By Soudhriti Bhabani
Gosaba (West Bengal), June 7 (IANS): The aftermath of devastating cyclone Aila that ravaged large parts of the West Bengal delta May 25 could cause lasting ecological damage to the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest, experts fear.
Environment experts and wildlife conservationists say the huge displacement caused by the cyclone may force many of the estimated 400,000 people who live among the mangrove forests, the narrow creeks and the wide rivers to enter protected forests, thereby seriously threatening one of the richest but most fragile ecosystems on earth.
"Aila has inundated the entire Sundarbans region and displaced thousands of residents in the islands. They have lost everything in the natural calamity. They are now living under the open sky with their families and children," WWF senior programme officer Subhro Sen told IANS.
Sen, along with his team works extensively in the Mousuni island, located in the western part of the Sundarbans.
"The agricultural lands and all water bodies are now filled with saline water. People who get their livelihood through vegetation, fisheries and cattle farming have landed in deep trouble. Everything has been washed away by the cyclone and the rural economy has virtually collapsed," he said.
According to Sen, the have-nots in the Sundarbans would now start entering the forest territories in search of a livelihood once the flood water recedes from the island region. This will largely disturb the Sundarbans biosphere that harbours rare animals like the estuarine crocodile, fishing cat and Gangetic dolphin.
"It will force marooned residents to depend more on forest products like honey and timber. This apart, people will also go for crab catching, fishing in the creeks and enter the restricted areas," he said, adding: "Lack of livelihood resource could also increase incidents of poaching in Sundarbans as people will be left with few options".
The alluvial archipelago called the Sundarbans, formed by 56 riverine islands, has been declared a World Heritage site by Unesco for its rich biodiversity and is home to the famous Royal Bengal Tiger.
Located in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, it is a vast area covering 4,262 sq km, including a mangrove cover of 2,125 sq km in India alone, and a larger portion in Bangladesh.
"As far as the environment and wildlife are concerned in Sundarbans, we're on the verge of another disaster just due to lack of administrative action and a disaster management plan on the part of the government," social worker Tushar Kanjilal told IANS.
Kanjilal runs a welfare organisation, Tagore Society for Rural Development, in the Sundarbans and has been working on various social and environmental projects in the deltaic zone since 1967.
"If the basic problems of Sundarbans' residents are not addressed properly, the situation will worsen further. This would also affect the environment and wildlife too. Aila is not the last disaster. I am sure there will be many other cyclonic disasters; some of them could be more intense than what we've seen this time," he said.
The Sundarbans delta, formed by the myriad branches of the Ganga, has forest tracts that reach 130 km inland from the coastline. It forms the most effective barrier against tidal surges and tsunami waves known on earth. The flip side is that the area itself is on the frontline of natural disasters.
"As an alternative, we've suggested that the state government and local bodies like panchayat and zilla parishad should encourage people to build elevated structures to save human habitations from any flood-like situation in future," Sen said, adding that the government can also promote saline paddy cultivation in that salt-water belt as a sustainable alternative.