Cyclone Amphan in the Sundarbans: The Agony of Living

Just when people had slowly started to get used to living in compliance with the rules of social distance and hygiene, trying to keep the novel coronavirus at bay, a devastating cyclone has struck Bengal. Cyclone Amphan has led to devastation especially in the coastal Bengal and the Sundarbans areas, leaving behind a trail of casualties. Crops and livelihoods were destroyed. Roofs of houses and schools were blown away.

These are sad times for the Sundarbans. The area has been impacted in the past, but this time the scale of the intensity and magnitude of the storm was unprecedented.

The Sundarbans is a mangrove forest area, one of the largest in the world. It’s located in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers, in the Bay of Bengal. Home to numerous unique species of flora and fauna, the region is not only a UNESCO Heritage site but also an important ecological hub.

The frequency of cyclonic depressions on the Bay of Bengal is increasing as a consequence of global warming. Last summer, storm Fani wreaked havoc. In November it was Cyclone Bulbul. Since then, other storms had changed their direction midway, saving the Sundarbans from suffering any further serious damage.

But that wasn’t the case last week. With the fresh wounds of Bulbul’s destruction and devastation still open, people in the area were fighting back and trying to rise again from the ashes. Cyclone Amphan has broken their spine and rampaged through the region with full force.

Be it Fani, Bulbul or Amphan, the wrath of nature has, once again, punished the impoverished people of the Sundarbans.

Photo: Abhijit Chakraborty; Shudhu Sundarban Charcha 

Sometimes the dams can’t contain the tidal waters, fueled by powerful storm surges, and these invade the forest’s freshwater habitats. This is also a growing danger for the region. According to a recent report published by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2019, the overall sea level globally has risen by 19 cms in the last century and it’s increasing by 3.6mm annually. It is expected to rise by an additional 30-60 cms more by the turn of this century.

Eminent river expert and the Chairman of West Bengal Pollution Control Board, Dr Kalyan Rudra, warned that sea-level rise is a particularly serious threat in this side of the world: “compared to other seas and oceans, the Bay of Bengal is seeing such type of increase at an alarming level. Moreover, the coastal areas of Bengal are facing gradual depletion, making the situation even worse,” he said.

Credit: Abhijit Chakraborty; Shudhu Sundarban Charcha 

But disasters don’t only hurt the body. They also damage the minds. The fear of strong storms, with the ability to annihilate anything that falls in their path, is a source of tension and anxiety. Fear is capturing the minds of the people living in these vulnerable places.

Dr Rudra talked about the problems and distresses faced by the people of this region. “Combining the people of the two Bengals [West Bengal, in India, and Bangladesh], around 7.5 million people live in the Sundarbans, and all of them are now in grave danger”, he said.

The forest for the trees

The Sundarbans area is in the path of many storms, but it also has a powerful shield. Its forests, present in both sides of the border, are also a wall on the way of the cyclones, acting as a blockade. Trapped in this dense vegetation, the strength of the cyclone is reduced.

There’s a risk that, in this process, quite a few trees are damaged, but an equal number of trees will grow in their place. This proves, once again, that mangrove vegetation is capable of dodging these kinds of calamities while protecting the surroundings.

Photo: Shudhu Sundarban Charcha 

According to Dr. Rudra, this process can be helped: “the place where the tidal water of the rivers flow must be left alone. In that intertidal space, small mangrove saplings need to be planted. These saplings will eventually grow to become large trees and will act as a blanket from the rough tidal waves, which strikes the land with utmost speed. It has been seen that islands where such layers of trees were present, got saved from any massive destructions during the Aila episode. Hence, we need to keep in mind that if a dam is erected, maintaining the intertidal space, people can stay safer for a longer period of time.”

Header photo credit: Abhijit Chakraborty; Shudhu Sundarban Charcha