Shefali scrambles through her day cooking and cleaning homes in Delhi. It’s backbreaking work that starts at the break of dawn and doesn’t end till well past sundown. But, she didn’t always live this life of a lowly paid, classless migrant worker struggling to make ends meet in a large confounding city. In fact, she and her husband owned land, a store and a fulfilling life in the Sundarbans. But one day, the hungry tide gobbled up their land – taking with it their home, their middle class life and worst of all – their dignity. Her heartbroken husband tried to find work in his beloved Sunderbans but was ultimately resigned to managing a tiny shop in a tiny scrap of land in the Sundarbans, despite the knowledge that this too shall be fodder for a now hostile sea.
But such is the magnetic draw of the Sundarbans, which I visited a few years ago. This unique region that is now ravenous for land is also great at stealing your heart. So profound is its tranquil beauty.
Shefali’s story of loss and displacement is just one out of numerous others who have been rendered homeless by the rising sea.
The Sundarbans Mangroves ecoregion on the coast is the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem, with 20,400 square kilometres (7,900 sq mi). Sundarban (সুন্দরবন) in Bengali means “beautiful forest”, named after the dominant mangrove species Heritiera fomes which is locally known as sundari (beautiful).
The Sundarbans are located in what used to be my beloved ancestral homeland of undivided Bengal that was partitioned into present day West Bengal and Bangladesh in 1947. Apart from having once been a sanctuary to the refugees of the bloody partition of India, the Sundarbans is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to the rare Royal Bengal Tigers, Gangetic and Irabati dolphins and other species unique to this region. But human development and climate change with its sea level and surface temperature rise, severe hurricanes and increased salinity could lead to the destruction of 75 percent of these mangroves as the sundari trees are exceptionally sensitive to salinity. This poses a threat not just for the survival of the indigenous flora and fauna but also for the protective biological shield the mangroves form against cyclones and tsunamis, putting the surrounding communities at a devastating risk. The submergence of land mass has already rendered up to 6,000 families homeless and around 70,000 people are now threatened with the same.
In an ironic twist of fate, the progeny of those who found refuge in this bucolic setting during the partition, are now becoming climate refugees with no place to call home. While we can’t stop the juggernaut of climate change from destroying life as we know it, policies within the GREEN NEW DEAL could potentially provide solutions to reduce the impact of climate change and restore a life of dignity for climate refugees.