Living with climate change in Sundarbans, India

Sirpa Tenhunen

October 25, 2019

Photo: Juha Laitalainen

Sundarbans, the mangrove delta area, which belongs to both India and Bangladesh, is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change. Erratic weather, storms, and the rising seawater have already been contributing to a steady flow of migration from the area to the megacity Kolkata and even cities further away. In 2009, the category one cyclone Aila hit the region displacing one million people in India and Bangladesh.

One of the aims of our research project is to understand how people perceive climate change, and I inquired environmental migrants from Sundarbans as well as people still residing in Sundarbans about how they understand climate change. I used the term “abhauar poribarton” which is the expression closest to climate change in the Bengali language—however, my interlocutors were usually not able to answer questions about the impacts of climate change. For instance, a woman who worked as a domestic helper in Kolkata declined to comment on the effects of climate change, but as we continued to talk, she related to me a story of how her family had become impoverished. Her father had been tricked into buying land, which turned out to be worthless because it was too salty for farming. Later they lost their house when the cyclone Aila hit the region. So she certainly had first-hand experience of climate change-related phenomena although she did not refer to these events as climate change.

Considering that most people living in Sundarbans have not been exposed to climate change talk in media, it was not actually surprising that they did not talk about climate change. They do not usually read newspapers regularly, and television news tends not to depict local affairs through such global scales as the talk about climate change does. Moreover, the residents of Sundarbans have always lived with a fluctuating weather and environment, which Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta (2013) labeled as hybrid environments. Stretches of land (chars) are part land and water, and they have always been shifting while mangroves, trees and bushes grow in brackish and saline swamps.

My difficulties in talking about the climate change are not unique. Others working in various localities have made the same observation about how people do not seem to consider climate change as a major issue, even if they are tackling climate change in their everyday lives. Although climate change is one factor constraining people’s abilities to make a living, people often pay more attention to the more immediate causes of their tribulations.

I was more successful in eliciting talk about the changing weather when I asked direct questions about the storms as well as different types of extreme weather they had experienced. Even then, I noticed that the talk about the weather tended to turn into discussion about human activity. Perhaps people did not perceive nature as separate from human activity as the Euro-American discourse tends to do. One common way to deal with and understand forces of nature in Sundarbans is to worship Gods associated with forests or the sea. The way they talked about the weather in connection with state policy and human activity also reflected how they were living amidst climate change, which was forcing them and the state to take action.

Especially the cyclone Aila had sparked various types of activity and even forward-looking dynamism. After Aila, the government build storm shelters and created warning systems. The affected region continues to receive many forms of aid, unlike many other nearby poor regions, which have not been hit by any sudden catastrophe. After Aila, the infrastructure of the affected region was greatly improved, and embankments build and fixed. Many people are still receiving food aid named after Aila. Recently, this district, South 24 Parganas, has emerged as among the highest recipients of the rural housing scheme, which is jointly funded by the central and the state governments.

Practically all the people I interviewed were affected by Aila in some way, so I heard many stories about this cyclone. One woman described how she was holding on a wooden support pillar of a mud house and doing this while the house was coming apart—the embankments on both sides of the land where the house was located had broken and, as a result, the area was submerged in water. This house was located on a land surrounded by the confluence of two large rivers, Matla and Nimaniya, which flow in to the nearby Bay of Bengal. As she depicted, most mud houses simply fell over or broke to pieces due to the force of the water. People related how one could not separate a road from a pond while trees were falling. The salty water and mud mixed with water of the fresh water sources, ponds and wells. Judging from the stories of the people I talked to, they were able to receive food and water delivered by helicopters immediately after the cyclone. The emergency aid could only create the conditions for bare life; so, gradually, they started asking the question how long they can go on like this. The most common solution was to leave and head to relatives’ houses in less affected areas and especially in Kolkata. Since low-income people from the region have been involved in seasonal migration to Kolkata, many had friends and relatives who could help them to settle there and find work. In the neighbourhoods I visited in Kultali block, South 24 Parganas district in Sundarbans, I found that often it was only those unable to work—usually the children and the elderly—who continued to live in the village. This means that people of working age were usually not able to claim any benefits meant for Aila-affected people.