Saving the Sunderbans, one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems can improve Indo-Bangladesh relations


By Shloka Nath, News Editor, MPP ‘13

Sitting on the sensitive border between India and Bangladesh is the Sundarbans, among the most wondrous and also most endangered ecosystems in the world. It is a precious mangrove forest of 10,000 sq. km, 60% of which is in Bangladesh and the rest in India. The region is a diplomatic thorn between the two countries: neglect and climate change have resulted in environmental troubles and swelled the numbers of refugees suffering from livelihood loss and problems of water-sharing. The Sundarbans’ issues could provide the opportunity to advance the relationship between the two neighbors—or send their budding friendship into retreat. Sundarbans Picture (Credit Bri Vos)

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Bangladesh on September 6, for a highly anticipated round of talks. The two sides signed a series of protocols including a pledge to work together for the preservation of the Sunderbans mangrove forest and to protect the endangered Royal Bengal tigers that live there. There are hopes that this will be the moment for both sides to look afresh at the Sundarbans and make it the creative spur for bilateral prosperity.

Mr. Singh has something solid to build on, observers say, as there has been a sincere effort from policymakers on both sides to break the logjam creatively. One of the most innovative initiatives has been the use of environmental diplomacy, an idea championed by India’s former environment minister Jairam Ramesh. In January last year, Ramesh suggested that India and Bangladesh join hands to protect the Sundarbans from environmental degradation by the formation of an Indo-Bangladesh Sundarbans Ecosystem Forum. It will require that non-governmental organizations, civil society groups and local communities from both countries participate in the joint coordination of afforestation efforts, management of mangroves, and conservation of the Bengal tiger. The forum will be functional later this year. “Environmental diplomacy and environmental cooperation can often be triggers for enhancing broader regional cooperation,” says Jairam Ramesh. “It helps to build trust, gets your people working with each other, learning from each other, and breaking down barriers. I hope to see more of this going forward.”

The timing of the Ramesh initiative is propitious, taking advantage of the fact that the fractious India-Bangladesh relationship has been on the mend over the past two years. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made several overtures of friendship, most notably by cracking down on Indian separatist groups that have long had safe havens in Bangladesh. In July, Bangladesh honored former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi for her contribution to the liberation war of 1971—a significant acknowledgement.

Potential avenues towards resolution of other problems, particularly the Farakka Barrage and the attendant allocation of Ganga waters, are less clear. The barrage, constructed by India in 1975, diverted Ganga waters up-stream—adversely impacting the Sundarbans. Most parts of the wetlands have now surpassed their water-salinity thresholds, degrading the fragile ecosystem and resulting in loss of livelihood. Worse, Bangladesh, a low-lying deltaic region, faces the dire possibility of being partially submerged if sea levels continue to rise as a consequence of climate change. This could displace an estimated 10-30 million inhabitants of the southern Bangladesh coast alone, turning them into “climate refugees” —a migration headache for both countries. Already, thousands have moved into the slums of Kolkata and Dhaka. In short, the Sundarbans is at the epicenter of both our bilateral diplomatic challenges and of the most intense global battles against climate change.

Both sides remain hopeful of a compromise. On his recent visit to Dhaka, Singh, together with his Bangladeshi counterpart signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding on the Sunderbans, the first major environmental agreement between the two nations. Experts believe joint and simultaneous execution by both India and Bangladesh will help tackle the problems of a sensitive ecosystem as a whole rather than in the separate and piecemeal form currently the norm in both countries.

The good news is that funds exist: Last year New Delhi allocated Rs. 300 crore of the Rs. 1,156 crore Integrated Coastal Zone Management project to be spent in West Bengal, most of it on the Indian Sundarbans. The funds are for prevention of erosion of the islands, building of storm shelters, promotion of ecotourism and livelihood improvement. In addition is a Rs. 450 crore central grant for strengthening embankments at critical areas of the Indian Sundarbans. Bangladesh has similar allocations—Rs.700 crore for its Sundarbans.

Environmental experts in both India and Bangladesh suggest that any agreement should mandate effective cross-border management in both countries at national, state and local levels. Community-driven projects to reduce unsustainable livelihood practices that cause environmental degradation, they say, are an imperative. Another is establishing institutional linkages to facilitate sharing of knowledge, information and capacity-building programs. Harun Rashid, the former Bangladesh ambassador to the United Nations, suggests setting up a joint committee of climate and biodiversity experts to harness local knowledge on innovative cropping methods in inter-tidal areas and real-time changes in climate. “In some coastal areas of Bangladesh local farmers have adopted innovative methods to grow fruits and vegetables in inter-tidal areas and such knowledge may help in saving the Sundarbans,” says Rashid.

Government officials on both sides are also looking into the possibility for joint relocation and emergency evacuation programs for sudden climate disasters such as cyclones or flooding. Director of Gateway House (a foreign policy think tank in Mumbai) and former Joint Secretary for Bangladesh, Ambassador Neelam Deo, suggests the two nations can use their grass-roots institutions to ensure policies are practically implemented and effective. In her opinion, micro-credit programs such as microloans for livelihoods and micro-insurance for environmental disaster cover are solutions that can be implemented immediately and to great effect. It is also necessary to involve directly the governments of bordering states in this effort, she says.

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