MOUSINI ISLAND, India (AlertNet) – Saikh Rustam lives in a part of India where mobile phone reception is available, but clean drinking water is not.
If he had to choose between them, the 52-year-old resident of Mousuni Island, at the southern tip of the country’s Sundarbans region, would take the drinking water, and food for his family of five.
But environmental pressures, exacerbated by poor development planning, are likely to leave his wish unfulfilled, at least for now.
Experts warn that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest river delta, a UNESCO heritage site and a critically endangered ecosystem that is home to the largest number of tigers on earth.
Climate change is warming the surface of the Bay of Bengal, causing erratic monsoons and an increasing number of extreme weather events. All of this is gnawing away at the mangrove forests that define the region and provide its best line of defence against high tides and storms.
Rustam lives with the threat of an advancing shoreline that has led the sea to flood his home three times in the past six years.
He has moved his house farther back each time it has been washed away, but there is no land left for him to retreat to. Rustam and his family now live on an embankment that is the last available piece of free government land.
“I cannot encroach on personal properties, and all the land after this boundary is (privately) owned,” he said, pointing to the paddy fields with scattered huts behind his own.
Mousini Island is gradually shrinking, from about 3,400 hectares (8,300 acres) in 1969 to 2,800 hectares (7,000 acres) in 2009. The southernmost part of the island, where Rustam lives in Baliara village, has lost 36 percent of its land during that period.
LACK OF ADAPTATION POLICIES
But it is not only nature’s wrath that is forcing the Sundarbans’ population of 4.37 million into misery. Underdevelopment, coupled with an absence of local and domestic adaptation policies, prevents them from dealing effectively with the effects of the changing climate.
“Look at the population itself. It is close to 1,000 people per square km (about 380 per square mile), which is far beyond the carrying capacity of such a fragile ecosystem,” said Anurag Danda, head of adaptation at WWF-India.
A recent study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a national thinktank on environmental issues, highlighted development deficits and policy failures as the major reasons for the crisis of maladaptation in the Indian Sundarbans (some of the region lies within Bangladesh).
Only about 30 percent of families live in permanent structures with a thatched roof and mud walls, and only one in seven households is electrified. More than a quarter of the population have no access to institutional health care, and schools are few and far between.
Half the population of the Sundarbans are marginal or small farmers without land of their own to cultivate, and nearly 90 percent have no food security, according to a human development report published in 2010 by the government of West Bengal state.
Roads are non-existent, leaving residents to rely primarily on boats for transport and severely limiting access to education, healthcare and banking. The difficulty of travelling to school or college is a major cause of people dropping out. At the same time, many residents cannot see the point of some higher education.
“A humanity graduate typically earns less because he does not want to do odd jobs,” explained Asit Mondol, a school teacher in Lahiripur. “(They) do not acquire skills of agriculture or technical work that will help them earn a decent living.”
“There is a strong sentiment that time and money spent in higher education is a waste,” Mondol said.
The reality for the region is that “it is beyond the Sundarbans to sustain 4.5 million people at decent income levels,” said Debal Roy, chief environment officer of the West Bengal government. “But development planning in our country never acknowledges science and its suggestions.”
Economists and natural scientists say the lack of planning has hurt the region as much as climate change, which is a relatively recent phenomenon that has accelerated the rate of destruction of ecosystems and livelihoods in the region.
Now natural disasters cause much greater damage, and the effects of sea-level rise and storm surges are leading to long-term, irreversible changes in soil salinity. As resources dwindle, people caught between climate change and underdevelopment have little choice but to migrate or suffer.
“The Sundarbans has always had a subsistence (economy) so there has not been any revenue incentive for the government” to step up action in the region, said Rabindranath Bhattacharya, a retired professor of economics at the University of Calcutta, who has studied the region for 20 years.
EVEN SUBSISTENCE THREATENED
“As the population kept on increasing, alternative livelihoods were never thought of and now we have a situation where that subsistence economy is threatened itself.”
Despite the widespread lack of electric power, mobile phone networks function in the Sundarbans because they are owned and run by private enterprises. Whether this points to a possible solution for the region is debatable.
“Development cannot be left to the wishes of private corporations,” said Bhattacharjee. “It is more a matter of motivation and commitment on the part of the government.”
The recent CSE report urged inclusive development planning in order to mainstream climate adaptation.
“Adaptation plans mostly focus on disaster risk reduction or at best have project-based approaches,” said WWF-India’s Danda.
“It is very difficult to achieve any level of success with such an approach. It has to be ecosystem-based and holistic.”
Aditya Ghosh is a journalist who has carried out extensive research and reporting in the Indian Sundarbans.