Concrete embankments along Sunderbans an ecological disaster

Sundarbans (WB): The fragile ecology of the Sundarbans delta, which is home to four million people and the Royal Bengal Tiger, is now facing a fresh threat from large-scale construction of concrete embankments all over the islands, environmentalists has warned.

Doubting the feasibility of these embankments as coastal erosion is constantly reshaping the islands, WWF's Anurag Danda said the engineering intervention will prove detrimental to the survival of unique flora and fauna of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

The archipelago of over 100 islands, a three-hour drive from Kolkata, is a complex network of streams, rivers, tidal creeks and channels. Spread over an area of 9,630 sq km in India, Sundarbans has the world's largest mangrove forest and also hosts a Tiger Reserve and three wildlife sanctuaries.

To protect the islanders from the cycle of twice-a-day floods and cyclonic storm surges, the West Bengal government has started the embankment reconstruction project for protecting a total of 3,500 km boundary at a whopping expenditure of Rs 5,032 crore.

"The ecology of the Sundarbans will get affected as the engineering interventions are not done keeping in mind the ecological realities of the area," Professor Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, head of the Centre for Development and Environment Policy at IIM Kolkata, told PTI.

Sundarbans expert Tushar Kanjilal, who was honoured with Padma Shri for his work in the region, complained that an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report was not prepared before implementing the project. Besides being a habitat for a number of species of kingfishers, a whole variety of flora and fauna survives on the banks of the group of islands, half of which have human habitations.

"There will be zero flora in the area once you concretise that space. Even birds occupy those portions of the banks which don't get inundated," said Danda, Head of Sundarbans and Climate Adaptation programme of WWF India.

Stating that little crabs are more crucial to the ecology of the Sundarbans than even tigers, Danda said in a mangrove ecosystem, crabs are the tillers of the land, but their habitat too will get lost with concrete embankments. Affecting soil fertility, nutrient recycling essential for the growth of mangroves and other trees will also get hampered.Eminent environmentalist Dr Ashish Kumar Ghosh pointed out the technology being used in the embankment has never been tested before.

"We can't play with nature and do a trial and error method on such a large scale," he said adding that currents and tides flowing all around the islands are too powerful to let embankments last longer.

Experts also warn that covering the riverside slope of the embankment with polypropylene sheets, a non-biodegradable material, will violate environmental standards. Concrete embankments have earlier proved failure in the Sundarbans. Danda recalls that he has twice seen such structures getting washed away at Moushuni island.

Sugata Hazra, Director of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University, estimates in his research report that in the last 30 years approximately 7,000 people have been displaced as an average of 5.5 sq km of land has been eroding away each year in the delta due to climate change and other factors.

"Land is a very scarce commodity in the densely populated islands where people are dependent on agriculture. And so the acquisition of land for embankments is a major issue now as farmers are not ready to part with their land," said Dr Kanjilal, who runs an NGO "Tagore Society for Rural Development".

Environmentalists are unanimous that mangrove plantation is a better alternative than building costly embankments.

"Mangrove swamps are important in retarding coastal erosion and protecting the coast. Mangrove vegetation protects land from erosion and helps to build and consolidate silt," said Dr Ghosh, who has served as the director of Zoological Survey of India.