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Grassroots voices from India at Copenhagen

Dec 15, 2009

An Indian woman from a remote island village in the Sunderban delta is at Copenhagen. Even as world leaders discuss the pros and cons related to global warming she will be highlighting her first-hand experience of living in one of the three worst-affected climate hotspots of the world, writes Ajitha Menon.

Sunderbans: Tanushree Patra, 32, is a resident of the remote island village of Govindopur Abad in the Sunderban delta area of West Bengal. At the sidelines of the Copenhagen climate conference, she will be highlighting her first-hand experience of living in one of the three worst-affected climate hotspots of the world.

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Sunderban is one of the most ecologically vulnerable zones in the world. Global warming is wrecking the delicate ecology of this estuarine region, which stretches from West Bengal to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicated that by the end of this century the sea level could rise by 0.8 metres due to global warming. Studies indicate that even an increase of 0.6 metres in sea levels could totally submerge the Sunderbans.

The area is an alluvial archipelago, with creeks, streams and rivers meandering around the largest mangrove forest in the world. It's also home to the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger. The villagers living in the islands dotting the area are already facing the brunt of rising sea levels.

"Rivers breach embankments regularly while cyclones and floods have become a way of life. Incoming saline water has ruined agriculture, mainly paddy cultivation, and is threatening the conservation of the mangrove forest," says Tanushree.

Some islands are already completely submerged, causing about 10,000 villagers to become climate refugees. They have set up temporary shelters on the larger Sagar Island.

According to a report of Jadavpur University's School of Oceanographic Studies, there are 102 islands on the Indian side of Sunderbans, a World Heritage Site and world's largest delta formed by the rivers Ganga, Meghna and Brahmaputra. Rising waters would engulf many of these islands, leading to about 70,000 people being rendered homeless within this decade - by around 2015, according to the report.

"We are not perpetrators of carbon emission or global warming, but we are one of the primary victims by virtue of our geographical location. We have been suffering for years," Suchitra Bala Patra, 58.

The sentiment is echoed by Dr S.P. Gon Chaudhuri, Managing Director, West Bengal Green Energy Development Corporation Limited: "Along with the area around the Nile in Africa and the Philippines and Cambodia belts, the Sunderban is one of the worst victims of global warming for no fault of its own. Conservation and protection of this area should be an international responsibility. Sunderban, with its mangrove forests, is a carbon sink for the Indian subcontinent, absorbing carbon emission."

Rising sea temperatures

Studies indicate that sea surface temperature is rising in the Bay of Bengal as well as the North Indian Ocean Basin. Consequently, there is about 26 per cent rise in the frequency of severe cyclones over the past 120 years in this part of Bay. The last cyclone, Aila, wrecked the Sunderbans.

As Sibani Khatua, 29, points out” "The regular cyclones have made survival extremely difficult for the villagers in Sunderbans. Homes, cattle and standing crops get washed away, income generation comes to a standstill, there is nothing to eat, and there is no drinking water as well."

"My mud house got completely washed away in Aila. Even now we are sheltering in the cowshed, which miraculously escaped with minor damage. Several other houses in our village were washed away. My wife lost her cattle including eight sheep and one goat. The saline water, which came in with the high tide ruined all the standing crops," reveals Utpal, Tanushree's husband.

Tanushree, with a Masters Degree in History, came to Govindopur Abad island as a young bride of 24 in 2001. Since then she has witnessed several cyclones and their aftermath, including the worst – Aila.

"Let alone the cyclones, even the routine flooding of our village by the surrounding Curzon creek due to rising water levels during high tide is causing damage to crops because of salinity. A major part of agricultural land has become unproductive because of this. A large number of water borne diseases are also spreading amongst human beings and animals because of the flooding," she says.

"I am educated and I had some idea about what to do. So, I mobilised a group of women for tree plantation and building of higher embankments around our village," she adds.

Saving the nature

Tanushree set up the 'Surja Sikha' Self Help Group with 10 women for the purpose. Besides creating awareness on water-borne diseases and conducting regular tree plantation to replenish the depleting mangrove, the group also started sheep-breeding as a means of alternate livelihood because crops were regularly being destroyed by the saline flood waters.

The SHG also motivated others in the village to build embankments around their island under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the 100-day employment scheme.

When representatives of Indraprastha Srijan Welfare Society, a civil society organisation, visited Govindopur Abad after Aila to offer help, they were struck by the initiative taken by Tanushree in creating awareness on diseases and fighting the impact of climate change.

"We facilitated her scheduled participation at the meet in Copenhagen with help from Service Centre, another NGO based in Kolkata, as part of the Peoples' Coalition on Climate Change, representing 20 communities across India," informs Animesh Bera, Programme Coordinator for the Society.

Tanushree has no qualms about stating her requirements before an international audience.

"Measures like large-scale planting of mangrove trees, conservation of wildlife, increased use of solar energy for motor vans, boats and launches plying in the area, organic farming instead of the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, planting of crops which would survive in saline water conditions are needed. The most important requirement is building permanent embankments for the rivers. Constant flooding is the biggest danger right now," she says.

A government study has indicated that reconstruction of damaged embankments would cost more than Rs 10,000 crore.

"No hybrid paddy can be cultivated here anymore because of the salinity but some indigenous paddy still grow. We are also now witnessing a curious phenomenon: summer days no longer have their characteristic heat, and winters are no longer as cold as they once were. This is also damaging the crops. We need some kind of technological support to ensure agricultural production in our villages and also the creation of alternative employment opportunities," says Sipra Pradhan, 35, a member of Surja Sikha.

While Tanushree will be speaking her mind in Copenhagen on her situation, along with a demand that the developed world and industrial belts reduce their carbon emissions so that places like Sunderbans can be protected, the West Bengal government has made a case for the delta area, in support of people like Tanushree, through a charter of demands that the official Indian delegation will present at Copenhagen. The demands include financial assistance, advanced scientific technology transfer to mitigate the damage caused by cyclones, measures and projects to safeguard the mangrove forest and the wildlife there.

If Copenhagen is to have meaning, it is vital that the world listens to the insights provided by Tanushree and others like her, and takes steps to address their concerns.

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