LINCOLN, Nebraska — An archipelago of islands, the Sundarbans is located in the Bay of Bengal with territories in both India and Bangladesh. The Sundarbans is also the largest river delta in the world, home to fading natural mangroves and protected tiger populations. Unfortunately, the area’s population of 4.6 million has been adversely affected by COVID-19 and Cyclone Amphan.
Past, Present and Future of Cyclones
Many storms, like Sidr, Aila, Phailin, HudHud, Bulbul and now Cyclone Amphan, have affected the Sundarbans over the years. However, Cyclone Amphan is proving to be more challenging to tackle due to its ferocity and overlap with COVID-19. Unemployment, lack of immediate healthcare and sparse crop yields hindered the islanders’ ability to react to bad weather. Additionally, climatologists predict that super cyclones will become more severe and more frequent in the Bay of Bengal. There is an anticipated “managed retreat” of close to one million people as a way of coping with the loss of land and increasing soil salinity.
The Sundarbans’ economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, fishing and ecotourism. All of these industries have suffered from COVID-19 and Cyclone Amphan. With migrant workers returning due to lockdown, many have been left jobless and unable to live off of their land. Since subsistence from one’s land is no longer a viable option for many Sundarbans residents, many islanders must venture into the forest to forage for food. This has led to an uptick in cases of tiger attacks as desperate Sundarbans inhabitants are venturing into areas where and when they should not be.
At first, the landfall of the cyclone and its coincidental timing with the spread of the virus made cyclone shelters potential hotbeds of the spread of COVID-19. Healthcare officials COVID-19-proofed these shelters later on, however. Additionally, in order to make as little contact with outsiders as possible, the islanders blocked the entry of relief workers and devised methods for relief materials to be left on the shore for them to pick up. As a result, the Sunderbans have had a relatively low COVID-19 infection rate. Unlike the rest of India, the pandemic has affected the Sundarbans much less in healthcare than its livelihood.
Road to Recovery
The West Bengal Forest Directorate and The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have joined forces to distribute hygiene and food supplies around the Islands to tackle the aftermath of COVID-19 and Cyclone Amphan. To address the worsening tiger issue, Rapid Response Facility along with The WWF is working to create several miles of nylon net fencing to separate tiger and human populations from negative interactions. WWF is also working with the community at the grassroots level for a more climate-sustainable future that fosters the islands’ ecosystem. The central government and the West Bengal state government have announced $130 million and $837,000 in aid, respectively, to protect and rebuild the Sundarbans.
The Sundarbans face a multitude of challenges. Its residents have experienced the effects of climate change firsthand. Community-led innovation with the help of the government and other key organizations is crucial for a disaster-ready future for the islanders.