Delta Blues

One of the frontiers of climate change is the Sundarbans, a Gangetic delta region that covers close to 10,000 square km of land and water. Over half of it is spread in India and the rest in Bangladesh, a maze of rivers, islands, creeks and estuaries, mudbanks, sand dunes and sandy beaches.

It is a changing terrain, where the land is constantly being created from silt carried by the rivers that flow down from the Himalayas. The islands are shaped, chiselled, sandpapered and destroyed by the flow of the rivers and tidal action. The place is known for devastating cyclones from the Bay of Bengal, floods and high tides – all expected to cause more damage in a warming world.

Half the area lies under water and about 40 per cent of the land comprises forests. It is home to the world’s largest mangrove forest and some magnificent animas like the Royal Bengal Tiger.

Farmers and fishermen of these islands live in small and simple houses, mostly made of local timber, mud and straw. Heavy rains, floods and cyclones often damage the embankments, flood their villages, inundating these small structures along with fields and cattle sheds. Such events often leave a trail of destruction, its impacts lingering on.

Two major cyclones, Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009, inundated large parts of the delta for several months in some cases. Rice fields in many islands still reman fallow and drinking water scarce due to the salt water left by the storm surge. Recovery is slow in this poorly connected places with dismal infrastructure and inadequate services like health care, infrastructure, and power supply. It often takes several hours by small boats to reach an island and rides on bone-shaker rickshaws or motorbikes further along narrow, muddy paths.

Life goes on here and people live with scarcities and hazard risks, tigers prowling in the forest and crocodiles and sharks in the waters around them.

Many poor people migrate out of the area for short periods when the going gets tough. They work in farms, factories or pull rickshaws – but return to their beloved home no matter what. This practice often intrigues humanitarian workers and officials while considering resettlement options. Many villagers say they are attached to their home and the land where their ancestors lived.

The following photo-feature is a snapshot of their story.

(The Indian photos were shot for West Bengal Voluntary Health Association/ Cordaid.)