*Perilous Times and Global Warming
Rising sea levels threaten Indian islands*
18 Mar 2007 23:03:45 GMT
By Bappa Majumdar
MOUSHUNI ISLAND, India, March 19 (Reuters) - Sheikh Alauddin, like
hundreds of other residents living on West Bengal's Moushuni island, has
never heard the term "global warming". But he is living with its
"At night we just pray to God, and hope the sea does not drown us," the
60-year-old told Reuters in Poilagheri village on the sparsely-populated
island, part of the Sunderbans national park and the world's largest
When the tide comes in, sea water laps at the top of a mud embankment
that towers 6 metres (20 feet) above Alauddin's adjacent house and is
all that keeps it from being washed away.
After a 10-year study in and around the Bay of Bengal, oceanographers
say the sea is rising at 3.14 millimetres a year in the Sunderbans
against a global average of 2 mm, threatening low-lying areas of India
"At least 15 islands have been affected but erosion is widespread in
other islands as well," said Sugato Hazra, an oceanographer at Jadavpur
University in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal.
A United Nations climate panel, which grouped 2,500 scientists from 130
countries, concluded last month that human activity was causing global
warming and predicted more droughts, heatwaves and rising seas.
But for the Sunderbans, made up of hundreds of islands and criss-crossed
by narrow water channels and home to many of India's dwindling tiger
population, the threat is more immediate.
"The crops have failed due to scanty rainfall but where do we go?" says
Alauddin as his family of twelve stares at their parched farmland.
A combination of drought and then heavy rainfall this year and
increasing soil salinity have made it impossible to grow enough food to
survive on traditional agriculture alone.
"We now depend on fishing in the high seas and sometimes even eat leaves
from different plants to survive," a frail-looking Jameel Mullick said.
At least 4 million people live in the islands spread across 9,630 sq. km
(3,700 sq. miles) of mangrove swamps.
Top climate experts on the UN panel predicted that temperatures would
increase by between 1.8 and 4 Celsius (3.2 and 7.8 Fahrenheit), and sea
levels would rise by between 7 and 23 inches (18 and 59 centimetres) to
submerge islands in the 21st century.
The impact could be even greater if ice sheets in Antarctica and
The 400 or so families living on tiny Moushuni know what is coming.
Two nearby islands disappeared beneath the sea after residents were
forced to leave, and the sea has swallowed about 100 sq. km of mangrove
forest in three decades in the Sunderbans.
"Global warming and rising sea levels are already having a telling
effect on the tiger's habitat," said Pronobes Sanyal of the National
Coastal Zone Management Authority.
Rapid erosion over the last five years has destroyed mangrove cover up
to 15 metres inland on several islands, environment experts say.
SALT AND SORROW
For centuries, the mangroves fed on both saline and fresh water -- tides
brought sea water upstream and mixed it with water from the Ganga and
But now rising sea levels are pushing salt water inland.
Sixty year old Ayesha Khatoon stood on top of a mud embankment in
Moushuni that has been breached at least seven times in the past 10 years.
"There was a lovely mud road surrounded by trees beyond this embankment
and we had 3 acres (1.2 hectares) of farmland which the sea swallowed in
the last few years," recalled Ayesha.
"No one visits us now and they have left us all to die," she said, tears
welling in her eyes as she hugs her young grandson.
Rapid felling of trees on the islands -- in part to fuel two small power
plants -- is adding to erosion woes.
Dilip Maity, a farmer, lamented how he had erred in hacking down several
rows of trees, an act which weakened and led to sea water flooding his
Alarmed, West Bengal's minister for the Sunderbans, Kanti Ganguly, said
the islands had to be protected.
"We have realised it now and have taken a decision to raise heights of
the mud embankments and increase mangrove cover in Sunderbans," he said.
Oceanographer Hazra says it might be too late.