jetties and brick-paved roads have already been created in the ISD but has it lessened people's vulnerability," asked Mukhopadhyay, Associate Professor & Head, Department of Sociology, Jadavpur University.
(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)