Islands on the Edge: Climate Resilience and the Sundarbans of South Asia

April 2009: Note that some progress has been made — after reading the entry below, read the update here.

When I was an academic biologist, I certainly felt passionately about climate change, but (a) no one really listened to me, (b) I could say pretty much anything I wanted without fear of repercussion (or hope for influence), and (c) most of the impacts seemed -- ultimately -- rather theoretical. That’s no longer the case. I frequently give talks where I have to fight the urge to suppress strong feelings, usually anger or grief. Normally I do a pretty good job. But the feelings are there, whether or not they’re visible. Perhaps the most moving climate-related conversation occurred last April in New Delhi, about a place that I knew almost nothing about before a year ago: the network of islands off the Bangladeshi and eastern Indian coasts called the Sundarbans. They are arguaby among the most important and threatened ecosystems on the planet today.

I was giving a workshop on climate adaptation to a group of colleagues when I met D. Most of the participants worked on freshwater issues, but two came from the Kolkata (neé Calcutta) office and focused on the Indian Sundarbans.
This chain of islands grew from the sediments washing down from the Himalayas. At least, they did until fairly recently, when the development of the Farakka dam in 1975 altered stream hydrology very significantly. According to reports from the Washington Post and others, the Farakka dam has been a disaster since its inception. Among many other negative effects, the Farakka dam has killed the geological growth and development of the Sundarbans islands. They receive no more sediment, while they are exposed to increasing sea levels and (potentially) an increase in severity and strength from tropical storms as a result of climate change (though the evidence here is still evolving rapidly).

Standing at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, these islands hold Bengal tigers and other species, not to mention 4 million people. They are literally washing away. They are as endangered from climate change as the Arctic, tropical glaciers in the Andes, and the Great Barrier Reef. Shockingly, 4 million people is not a large number in the view of the Indian government. And management of the Farakka dam appears to be a non-negotiable point with the Indian government. They cannot move “upstream,” with rising sea levels. There is no place to shift.

At the workshop, the two colleagues from Kolkata struck me by their intensity and their high level of expertise: I would ask them about issues and challenges, they would provide a concise list, and for every question they had not only implemented a pilot project already, they had the results. In most cases, the results were not encouraging. The leader of the office (I’ll call him D) was obviously intelligent and focused. He was arguably the most advanced person I had participate in a workshop since I started giving these, and (I suddenly realized) I had nothing to offer him.

This region is classified by the
IPCC as one of the “Asian megadeltas.” All of them are severely threatened by climate change, and all of them have very large concentrations of people. They are catastrophes at the nexus of development and climate change. Many of them will face some one or two massive storms within the next decade or two that will kill many tens of thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands more will be forced to flee, potentially creating a major international incident between Bangladesh and India or within India, exacerbating Hindu-Muslim tensions. They will end with a bang, not a whimper.

I stopped talking and pulled him aside. D, what are your expections for this region? What can I do for you? What do you want?

I’ve worked here for eight years. I want to give these people a little more time. And I hope — when the end comes — that this area serves as an example for how to evacuate.

Those are very grim hopes, I thought. I shook his hand. I said, I hope I see you next in Kolkata.

Since then, I have difficulty
not bringing up the Sundarbans when I give talks. At a symposium on North American bull trout, I brought up the Sundarbans (even showing a photo of D and a tiger — not particularly relevant, but moving nonetheless) on the last slide. The room of North American fish biologists was very quiet, even grim. After finishing, I was rushed by a large group of biologists. Their eyes were also red. They shook my hand, wished me luck, and walked away.

Much of time is spent thinking and talking about “climate adaptation,” which is the general concept of responding to climate change impacts. But there are several ideas that are nested inside of climate adaptation. One of these (much misused) is resilience, which basically refers to how well species or ecosystems can return to some pre-existing state following a disturbance, like an extreme heat spike. Resilience is how you deal with climate change when you can’t get out of the way. When you can’t change.

I have worked these islands into a variety of other talks as well, none of which are any more relevant than bull trout. To one group, I said, If you’re not scared shitless, you’re not paying attention. The audience laughed, but nervously. I wasn’t laughing, much less smiling. I was thinking that D was scared shitless and that he had a tough job. The issues are pressing, imminent, and very human. Even the coldest among us must be humbled with the challenges there. And there, but for time and grace, go the rest of us.

April 2009: Note that some progress has been made — after reading the entry above, read the update here.
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