India’s vulnerability to climate change is well-known among scientists and to most members of the lay public. Climate modeling from the Ministry of Earth Sciences amongst other agencies display projections that serve to underline how susceptible it is to climate change risks.
Whilst more regional projections can sometimes become less certain, the risks for the Bay of Bengal in a warming world supersede those facing many other regions. The Bay of Bengal sits on the frontline of a shifting climate that is already seeing exacerbated extreme weather events threatening the health, safety, and livelihoods of Indians from across the nation. The Bay of Bengal is home to approximately 170 million of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Those residents live with the long list of climate challenges facing the region, including coastal erosion, sea-level rise, and storms, cyclones, and weather patterns that have been exacerbated by warming sea surface temperatures.
Much of this is a particular problem given the region’s low-lying typography, communities who live on charssmall alluvial islands in rivers, and obvious proximity to a sea that is known to play a role in modulating the subcontinental climate. “The impact of these problems instability is being felt across four major systems – agriculture & food security, water distribution, infrastructure and biodiversity,” IndiaTimes notes. Yet each challenge poses a different question of the region.
Coastal erosion in the Bay of Bengal
The first of these, coastal erosion, has long threatened the Bengal coastline. A 2017 study of India revealed that coastal erosion has occurred across seventy percent of the West Bengal coastline between 1989-2001, the highest rate of anywhere in India. Such levels have seen the resettlement of the village of Podampetta after a number of houses were damaged. This erosion-triggered displacement is of course an example of climate migration where parts of the population are being forced to move. Gyan Bohrai, a resident of the village, said, “the sea which was around 500 metres away from our village is now only around 50 metres away now. Due to high tides and strong waves, the village has seen severe damages while much of the beach has been engulfed by the ocean.”
It is important to note that coastal erosion does occur through natural means. However, the occurrence of climate change-exacerbated weather events is making the situation much worse. Whilst the east coast is already prone to cyclones, human activities have made things worse. Speaking to the Times of India, M. V. Ramana Murthy, director of the National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR) attached to the Earth Sciences Ministry, said “it has been recorded that the intensity and height of waves in the Bay of Bengal has increased over the years. This also affects the coastline.”
Sea level rise in the Bay of Bengal
Sea level rise in Bengal threatens some of the most critical areas in the region. One specific example comes in the Sundarbans delta, an area of mangrove forest spanning nearly 10,000 square kilometers, which is formed by the confluence of the Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers. It is reported that sea-level rise in the Sundarbans delta is significantly higher than the global average of three millimeters annually. Another study reinforces this trend with sea-level rise in the Bay of Bengal is occurring at a rate of 4.4 – 6.3mm/year, double that of the global average.
Compounding this, the landscape and geographical features of the Sundarbans delta worsen the situation with upstream damming increasing the risk to coastal habitats. And whilst the salt-tolerant mangroves along the coast protect the region, acting as a barrier to storms and flooding, damage and erosion to them is leaving the coast increasingly exposed to potential future threats and rising sea-levels.
Accounts of the devastating impact of sea-level rise in the Bay of Bengal already detail stories of displacement with families being forced to move inland effectively becoming climate migrants. Then there is a school on the edge of Sagar Island being forced to move half a kilometre further inland to avoid being swallowed by waters. Yet one of the most harrowing impacts is the threat to the tiger population in the Sundarbans which stand to decline by 96 percent and see the breeding population effectively wiped out if there is a 28cm rise above 2000 sea levels. This could potentially occur in the next fifty to ninety years, especially with the region sinking at a rate of about two to four millimeters a year.
Storms and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal
Alongside flooding, there is the destructive potential of cyclones. India is far from a stranger to cyclones, as the havoc wrought by Cyclone Nivar just last year remains a chilling reminder of the ravages of climate change.
Interestingly, studies have shown the frequency of tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal actually follows a trend whereby there is a decrease over the long term. This is, however, countered by the fact that the frequency of very severe cyclonic storms in the post-monsoon season is increasing, and this is likely to continue to rise as sea-surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean rise faster than the global average
The increasing frequency of very severe cyclonic storms is a frightening prospect with research showing that the Bay of Bengal region witnesses more than eighty percent of the global fatalities associated with tropical cyclones, while only accounting for 5% of these storms globally.
In 2020, Bengal witnessed firsthand the potential disruptive power of cyclonic storms when Cyclone Amphan tore through the Sundarbans and Kolkata. Owing its intensity to a marine heatwave caused by climate change, Cyclone Amphan intensified into a super cyclone with wind speeds of up to 240 kmph.
Over 500,000 people were evacuated from coastal West Bengal before the cyclone headed straight for Kolkata. As horrific as this situation was, the prospect of this happening in the future could potentially be worse. At this moment in time, the mangrove forests in the Sundarbans delta act to weaken storms to an extent. As they face damage from rising sea levels and erosion, areas like Kolkata may lose a much-needed buffer against such storms.
Climate adaptation efforts in Bengal
Speaking in 2020, West Bengal disaster management minister Javed Ahmed Khan identified that “the latest report [Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region] has only established what independent experts have been saying for [a long time] — West Bengal needs a lot of support from the Centre and international sources to combat disasters triggered by increasing extreme weather events prodded by climate change.”
Whilst climate mitigation remains one part of the fight, the other needs to be adaptation for areas of particular vulnerability. The ramifications for unabated action remain unthinkable for the four major systems outlined by the IndiaTimes.
Some level of climate adaptation can occur on a personal level, however, the Adaptation Fund’s Adaptation Initiative for Climate Vulnerable Offshore Small Islands and Riverine Charland in Bangladesh outlines objectives that could provide a more thorough framework for staving off potential threats. This project is contributing towards the Government of Bangladesh’s Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan and is evidence of planned adaptation. Nonetheless, other initiatives do exist outside of this and demonstrate alternative methods.
Housing and protection
The first of these objectives is plans to ensure better protection of the population living in the region. This can be achieved through more resilient housing, renewable sources of electrification, and the provision of safe drinking water. In these plans, the Adaptation Fund intends to strengthen infrastructure to the impact of climate shocks. This will involve a spend of over US$2.7m on improving the physical standing of infrastructure to ensure they can withstand variability in weather and adequately protect those living in the communities.
Secondly, the project plans to increase resilience of communities to climate risk events by introducing methods of climate risk mapping, and infrastructure that can aid preparation. Spending over US$800,000 on scaling response systems and ensuring cyclone readiness systems are in place and modernised, the project will aim to ensure that chars in Bengal are provided with adequate communication systems given they are particularly vulnerable to the threat of cyclones. These communication systems will be able to disseminate warnings to local requirements using local language, something previously unattainable. This way, communities will be able to be warned before cyclones make landfall.
Another initiative supported by the United Nations Development Programme has helped Bengal by focussing adaptation efforts on readying communities with greater early warning capacity for climate shocks and disasters. The project has aided communities by distributing microphones, hand sirens, signal flags, jackets, and motorcycles to local institutions, all of which are intended to help cyclone preparedness. Amongst the community, 6,000 volunteers have been equipped to disseminate early warning and conduct rescues, with a further eight female community watchers appointed to work closely with households, empowering women and increasing the uptake of climate-resilient livelihoods.
Food and agriculture
Then there are attempts to improve the income and food security of vulnerable households by introducing innovative and locally appropriate climate-resilient livelihoods practices. This stems from a fundamental need to ensure there is adequate protection for agriculture alongside food-security. The Indian agriculture sector employs over forty percent of the population and is prominent within the Bengal region. Potential disruption through the threat of weather events could have a dramatic impact wider than the industry itself.
The Adaptation Fund project in West Bengal has helped this by introducing forty weather kiosks and 18 automated weather stations aimed at improving the capabilities of crop weather advisories. This is, in fact, just one example of the work being done by the project to help improve agricultural adaptation. The other examples include enhancing soil and land conservation, and water filtration systems.
The more unique examples of agricultural adaptation to the effects of climate change in Bengal come on a personal level where the focus is centered around surviving in a wetter world. A 2020 BBC report details how Bijoy Kumar, a farmer in the low-lying Gopalganj district of Bangladesh, had abandoned traditional rice crops to adopt a form of hydroponics involving floating vegetable gardens. With waterlogging becoming more common, agricultural farms may also have to adapt their livestock too with many now turning to ducks instead of chickens as a way of establishing more resilient livelihoods. This may be a glimpse of what the future holds for this all-important sector and the livelihoods of those who depend on it.
Finally, over US$600,000 of funds will be targeted at enhancing climate adaptation knowledge within communities. Where vacuums in knowledge currently exist, efforts will be undertaken to increase awareness, and one way of doing this is through knowledge centres which will be set up in targeted areas. They will aim to teach best practice mechanisms for climate resilience within the community. Also fundamental in this dissemination of knowledge are teachers are religious leaders who will be asked to speak about local changes and how to adapt.
What is the future for the Bay of Bengal?
Despite these efforts, critics of the climate response in the Bay of Bengal argue that more action is needed. The prospect of climate migration and communities retreating inland bears too many socioeconomic considerations to even begin to consider before adequately equipping the region with correct infrastructure, knowledge, and alternatives to likelihoods to allow for climate resilience. For India heading into the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, questions over projections and adaptability will no doubt loom large. Whether communities can effectively adapt in the long term to the prospect of a warming climate in the Bay of Bengal will remain to be seen too.