Forest land declining 

The Sundarbans is stretched along the greater part of the Bay of Bengal’s coastal area in Bangladesh and West Bengal.

According to government documents, 60 per cent of the Sundarbans is in Bangladesh, and the remaining 40 per cent in West Bengal. The number of the species of plant, shrub, bird, animal, fish and other aquatic animal are more in the Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans.

Two years ago in 2020, World Bank revealed some information about the reduction of Sundarbans area. The report was made on the survival of people living on the Sundarbans or adjacent to forest, coping up with the climate change.

That report said, between 1904 and 1924 the total area of the Sundarbans in two countries was 11,904 square kilometres. It reduced to 11,663 sq km in 1967 and 11,506 sq km in 2001.

The area of the Sundarbans stood at 11,453 sq km in 2015-16. That means, 451 sq km vanished from the total area of the Sundarbans in last 100 years.

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There was no separate statistics regarding the area of the Sundarbans' Bangladesh portion decreasing, mentioned in that report. However, analysis of the statistics reveals that, in 1904-24 the area of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh was 7,142 sq km. That area shrunk to 6,871 sq km in 2015-16.

Meaning an area of 252 sq km disappeared from the Bangladesh part in 100 years. At this rate the mangrove forest is losing about 2.5 sq km of its area per year. Some 350 football fields of Federation of International Football Federation (FIFA’s) standards add up to form this amount of area.

In 2016, trustee of water resources ministry and executive director of research agency CEGIS Malik Fida Abdullah Khan in a research showed that the forest land of the Sundarbans is shrinking while the marshy land is growing. Roaming the forest and analysing the satellite data, he made the conclusion that the Sundarbans has lost 76 sq km of land in 27 years.

The forest department is however reluctant to acknowledge the fact that the Sundarbans is losing land area.

Mihir Kumar Dey, conservator of forest department’s Khulna circle told Prothom Alo, it is not possible to agree or disagree on whether the area of the Sundarbans is decreasing or not. River erosion is a normal process inside the Sundarbans. Field level survey didn’t show any large area being washed up in the river.

Reason behind the forest land decline 

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Geologists say, some parts of Bangladesh including the Sundarbans is located in the ‘active delta’ region of the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. So, the geological formation of this area has not finished yet. The land of this area is still undergoing the process of breaking and building.

There are numerous rivers and canals of various sizes inside the Sundarbans. The total length of these crisscrossing canals and rivers that are stretched is about 350 kilometres. These rivers and canals witness high and low tides twice every day.

The banks of the rivers break and reform for the tides. But, the rate of erosion was greater than that of reform in the last century. In 2017, a team of researchers from the department of forestry and environmental sciences, Chittagong University claimed river erosion to be the reason behind the forest land reduction.

Sundarbans facing adversities 

Forests like the Sundarbans form on lands where fresh water meets saline water. Forestry scientists have termed this type of forest as mangrove forest. There are mangrove forests on several other coasts of the world. But, such a huge mangrove like the Sundarbans cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

The Sundarbans is unique not only for its vast area but also for its wide variety of wildlife. According to report of 2020, there are 528 varieties of trees and plants with 300 different types of birds.

Besides, 58 species of reptiles, 42 species of mammals, and 9 species of amphibians tread freely in the Sundarbans. There are 250 different kinds of fish in the canals and rivers there. Moreover, many species of insects, crabs, snails, shells, fungus and moss are available there.

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Pressure is growing on this mangrove, full of life. The flow of fresh water coming from the north of the Sundarbans has been replaced by the overflow of salt water in last four decades. For this the probability of salt-resilient plant and vines has increased, risking the survival of brackish water resilient species.

Several other reasons have put the Sundarbans under stress. In recent times, more discussions are revolving around Rampal coal-powered power plant. Environmentalists have been complaining for several years that the coal burnt ashes, the power plant will release once it goes into production, will harm the Sundarbans.

Apart from that, about a hundred industries have mushroomed centering Mongla seaport. Wastes produced in these factories reach the Sundarbans flowing through Pasur river. Many vessels including bigger ships travel on Pasur river regularly. All the vessels move through the Sundarbans. Loud noises made by these vessels break the silence of the forest while their bright lights disrupt wild animals' sleep.

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On the other hand, the Sundarbans is plagued with hunters. The authorities rescued a spotted deer from Mongla EPZ area last year. It is impossible for a deer to reach populated EPZ area crossing the river anyhow. Many doubted that poachers were forced to leave the deer in that area being unable to control the situation.

Killing of aquatic animals is also going on in the name of fishing. Media persons have published news of fishermen catching fish by poisoning smaller canals in last few decades.

This kills aquatic creatures along with the fish. Meanwhile, about 20 thousand fishermen camps at the edge of the Sundarbans on Dublar Char from October to March each year. This temporary living arrangement is a threat to the Sundarbans.

Effects of climate change 

Apart from these human activities, the Sundarbans is hit by storms and tidal waves. These calamities destroy plants as well as kill a lot of animals. Environment scientists reveal that the number of natural calamities is on the rise.

On the other hand the sea level is rising due to climate change. The rise of sea level indicates the rise of tidal saltwater at the coast. The World Bank report says saline water flow in the Sundarbans is going up.

Conservator of the forest department’s Khulna circle Mihir Kumar Dey, however, does not agree with the narrative that these are the reasons behind the Sundarbans turning weak.

He said 114 tigers were found during the latest survey conducted in 2018. Surveys should be carried again to know whether the number of tigers or other animals have increased or not.

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Citing nature related international organisation IUCN’s data of 2015, World Bank says, species of 19 birds, 11 mammals and a reptile have gone extinct from the Sundarbans. Description of the species facing risk of extinction have been mentioned there too.

In the 2017 research of Chittagong University’s forestry and environmental sciences institute, it was seen that the density of the Sundarbans was 63 per cent in the year 1989. In 2014, it came down to 38 per cent only. There are other data in the research, supporting the claim of the Sundarbans becoming weaker.

Climate change specialist Ainun Nishat was involved in the research done by the World Bank. He told Prothom Alo, for centuries the Sundarbans is protecting humans from natural disasters like storms and tsunamis.

Its contribution to Bangladesh’s culture and economy is unlimited. The effects of climate change are going to be acute on the Sundarbans for various reasons. All types of initiatives need to be taken to protect the Sundarbans.

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