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The delta miracle: Conservation vital in Sunderbans (hindu)

The steady loss of mangroves in the Sundarbans makes conservation efforts vital

Fresh evidence of loss of forest cover in the Indian Sundarbans, which represent a third of the largest contiguous mangrove ecosystem in the world, is a reminder that an accelerated effort is necessary to preserve them. Long-term damage to the highly productive mangroves on the Indian side occurred during the colonial era, when forests were cut to facilitate cultivation. As a recent Jadavpur University study has pointed out, climate change appears to be an emerging threat to the entire 10,000 sq km area that also straddles Bangladesh towards the east, and sustains millions of people with food, water and forest products. There is also a unique population of tigers that live here, adapted to move easily across the land-sea interface. The Sundarbans present a stark example of what loss of ecology can do to a landscape and its people, as islands shrink and sediment that normally adds to landmass is trapped upstream in rivers by dams and barrages; such a loss is not compensated by the limited benefits available elsewhere in the islands from additions. As a confluence zone of freshwater brought by the big Himalayan rivers and high concentrated salinity, these islands are a crucible of biodiversity that helps the 4.5 million that live on the Indian side. It is remarkable, for instance, that the mangrove tree species, including the Sundari, which has historically helped the local economy in the construction of boats and bridges, make up as much as a third of the global trove of such trees. Understandably, the region has attracted a large number of settlers, and the population within Indian boundaries has risen from 1.15 million in 1951 to 4.4 million six decades later.

Parts of the Sundarbans are legally protected as national parks and sanctuaries, and there is a special focus on tiger conservation. Yet, its future now depends on local actions that will protect the banks from erosion, and policies that address the pressures created on natural resources by lack of human development. Suggestions for fortification against erosion on the lines of the dikes in The Netherlands merit scientific evaluation. Strengthening them with endemic plant and tree species that can thrive in changing salinity conditions can provide co-benefits to local communities. Carefully considered ecotourism holds the potential to raise awareness and funds, since the Sundarbans harbour a raft of bird and animal species. There is also a strong case for international climate finance to be channelled to India and Bangladesh for the region’s preservation, given its global uniqueness. It is vital that local communities are pulled out of poverty, which would also relieve the pressure on natural resources. Climate research and social science thus have a synergistic role in giving the Sundarbans a greater chance of survival.

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