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The hungry tide

Cyclone Aila has snapped the fragile balance between man and nature in the Sunderbans, a mangrove-covered mud-flat where human settlement was enabled roughly 100 years ago by the construction of 3,500 km of embankments. An entire coastal ecosystem based on rain-fed sweet water perished in the deadly embrace of salt that came with Aila. Santadas Ghosh reports

“At low tide, when the embankment was riding high on the water, Lusibari (island) looked like some gigantic earthen ark, floating serenely above its surroundings. Only at high tide was it evident that the interior of the island lay well below the level of the water. At such times the unsinkable ship of a few hours before took on the appearance of a flimsy saucer that could tip over at any moment…” -- Amitav Ghosh (The Hungry Tide

The event  

And the moment actually came, for the first time in the Sunderbans’ recent history, on that fateful Monday, May 25, 2009, with Cyclone Aila gobbling up much of the protective embankments and drowning the saucer in its salty deluge. The low-lying islands held in their lap an agricultural population with its supporting ecosystem entirely based on rain-fed sweet water. They had their sustainable stocks of fish, earthworms, snakes, rats, grass and cattle. And in a sudden unforeseen event practically the entire sweet water ecosystem was washed away. Almost all the smaller creatures on the islands perished within a day in that deadly embrace of salt! This tremendous natural event has few parallels, and is very different from an ordinary flood. The saline water makes all the difference. 

Sundarbans during cyclone Aila
Water gushing through a collapsed embankment in the Sundarbans during cyclone Aila

At the time, the event received a lot of news coverage at the national and international level. But perhaps the full implications of the catastrophe eluded the outside world. This is plausible in light of the relatively low human casualties -- around 200 over the entire cyclone path, and a little over 100 in the Indian Sunderbans. But the aftermath of Aila is still making headlines in the local press and regional news channels, with no signs of improvement in the plight of the marooned people. It was reported that over half-a-million people in the southern districts of South and North 24 Parganas are affected. More than 50,000 houses are partially or fully damaged. Most of the damage and suffering occurred on the 54 inhabited islands spread over the two districts.  

But the real damage goes much beyond these numbers. For anyone who is acquainted with the people and their way of life in these parts, it should be obvious that the conventional statistics on the damage are grossly inadequate in representing the true nature of the disaster. This is an event that has snapped the fragile balance between man and nature in a very delicate ecosystem. Its full implications will unfold in the months and years to come. And if Aila is a forerunner of a series of such storms, as predicted by climate change models, it calls for urgent effort at the national and international level to save the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in such coastal ecosystems. The coping strategies are too costly to be borne by a provincial government alone. I will try to outline the multi-dimensionality of the disaster that has just begun to show up, without getting into the detailed statistics of the damage. 

Embankments and tide country 

The Hungry Tide captured the essence of the precarious existence of the inhabited islands of the Sunderbans with remarkable accuracy. Ghosh only changed the real name of his island. To a reader unfamiliar with tide country, it would be difficult to imagine what the daily onslaught of tidal water means for the island population. These low-lying, half-formed, mangrove-dominated mud-flats were reclaimed for cultivation about 100 years ago. Human settlement on them was made possible only by building earthen embankments all around them. In this watery labyrinth, the embankments run up to 3,500 km in length. They were the lifelines of human existence in the islands. Aila damaged an unprecedented 400 km of the embankments, of which 139 km have reportedly been washed away altogether, with their bases! The damage is fairly uniformly distributed across all the islands. None of them was spared. 

Though the cyclone had been predicted, the people and the administration had no clue what a 100-120 kph wind speed would mean for this inter-tidal zone when combined with an unusually high tide. The fateful day was a no-moon day -- a day when the high tide water level reached its maximum, almost licking the upper fringes of the embankments around the juvenile islands. In the Indian part, the islands float like lotus leaves in a shallow bay of seawater. The average height of the upper surface rises barely 4 metres above mean sea level. With a tidal amplitude of 8-10 metres, most parts of the islands would have been submerged twice during the day had the embankments not existed. On full moon and no moon days, with tidal amplitude exceeding the usual margin, the rivers look like high watery expressways. And expressways they are; they are the only means of transportation across the islands. During high tide, standing on the inner basin of any island, one can see country boats of all sizes moving over the foaming, undulating waterways seen over the embankments’ rim.  

From a boat on that high river, one can see what Ghosh described -- the interior of the islands awkwardly holding on their lap a freshwater ecosystem and a dense population. The ever-bending rivers coil around the islands like a mythological serpent that could crush the fragile embankments at will, but perhaps refrains from doing so out of mercy for the poor people. Or is it recognition by mother nature of the hard work of the islanders?  For braving the mangrove-covered mud-flats to grow freshwater crops? For carrying out a massive project of manual labour in salty isolation?

For around 100 years of their existence, nature’s mercy remained intact. But normal life on these islands has always held a deep insecurity. On May 25, nature didn’t do anything unusual. It just matched the timings of a no-moon high tide with a cyclone blowing all through the day.  

This part of the Sunderbans has withstood cyclones before. It is true that cyclonic storms generated in the Bay of Bengal mostly veer away to make landfall on the Bangladesh and/or Orissa coast. Though outside the storm’s eye, the Indian part of the Sunderbans has faced winds of greater velocity than the winds that blew that day. But those were in times when tidal amplitude didn’t peak. That made all the difference.

Uniqueness

The islands in the Sunderbans survive on two vital man-made factors -- embankments and village tanks. While the embankments stand guard against saltwater, the tanks store rainwater for year-long use. The islands are dotted with tanks of all sizes. In earlier times, some of these village tanks were reserved exclusively for drinking water -- a very precious item on the islands as the groundwater, for the most part, is saline too. On these premature islands, lifting groundwater for drinking and irrigation purposes is not feasible with shallow pumpsets. Only at certain places on the bigger islands can an underground stock of freshwater be found and lifted by deep tubewells. Some of these tubewells were built over time by government departments and NGOs. Where they came up, tanks reserved for drinking water were gradually allowed to be used for other purposes as well. Even now some islands are still totally, and some partially, dependent on village tanks for drinking water.  

These village tanks provide a vital service to the islanders throughout the year. They provide drinking water for livestock, the water is used for bathing, washing clothes, cleaning utensils and nurturing freshwater fish stocks. Some of the stored water is also employed to grow vegetables and other crops in the dry season. But mostly the islanders practise rain-fed mono-crop cultivation. 

Typically, the dwelling units are simple mud huts; mud applied to a bamboo skeleton makes the walls. The roof is mostly dry straw, occasionally earthen tiles or corrugated tin sheets. The huts usually stand on an elevated earthen platform.   

Although the immediate impact of Cyclone Aila is tragic, on the television screens it doesn’t look very unusual. You see fallen trees, twisted and collapsed huts, and a landscape strewn with debris of all sorts. You see the villagers robbed of their belongings huddled in groups on a relatively high village road or surviving embankment, or clinging to their rooftops just above the water. You see large pools of water trapped in rice fields and village tanks. Or flowing in a stream carrying the carcasses of livestock, occasionally even a human body! 

The uniqueness -- if you need to be reminded of it -- is that all the water is saline water.

Two days after Aila, I was briefly able to set foot on part of an island. The first shock was the stench, which I soon recognised to be that of rotting fish. Perhaps also the smell of rotting livestock, which I could not see at that point. But I saw lots of decomposing fish dumped on the riverside of the village. All stocks of freshwater fish had died within a day, when the tanks were overrun by saltwater. Marooned and displaced villagers could not use them immediately. And they knew that eating dead fish after a day was dangerous. The best way to dispose of rotting fish is to bury it. But there was hardly any ground left above the water! 

All the grass, standing crop and shrubs that were under water for more than a day looked like they had been burnt by acid! Juvenile trees with their leaves and branches 4-5 feet up showed the high water mark by their burnt black-brown colour. I was told by the villagers that the salty inundation was fatal to small trees and that all of them would soon die. Some of the dead carcasses were trapped in the islands’ interiors, though most had flowed out into open rivers. But in this 4,500 sq km delta, water doesn’t really flow out; it circulates like a whirlpool, moving back and forth every 12 hours with the turning tide. Bodies that were washed away by the river in the ebbing tide came back with the high tide. And so they circulated within the region until they were completely decomposed.

Almost all the mud huts that managed to withstand Aila were under a few feet of water for a couple of days. The mud at their base had washed off, baring the bamboo skeleton. I was told that none of them could be repaired because the mud had soaked in too much salt and that fresh mud does not mix with salty soil. Salt changes the texture of the soil; it makes it brittle and eventually turns it to dust when it is dry. All the standing huts in the villages, therefore, would have to be completely rebuilt!  

You see the uniqueness of Aila in other ways as well. It is practically impossible to repair the protecting embankments within a short time. Many parts of the islands remained devoid of any embankments even a fortnight after Aila, with saline water regularly coming and going with the turn of the tide. Even though there were no fresh storms or heavy rain, the islands received another big splash on full moon day, June 7. No one can say how many days will be needed to complete a patchwork of the entire length of the embankments. It is like having an open wound in sultry weather, with no hope of it healing naturally.  

Water everywhere, but not a drop to drink 

The obvious fallout of the event is the nerve-wracking shortage of drinking water. Many of the tubewells are submerged and all the village tanks lost their fresh water within an hour! Regular trips by relief vessels from the mainland keep the surviving islanders in food and drinking water. But no amount of portable relief supplies is ever enough for a disaster of this scale. There is tremendous damage everywhere and no signs of any restoration. People spend nights and days in the open, mostly gathered on surviving embankments, looking for the relief boats. They are unable to initiate any restoration of order by themselves, crippled by the exposed lands that are regularly swept by water from the high tide.  

The scale of the disaster has been recognised in the concerned government quarters. Relief supplies are forthcoming. Many civil society organisations and NGOs have pitched in with the relief operations. But in this chaotic situation it is obvious that supplies are not always equitably distributed or given to the most vulnerable. Many people remain in makeshift relief camps housed in village school buildings. Nobody knows when they can return home, or where their homes once stood.  

One impact of the huge drinking water problem is widespread diarrhoea. Thousands of people are affected, with no official estimates forthcoming on this. An official estimate of livestock loss is also not available. 

After Aila

Relief supplies in other natural disasters are a temporary lifeline, to be followed by gradual restoration of normal life. Recovery from floods in other parts of the mainland is a uni-directional process. It means gradual restoration of order and livelihoods -- with outside help. Immediate crop losses from freshwater floods are usually followed by a good harvest during the next season.

But the situation in the Sunderbans is different. As long as the embankments are not fully restored all over the islands, no improvement is possible. Floods will continue to recur. Every fortnight there will be fresh flooding due to the lunar boost in water levels.   

Salt deposits in the soil will mean nil or little agricultural activity for at least a couple of years. One can hardly imagine the implication of this on half-a-million people, over 90% of whom are directly dependent on agriculture. This event has crushed the very backbone of the islands’ economy. Four days after the cyclone, I was finally able to establish mobile contact with one of my old acquaintances on an island. To my anxious queries, his answer was brief. With a deep sigh, he uttered: “We cannot live on these islands anymore -- we are finished!” And then he fell silent. I did not know how to carry on the conversation. A fortnight later, again from unofficial sources, I heard that almost one quarter of the people of the village had vacated the islands and had moved to the mainland.  

Forerunner of climate change?   

Scientific research has already established that the greatest threat to the future of the Sunderbans is posed by continued global warming and the resultant increases in sea level. Apart from this, more short-term threats to human lives and livelihoods could come from an increased frequency of cyclones, even supercyclones. This also means greater probability of their coinciding with extreme high tides. Cyclone Aila has shown what this means for the delta. If Aila is a forerunner of many such events in the future, one has to seriously re-think the present method of repairing the embankments. At stake is a population of half-a-million. In a densely populated state, rehabilitating all these people on the mainland would be a difficult prospect.  

And yet, a solution has to emerge. It is impossible to allow the recurrence of such tragic events. If this happens, the Sunderbans will, for all practical purposes, be depopulated. It is a disaster that must be handled with utmost care by all concerned. A long-term feasible solution must be found.  

Depopulation and repopulation  

I qualified the event as ‘unprecedented in recent history’. But the Sunderbans have a much older history of human settlement. Historical findings in the region bear convincing evidence that the area was populated even at the time of Ashoka (273-232 BC), though the evidence so far has failed to add up to a comprehensive account of continued civilisation in the delta. However, it is well established that due to a series of natural calamities the region gradually lost its population during the Middle Ages. Eventually, after the invasion of Portuguese and Arakan pirates in the waters of the delta, the area was completely depopulated. The forests reclaimed the land, and when the British East India Company set up its headquarters in Kolkata it was at the edge of these forests. 

Almost all the inhabited islands of the Sunderbans were cleared of forests for human settlement between the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century. The settlements were planned by the British administration with the stated objective of revenue collection. The present-day population of the islands thus bears a history of a little over 100 years. I was told by the older generation that they had never seen -- or even heard from their forefathers -- of a calamity of this scale in the Sunderbans. It would appear that the British started an economic venture -- almost a gamble against nature’s wishes -- that somehow held its own until now. That black Monday, the islands’ luck finally ran out.  

(Santadas Ghosh is a Reader in Economics at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal. This article is a description of events in the Indian Sunderbans as they stood in the first week of June 2009 -- a fortnight after the devastating cyclone. The author has been a regular visitor to the area over the last four years) 

Infochange News & Features, April 2010