In the vast Sunderbans delta that spans eastern India and Bangladesh, coastal erosion due to rising sea levels has been slowly carving away chunks of its low-lying islands, forcing thousands of people to relocate, according to climate experts.
“When we talk to families in the Sunderbans, we find that only elderly people are left behind. Many young people are already working in different parts of the country as day laborers or semiskilled workers,” Harjeet Singh, senior adviser at Climate Action Network International, said.
The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body, warns that the Indian Ocean is warming faster than other seas. As a result, it says that sea levels around South Asia have increased faster than the global average, leading to coastal area loss and retreating shorelines in densely populated countries such as India and Bangladesh.
That is affecting millions -- a December report by ActionAid and Climate Action Network South Asia estimated that the combined effects of climate change will result in the displacement of 63 million people in South Asia from their homes by 2050 if emissions continue at the same levels.
Many of those displaced will be from coastal communities, and are already seeing their homes regularly inundated from rising sea levels and their farms shrinking or becoming unusable because of increased soil salinity, say experts.
While disasters such as cyclones and floods linked to climate change have grabbed headlines, the displacement of millions of people in the region has gotten less attention.
“The IPCC report points out that the sea level is rising much faster than earlier research had suggested,” said Roxy Mathew Koll at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.
“A 3-centimeter rise in a decade might not seem much but it is equivalent to 17 meters of land carved out by the sea every decade along the entire coast of India. That is what we are seeing happening currently,” Koll said.
Mega cities in India, such as Mumbai and Chennai, have been witnessing increased monsoon flooding, as rural communities along the shore see livelihoods destroyed.
Low-lying Bangladesh, where more than 35 million people live in coastal areas, could lose more than 15% of its land, affecting the homes and livelihoods of millions in coastal areas.
“This region is not prepared to deal with such levels of displacement because the poor do not have resources to relocate. These climate migrants are mostly pushed into slums in nearby towns and cities, which are already densely populated,” Singh said.
Barriers of mud and rock erected by residents, as well as concrete structures, have done little to keep the ocean out.
Bangladesh’s government is planning to improve coastal embankments that were built to keep out tidal flooding and offer protection against severe cyclones, according to Malik Fida Khan at the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services in Dhaka.
Ocean damages soil
Even where the land is not swallowed by the ocean, though, the sea water pushing into farms has caused long-term damage.
“We can build embankments and resilience against cyclonic storms and sea level rise, but it is very difficult to handle soil salinity. You need fresh water to push back the salinity,” Khan said.
“For example, it will take 50 years or more to remove soil salinity that has increased in 10 years. So, you need different kind of adaptation measures such as growing saline-tolerant varieties of rice,” he said.
While Bangladesh has developed several such varieties of rice, some studies say the soil salinity has increased so much that even growing these is difficult.
Nowhere is the situation more dire than in the Sunderbans, often called one of the world’s climate hotspots. Increasingly battered by more intense cyclones, the region is witnessing one of the fastest rates of coastal erosion in the world, with islands dotting the delta steadily shrinking, according to several studies.
Ghoramara island in the Indian state of West Bengal for example has diminished by half since 1970, according to several studies. Once home to 40,000 people, India’s 2011 census counted only 5,000 on the island.
Those who have grown up in the Sunderbans in India, such as Bhakta Purakayastha, founder of the Sunderbans Social Development Center, describe the dramatic changes they have witnessed.
“When I was a child, we used to cross the river in a boat. Now the river has shrunk so much due to silt deposits from upstream that we can walk across,” he said.
He said fish were once abundant in the river but the catch has shrunk as the rising sea pushes into rivers, affecting poor communities that rely on their rice paddies and fish for sustenance.
“Now they have to go out into the deep sea to catch fish, but rising tides pose a challenge” Purakayastha said.
'We do not have a plan'
A severe cyclone that hit the region in May has exacerbated the problem in the delta, with even drinking water becoming scarce because of rising salinity in rivers.
Experts are calling on regional governments to develop plans to assist the growing tide of climate migrants, saying marginalized communities are the hardest hit by climate change.
“The reality is we do not have a plan, although many of the impacts of climate change are already locked in,” Singh of Climate Action Network International said.
“None of the governments in South Asia have specific policies for people forced to migrate due to climate change to eke out a living. Even the recognition of climate induced migration is not there,” he said.