Environment & energy, Government and governance | South Asia

20 September 2022

So much is said and written about the difficulties the world will face in the future if it doesn’t act on climate change – but for residents of Ghoramara Island in the Bay of Bengal, that future is now, Annabel Dulhunty, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, and Sukanya Banerjee write.

Come on a journey a hundred or so kilometres south of Kolkata, India, to an island in the Bay of Bengal’s Sundarban Delta.

Ghoramara Island is sinking. As the sea around it rises, people who call the island home are evacuating as the sea claims their homes and farmlands.

Ghoramara is one of many large and small river islands in the delta, formed over hundreds of years by clay and silt brought into the Bay of Bengal by the mighty rivers of South Asia – the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.

The delta is the world’s largest, and at its mouth lies the Sundarban mangrove forest. A remote region known for its beautiful tigers, those living there eke out a vulnerable living from fishing, honey collection, and some farming.

Ghoramara Island is a small five square kilometre island, and rising sea levels have already submerged approximately 70 per cent of it. Predictions estimate that by 2050 the island will be fully under water.

More on this: Policy File: Climate refugees – where to next?

For the approximately 3,000 people on the island, the ravages of climate change are not a possibility to be avoided. They are a reality to be managed today.

Rising sea levels have meant that many have had to move out of their homes and live in makeshift tents on slightly higher land on the middle of the island. On top of this, the frequency and intensity of cyclones has devastated communities – it has been hit by four cyclones in the past couple of years.

After Cyclone Amphan in 2020, roughly 70 per cent of the island’s farms were destroyed. Then, Cyclone Yaas wreaked havoc on Ghoramara Island in May 2021, breaching embankments and flooding the entire island within 20 minutes.

Even for those who have escaped these two dangers, increased soil salinity has made it difficult for the many farmers on the island to produce viable crops.

The Government of West Bengal has agreed to relocate 30 families from Ghoramara Island to Sagar Island, but the other thousand or so families who remain need help too.

More on this: Protecting the Indian Sundarbans in a global health crisis

Furthermore, even the future of the 30 families proposed to be shifted to Sagar remains uncertain, as Sagar Island is also at risk of submersion. Many of the residents have few assets and depend on the wages of migrant workers to survive – they do not have the funds to simply buy land elsewhere.

With funding from the ANU Institute for Climate, Energy & Disaster Solutions, we are undertaking a project on Ghoramara Island that will record the first-hand experiences of communities affected by climate change.

These residents need urgent policy solutions. While both the state and the national government in India have proposed short-term solutions, such as rebuilding the embankments protecting the island, ultimately governments need to dedicate funds to acquire land elsewhere for these residents to live.

Aside from revealing the harsh reality that the effects of climate change are already here, the experience of Ghoramara Island residents shows that both state and national governments must be more proactive in their policy responses to climate affected communities. That said, the international community has a responsibility to help.

The situation facing the people of Ghormara Island reveals the injustice at the heart of climate change. While the effects of climate change are felt everywhere, they disproportionately impact poorer people, despite the fact that the wealthy have been the main contributors to the climate crisis.

It shows that as well as providing direct aid to those most affected by climate change, the world must consider global climate reparations from wealthier countries that have caused the most damage to those who are bearing the greatest costs.

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