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Waterworld! Rising Seas Pose A Threat To Millions Living Along India’s Coastline

India has no policy for rehabilitating climate refugees even as the people living along coastal West Bengal and Odisha are exposed to greater vulnerability

Waterworld! Rising Seas Pose A Threat To Millions Living Along India’s Coastline
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Forty-year-old Sudarshan Raut would have had to migrate from his home state of Odisha to some other place in search of work had his wife, Sasmita, not been a schoolteacher, ensuring a steady income. One of the residents of Satabhaya, a coastal village in Kendrapara district that vanished into the sea in the last decade, Raut used to farm on their four-acre land along the coast and tended to cattle. Now, the land is gone and the cattle are sold, because there is no pasture available for grazing in the new location where the government rehabilitated the Satabhaya residents in 2018. “The rehabilitation meant only houses at a new colony, under the Odisha government’s rural housing scheme. There has been no compensation for the loss of livelihood,” says Raut who now lives at Bagapatia.

Many of his age and from the younger generation had to migrate to states like Delhi, Karna­taka and Kerala. Those who were into fishing have their hassles increased manifold—they have to travel to and from their old village every day. Bagapatia is about 12 km inland from the sea.

“People displaced by mining and other developmental activities are entitled to get compensation for the loss of land and livelihood. But rehabilitation and resettlement of villages affected by sea ingress is not part of any current policy in India, including the Odisha Climate Change Action Plan (2018-23),” says environmentalist Ranjan Panda, convenor of Water Initiatives Odisha, a network of environment activists. “There must be a policy because we are pretty sure that more people are going to lose their homestead and farmland to the sea. There are several more villages waiting to disappear, Udaykani and Tandahar in Puri district, for exa­mple,” Panda, often called Odisha’s ‘water man’, tells Outlook.

Water Initiatives recently conducted a study at Udaykani and Tandahar, during which they found the villagers were experiencing increased levels of inundation and storm flooding, accelerated coastal erosion, seawater intrusion into freshwater, including groundwater, and encroachment of tidal waters into the river systems. There was severe water scarcity, as the wells and tube-wells were getting more and more saline.

Panda says they have shared their findings with the Odisha government and would soon ask the government to formulate a policy. The report includes a suggested framework for drafting such a policy.

Islands and coastal areas of the world were always considered to be in the frontline of facing some of the most predictable fallouts of global warming—rising sea level, accelerated coastal erosion, rising sea-surface temperature and stronger cyclones, resulting in displacement, loss of livelihood and migration. People living along the Bay of Bengal in the coastal districts of West Bengal and Odisha are perhaps among the first to face the heat. Natural disasters are nothing new for the people living along the coast of northern Bay of Bengal. From the sea-facing islands of the Sundarbans region and the beaches of East Midnapore district—both in West Bengal—to Odisha’s coastal districts of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara and Puri, internal displacement has been happening for several decades now, owing to a range of reasons, including devastating cyclones, frequent flooding and rapid erosion of shoreline.

Islands and coastal areas of the world were always considered to be in the frontline of facing some of the most predictable fallouts of global warming.

About 80 per cent of the that cyclones formed over north Indian Ocean between 1877 and 2016 moved over the Bay of Bengal, and 40 per cent of them struck the coast of Bengal and Odisha, rep­orted a 2021 research paper titled, Spatio­tem­poral Analysis of Tropical Cyclone Landfalls in Northern Bay of Bengal, India and Bangladesh. However, they may not have seen the worst yet. For, a lot of bad news is pouring in for them from different corners over the past few years. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s sixth assessment report (AR6), “the most consistent trends are an increase in the occurrence of the most intense TCs (tropical cyclones) and a decrease in the overall TC frequency, in particular in the Bay of Bengal.” In short, there will be fewer cyclones overall but the number of severe cyclones will increase. Every cyclone accelerates the process of coastal erosion.

The AR6 report also said that global warming had already effected increases in both land and ocean temperatures, and resulted in more frequent heatwaves in most land regions. It has also resulted in an increase in the frequency and duration of marine heatwaves. Marine heatwaves, a brief period of high temperature in the sea or ocean, are particularly relevant for West Bengal and Odisha, the two Indian states that are considered part of the northern Bay of Bengal, apart from Bangladesh. This northern Bay of Bengal has become one of the most vulnerable regions in the world due to a range of reasons. According to a January 2022 research paper, titled Genesis and Trends in Marine Heatwaves Over the Tropical Indian Ocean…, marine heatwaves (MHW) were increasing in the Indian Ocean, with the greatest increase observed over the western Indian Ocean (east African coast), followed by the northern Bay of Bengal.

In northern Bay of Bengal, “a well-defined trend in MHW frequency is observed, at its maximum during the summer monsoon season (May, June and October),” the report said, adding, “Interestingly, these months are when the cyclones are active in the Bay of Bengal. Warm sea-surface temperatures set an ideal precondition for cyclones.” The report went on to note that these anomalous temperature events can cause habitat destruction due to coral bleaching, seagrass destruction, and loss of kelp forests, affecting the fisheries sector adversely.

Along the coastal Bay of Bengal, fishery and agriculture have been the main traditional professions. “The increasing sea-surface temperature (SST) is one of the reasons which facilitates accelerated evaporation, rainfall and also formation of cyclones. The SST in the Bay of Bengal has been increasing at the rate of 0.5°C/decade since 1980 while the global average is 0.06° C/decade,” according to a July 2021 report of an expert committee constituted by the West Bengal government for the protection of coastal areas and earthen embankments.  That is about eight times higher than the global average.

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Pratap Kumar Mohanty, a professor at the department of marine science, Berhampur University in Odisha, too, believes that the government needs to formulate a policy for the people suffering from the impacts of climate change, all the more so because people living along northern Bay of Bengal are now exposed to a higher risk of greater devastation and loss.  “It is not possible to mitigate the disaster but it is possible to mitigate the sufferings of the people,” Mohanty says, adding that cyclonic storms create surges that result in inundation and flooding, while they also cause or accelerate coastal erosion.

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When it comes to losing land to the sea, West Bengal tops the chart. Land loss analyses revealed that the state lost about 99 sq km land between 1990 and 2016.

Mohanty says sea surface temperature has to be above 26.5°C or 27°C for the develo­pment of cyclones and that they like to move alo­ng the warmer water because that is where they gain energy from. “The Odisha coast is full of river systems and large parts of the northern Bay of Bengal are covered with freshwater, which heats up much quicker than saline water,” he says, adding that this was one of the reasons the northern Bay of Bengal was more vulnerable to the conseq­u­e­n­ces of climate change than southern Bay of Bengal.

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Cyclone havoc A man crosses a flooded road near Balasore in Odisha. Photograph: Getty Images

When it comes to losing land to the sea, West Bengal tops the chart of India’s coastal states. Land loss and land gain analyses revealed that the West Bengal coast had lost about 99 sq km land between 1990 and 2016 due to erosion, while it gained only 16.46 sq km by accretion during this period, according to the National Assessment of Shoreline Changes along Indian Coast: Status Report for 26 years (1990 - 2016). West Bengal accounted for 42.23 per cent of India’s total shore line loss of 234.50 sq km, while the state accounted for only 7 per cent of the 234.25 sq km land that the country gained through accretion.

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West Bengal’s Sundarbans development minister Bankim Hazra lives in Sagar island, which on the one hand, is losing land to the sea and, on the other, accommodating people from the neighbouring islands that have shrunk faster. He agreed a policy was required but opined that the Union government would have to draft it. “It’s beyond the financial ability of the states to protect the coastal people from the adverse impacts of climate change. The Bay of Bengal is a particularly cyclone-prone area and vulnerable to climate change.  The Centre and international institutions will have to provide financial support for such a policy to be effective,” Hazra says.

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Debashis Shyamal, a leader of Dakhshinbanga Matsyajeebi Forum (a forum of south Bengal fish workers), and Kiran Kumar Behera, Balasore dist­rict president of Odisha Matshyajibi Forum, say that while the government should not lose focus from the impacts of climate change, the impact of human interventions should not be underestim­ated either. “Human activities like embankments and construction of hotels on the beach are accelerating the impacts of climate change,” says Shya­mal, who is from the coastal district of East Midnapore, where the sea has been encroaching inland at an average rate of five metres per year since 1972, the July 2021 expert committee report said.

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Behra echoes him. “The green cover along Odisha’s coastal belt has largely vanished, some destroyed in repeated cyclones, some cleared by people. In my district of Balasore, sand dunes have vanished, partly due to the cyclones and partly cleared by people engaged in construction business. These impacts have made the Odisha coast more vulnerable to cyclones, surges and accelerated erosion,” he tells Outlook.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Waterworld!")

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