As global leaders from both rich and developing nations wind down the debate over climate change in Copenhagen, Sheikh Aftauddin, a 65-year-old climate migrant from a submerged island on India's Sundarbans archipelago, continues to live in uncertainty.
|Oceanographers say the waters are rising at a rate of 3.4mm a year [India Blooms]
One of the nearly 8,000 climate change refugees in the Indian Sundarbans, Aftauddin says they are unaware what is being debated in Copenhagen.
All he knows is how the fury of nature devoured his hut and farmlands on the Goramara island, one of the many submerged by the rising sea, forcing him to live as a refugee in another area.
"The sea took away everything. My house, my land. It is painful to live uprooted but I have no choice," says Aftauddin who now lives on Sagar Island, part of the Sundarban archipelago and 150km south of Kolkata.
Aftauddin's neighbour Sibani Seth is equally morose.
"Life is not the same here. It was much better in Goramara. I live with the fond memories of the past now," she says.
Wildlife and marine nurseries
The Sundarbans extend across southern Bangladesh and West Bengal in India in the vast delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers that empty themselves in the Bay of Bengal.
Mangroves in this region act as natural buffers against tropical cyclones and also as filtration systems for estuarine and fresh water. They also serve as nurseries for many marine invertebrate species and fish.
The archipelago of crisscrossed islands, which is spread over a 20,000 sq km area of mostly swamp land, is home to the endangered Royal Bengal variety of tigers, crocodiles and around 4.3 million people.
The Sundarbans, which has been declared a World Heritage site by Unesco and became the backdrop of writer Amitav Ghosh's celebrated book The Hungry Tide, face a threat from global warming and attendant climatic change. It is the living reality of what world leaders and experts are debating in Copenhagen.
A United Nations study has estimated that a mere 45cm rise in sea levels will destroy 75 per cent of forests spread over a 10,000 sq km area in the Sundarbans.
"About a year ago there were about 7,000 environmental refugees in the Sundarbans. The figure can only increase as the rising sea submerges more and more lands," says Pranabes Sanyal of the School of Oceanographic Studies in Jadavpur University (JU).
"Sundarbans lost more than 28 per cent of its land in the past 40 years owing to global warming. About 70,000 people can turn [into] environmental refugees in the next 30 years," he warns.
JU's oceanographic department conducted a 10-year study in and around the Bay of Bengal and concluded that the sea is rising at 3.14 mm a year in the Sundarbans against a global average of 2 mm.
|Rising waters forced thousands to seek refuge elsewhere [Bijoy Chowdhury - India Blooms]
As sea levels rise, two islands have already disappeared and others are prone to inundation.
"There is no one to care for the people of Sundarbans where the impact of global warming is severe. In 30 years we lost 90 sq km of area which included two islands," says a bitter Sugato Hazra, the director of the School of Oceanographic Studies in JU.
Experts say the shrinking mangroves are leaving India and Bangladesh vulnerable to the effects of severe weather patterns in the Bay of Bengal. The recent Cyclone Aila wreaked havoc in the islands uprooting more than two million people.
"High intensity cyclones and associated surges are increasing in Bay of Bengal because of the rise in the sea surface temperature," Hazra says, ruing a lack of government initiatives to help the climate refugees.
"They have no one to speak for them anywhere," he says.
Royal Bengal tigers
Climate change is also threatening the famous Royal Bengal tiger population of the Sundarbans archipelago.
The number of tiger attacks on people is rising in Sundarban islands as core habitat loss and scarcity of prey force the big cats to stray into human habitation for food.
"The tigers are carnivores and they prey on herbivores like deer and pigs which are also dwindling in population because of loss of land and grazing ground from the rising sea," animal expert Debasis Chakrabarti says.
"With the food security under threat, tigers also breed less. They become more endangered," he says.
Meanwhile, with the climate change conference entering its final week, students from the Sundarbans took to the streets of Kolkata with the message to save the region.
Whether their voices can reach the conference halls in Copenhagen remains to be seen.