the-south-asian Life & Times                   April - June 2009



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World’s First Climate Change Refugees


In the tiny islands of the Sundarbans, global-warming is a reality – not a theoretical warning. Rising sea-levels are already beginning to flood many of the small islands within the Sundarbans – creating thereby the world’s first climate change refugees. Islands have disappeared under water and many are in the process of disappearing. Lohachara Island (once visble from Ghorama, 2 kms to the east) has already gone beneath the waves, succumbing to the ocean five years ago. It was the world's first populated island to be lost to climate change and its disappearance left more than 7000 people homeless. Neighbouring Ghorama has lost a third of its land mass in the last five years.

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of the twenty-first century. The worst affected will be the disadvantaged and the poorest people of the planet – who consume the least resources, have no role in global warming, have a minimal carbon footprint, and are also the least prepared to cope with the devastating effects of climate change. Sunderbans is one such site that is already in the grip of the effects of climate change.

Sundarbans are the largest mangrove forests in the world, with an area of more than 10,000 square km of land and water (more than half of which is situated in India, the rest in Bangladesh) within the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers – all pouring into the Bay of Bengal. This natural heritage site is a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats, and small islands of mangrove forests – many inhabited by small farming and fishing communities.

Sunderban is known for its huge biodiversity – including 260 bird species, Indian otters, spotted deer, wild boar, fiddler crabs, and marine turtles.

Rising sea-level is the greatest threat and challenge within south Asia. Flooding of low-lying deltas, retreat of shorelines, and acidification of soils are affecting the local population. In addition to global sea-level rise, there is a continuous natural subsidence in the Sundarbans, which causes a rise of about 2.2mm in the sea-level every year. In some instances, as in the island of Sagar, the rise in sea-level is 3.1 mm per year. A 45 cm rise in global sea-level would destroy 75% of the Sundarbans.





















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