On 20 May, Super-Cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal and Bangladesh with wind speeds of over 200 kilometres per hour. It tore through embankments in the Sundarbans Delta, flooding riverine villages and choking vegetable and paddy fields with seawater. Salt water also got into wells and freshwater ponds, depriving thousands of people of their access to drinking water. Storm water surges – more than five metres high – carried away livestock, houses and entire islands. The winds blew salt water into the trees: guava and palm, but especially mangrove. Now, a month after the storm struck, they look burned by the brackish water, their leaves yellow and red.
The three southernmost districts of Bangladesh – Satkhira, Khulna and Bagerhat – would be a desert if not for the mangrove (or Sundari) trees of the Sundarbans. Without the trees, Kolkata would be devastated after every heavy rainfall. The mangroves’ thick, tangled roots slow down the waves, and their canopies absorb the wind, protecting large swathes of land in Bangladesh and India from the barrage of storms produced by the churning seas of the Bay of Bengal. Conditions have only grown more dramatic with the rise in global sea temperatures.
In 2019, a record 9.5 million people in South Asia – 30 per cent of the world’s internally displaced people – were driven from their homes by natural disasters. Last year was the seventh warmest since records began (in 1901) and saw the wettest monsoon in twenty-five years. There were eight tropical storms in the North Indian Ocean.
The Sundarbans had barely recovered from Cyclone Bulbul (November 2019) when Amphan hit. Some people who lost their homes and farmland have since taken to living in boats; many have relocated to densely populated disaster shelters, where there is a high risk of Covid-19 exposure. Given the mass movement of migrant workers from the cities back to their villages because of the (ongoing) national coronavirus lockdown, the population in the Sundarbans is much higher than usual; at the same time, many households have lost their main source of income. In Bangladesh, 10 million people were left without electricity for weeks, roads and bridges were irreparably damaged, and cracks were identified in nearly a hundred hydroelectric dams.
The Indian government has pledged only 10 billion rupees in relief aid (they spent nearly three times that building the world’s tallest statue, depicting Vallabhbhai Patel, the first deputy prime minister of independent India). But much of the damage caused by Amphan, as with the storms that went before it, is in any case incalculable. The Sundarbans are home to dwindling populations of Bengal tigers and Ganges river dolphins. Many rare fish species live in complex interdependence with the mangrove trees. Post-cyclone surveys rarely capture the extent of the damage to ecological diversity – the primary focus is on financial (more even than human) loss.
Activists and conservationists working in the region have long argued that current disaster management plans – which often involve collecting relief money but not materials or tools for building sustainable long-term infrastructure – are inadequate to the task. Tropical cyclones have increased in intensity because of climate change, and will only get more vicious. Governments need to work together, sharing information and developing common policies. The human rights of displaced people need to be protected internationally. But the Indian state is instead tightening its borders and imposing strict citizenship laws.
The two countries have shown they are capable of collaborating. Campaigners in Bangladesh are calling for an immediate halt to the Maitree Super Thermal Power Plant, which is being developed just 14 kilometres north of the edge of the mangrove forest, in an ecologically sensitive area. Set to be the largest coal-fired power station in the country, it’s being funded in part by the Indian National Thermal Power Corporation and in part by the Bangladesh Power Development Board. The joint venture known as the ‘Bangladesh-India Friendship Company’.