‘Solutions that work for one island may not work for another’
Almost a week after cyclone Yaas battered coastal areas of West Bengal and Odisha, there are 17 community kitchens operating at Kumirmari, the remote island in the eastern part of the Sunderbans, bordering Bangladesh. There are still thousands of people stranded on the island who cannot return to their homes as large areas remain inundated.
“Through these community kitchens, we are feeding about 5,000 people every day. Embankments have been breached at 16 places on the island and people have not been able to return to their homes,” said Debasish Mondal, Gram Pradhan of Kumirmari.
On the other side of the creek lay reserve forest land and the Marichjhapi island, the Pradhan explained, saying that over the past few days, people taking shelter on the embankments had heard the roars of a tiger. Kumirmari, as the name implies, refers to human-crocodile conflict.
The eastern part of the Sunderbans, surrounded by mangrove forests, with Royal Bengal Tigers on land and crocodiles at sea, is a completely different topography than the western part of the Sunderbans, which has islands like Sagar, Ghoramara and Mousuni.
“More than 2 km of embankments have been swept away to the southern side and we cannot distinguish between where the land ends and the sea begins. On May 25 and May 26, almost three fourths of the island of Kumirmari was under water,” said Mr. Mondal. The pradhan said the island was home to about 20,000 people. Asked whether planting mangroves would save the island, he said one needed land to plant mangroves.
Chandrima Sinha, programme manager at Nature Environment and Wildlife Society, who has been working for the past several years on conservation-centric livelihoods for the island, insisted that there was no quick-fix solution to the issues relating to Kumirmari.
“The island is surrounded by three rivers from all sides. The first requirement is to understand the complex hydro-geography of the island. Every year, the earthen embankments are repaired using soil under MGNREGA work, but this is no permanent solution,” said Ms. Sinha. Like the Gram Pradhan, she too agreed that planting mangroves would take time and there wasn’t sufficient land available to plant them.
The combined effect of cyclone Yaas and the full moon tide on May 26 led to the breach of embankments at several places in the Sunderbans.
Experts emphasise that all the 54 inhabited islands of Sunderbans need a disaster risk reduction plan. The Indian Sunderbans comprise 102 islands of which 44 are inhabited and the rest are uninhabited.
Tuhin Ghosh, director of the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, said every island in the Sunderbans archipelago was unique. “For having a disaster risk reduction plan, we have to look at the land use, distribution of population, and embankments of the island,” Professor Ghosh pointed out. He explained that solutions that worked for one island may not work for another. According to experts, plantation of mangroves which can act as a shield against cyclones may take five to ten years.
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday held a review meeting on the damage caused by cyclone Yaas and sought to set up an expert committee to ensure that the embankments were repaired every year.
“We have to fight nature by nature… In places we are sure that embankments would not hold in the next season, we can try for planting mangroves or other trees that hold the soil,” the Chief Minister said.
Ms. Banerjee said the State government had planted 5 crore mangrove saplings with the State Environment and Forest Department incurring an expenditure of ₹16.5 crore. The State government has estimated damage due to cyclone Yaas to the extent of ₹20,000 crore. The Chief Minister also urged officials to keep an eye on high tides on June 11 and June 26, and ensure that the embankments were repaired before then.
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