The Sundarbans
The SundarbansProthom Alo file photo

The Sundarbans acted as a formidable shield to the cyclone Amphan, cutting its speed down by 70 km per hour. This mangrove forest even lessened the height of tidal surge by 3 to 4 feet.

The cyclone hit West Bengal, India, at a velocity of 155 to 165 km per hour. Then it hit Satkhira in Bangladesh at 151 km per hour, but by then it had lost its intensity, buffered by the Sundarbans. As a result, the people and the property of the coastal region were saved from massive damages.

Today, 22 May, is World Biodiversity Day. Once again the Sundarbans has proven not only to be the richest biodiversity hub of Bangladesh, but the country’s natural protector.

Disaster and environmental experts have said that that if it hadn’t been for the Sundarbans, Dhaka and adjacent cities would have faced the same devastation as wrought by Amphan in Kolkata. Till Thursday there has been news of 70 persons being killed by the cyclone in West Bengal and 21 in Bangladesh.

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During the cyclone, the wind speed in Dhaka was 72 km per hour, while in Kolkata it was 112 km per hour. Had it not been for the Sundarbans, the cyclone would have hit Dhaka at over 100 km per hour.

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However, in taking the blow of the cyclone, the Sundarbans itself has faced significant devastation. As in the case of cyclones Sidr and Aila, this time too, the Sundarbans has faced much damage. According to initial estimates of the forest department, 65 fresh water ponds, 16 corrugated tin outposts of the forest department, 28 jetties and other infrastructure has been destroyed. Kewra and other trees have been uprooted. The most damage has been done in the Satkhira and Khulna sections of the forest. The foreign department has formed a four-member committee to assess the total damages done to the Sundarbans.

This is not the first time that the Sundarbans has buffered cyclonic winds. It curbed the intensity of such winds during the cyclones of 1988 and 1997, of Sidr in 2007, Aila in 2009, Roanu in 2016, Bulbul in 2019, Fani in 2019 and this time Amphan.

Chief conservator of forests, Amir Hossain Chowdhury, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, “The ponds in the forest which have now been inundated with saline water, are not just sources of fresh water for the forest department people, but for the tigers, deer, monkeys and other wild animals too. So we are planning to rid the ponds of salinity as soon as we can. Every year the Sundarbans takes the blow upon itself and protects us.”

Sundarbans hit eight times

At 3:00 in the afternoon on Wednesday, the cyclone Amphan hit Sagardwip of West Bengal in India. Then it swept over Kolkata and headed towards Satkhira in Bangladesh. The cyclone’s path was through the Sundarbans.

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According to the meteorological department of Bangladesh, when the cyclone was at a distance of 100 km from the coastal areas of Bangladesh and India, its speed was 220 km per hour. But as it passed through the Sundarbans and hit the settlements, its speed had reduced to 151 km per hour.

The government’s flood forecast and warning centre said that the tidal surge which accompanied the cyclone was expected to be 15 to 18 feet high. However, by the time it reached the coast, it had come down to 10 to 12 feet.

This is not the first time that the Sundarbans has buffered cyclonic winds. It curbed the intensity of such winds during the cyclones of 1988 and 1997, of Sidr in 2007, Aila in 2009, Roanu in 2016, Bulbul in 2019, Fani in 2019 and this time Amphan.

The theme of World Biodiversity Day this year is ‘our solutions are in nature’. This has been highlighted in the manner that the Sundarbans lessened the intensity of Amphan as well as the damages
Raquibul Amin, country director, IUCN

Professor of Dhaka University and disaster expert, Maksud Kamal, told Prothom Alo, “Every time a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal has come towards the southwestern region of the country, the Sundarbans has lessened its intensity. We must use this experience and do all that we can to save the Sundarbans. People’s intervention in the forest must be stopped. And there must be afforestation of the entire coastal belt.”

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Economic contribution of the Sundarbans

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other international environment-related agencies have long been highlighting that mangrove forests are the strongest protection against cyclones. There has been extensive research in this regard in India, Mexico, Indonesia and Malaysia.

In 2018, the Institute of Forestry and Environmental Science of Chittagong University, under supervision of the US-based international agency Winrock International, carried out research on the economic evaluation of the Sundarbans in tourism, protection of habitat from cyclones and its resources. The study showed that during the cyclone Sidr, the Sundarbans saved resources worth US$ 485.29 million in the country’s southwest region.

The researchers said that if the 603,000 hectare Sundarbans did not exist, then the damages in monetary terms would be many, many times higher.

Speaking to Prothom Alo about the matter, Bangladesh’s country director of IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), Raquibul Amin, said, “Friday is World Biodiversity Day. The theme this year is ‘our solutions are in nature’. This has been highlighted in the manner that the Sundarbans lessened the intensity of Amphan as well as the damages. The Sundarbans is Bangladesh’s richest resource of biodiversity and also the biggest natural protector of our lives. We must keep this experience in the forefront and take initiative to protect the Sundarbans in the days to come.”

* This report has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir