Wading through knee-deep mud, a measuring tape and GPS device in hand, Minoti Sil and Monika Misra erect poles two meters apart around a patch of tender mangroves. They are in the middle of a mudflat with another woman, Purnima Mishra, who takes out a slide caliper to measure the height and diameter of the mangrove plants, which have grown in this block of mudflat over the last month.
Two other women look around for different varieties of plants, noting down their findings on a piece of paper. Then the group moves on to the next two-meter block and repeats the whole process.
The women are part of a mangrove plantation project on a newborn mudflat that is slowly expanding into an island called Lakshmipur after a neighboring village.
“This mudflat is like our baby,” said Sil. "After the plantation drive, the population of crabs has increased in our village. We notice new varieties of birds, which we once thought had become extinct. More importantly, even after heavy cyclones last year, the banks of our village didn’t break.”
Led by Nature Environment and Wildlife Society (NEWS), a non-governmental organization, supported by Livelihoods Funds, which helps rural communities in developing countries restore their natural ecosystem, the project aims to restore and regenerate landmasses through the planting of mangroves.
A group of 13 women from the village of Lakshmipur is now actively associated with the project. To incentivize the locals to participate and make the project sustainable, it focuses on livelihood creation and carbon credit accretion. Money generated from the carbon credits is shared with the local community if it exceeds the funding put toward the planation-cum-livelihood drive.
Back home, the women from the mudflat feed the data they collected into a smartphone app. The width and height of the plant is used to analyze how much carbon dioxide the patch of mangroves can remove from the atmosphere. The app also helps monitor the growth of the mangroves, an integral part of the plantation effort.
The varieties are recorded so the community can understand how suitable a particular species of mangrove is in a particular soil. Out of about 38 mangrove species, the NEWS project has planted about 17 across the Sundarbans.
The women involved say they’ve already seen positive benefits.
“Earlier, with mild cyclones, our embankments would break and our homes drown. Ever since the mangroves have grown on the banks, the erosion has significantly reduced,” said Purnima Mishra.
In a region where everyday tides are sweeping away land in bits and pieces, the rise of a new a landmass is a rarity, and women at Lakshmipur say they’re determined to preserve it by all means.
Women on way to Lakshmipur mudflat for plantation / Credit: Namrata Acharya
Mangroves mark the way forward
It was about 15 years ago that the mudflat started expanding, and soon people started to notice green shoots emerging. The state forest department quickly kicked off a plantation drive to help the mudflat grow and save it from erosion (the mangrove roots form a net that prevents sediment from washing away). The forest department also ensured that the place is protected from human intrusion through active policing by forest guards. The mudflat is now close to 1,000 hectares and growing.
Erosion and accretion of land are intertwined. As the sea removes land mass from Ghoramara, a fast-sinking island in the region, it has created a new island at Lakshmipur, where the sediments are being deposited, said Abhijit Mitra, a professor in the department of marine science at Calcutta University.
Over the past decade, at least three mudflats have emerged in the western Sundarbans, said Jagdish Sana, a forest officer in the Kakdwip subdivision of the Sundarbans. But in the greater Sundarbans region, erosion has far exceeded accretion.
According to a 2002 study by Sugata Hazra, a professor at the school of oceanographic studies at Jadavpur University, total estimated erosion in the Sundarbans over roughly a 30-year span, estimated through a time series analysis between 1969 and 2001, was estimated to be nearly 163 square kilometers, roughly the size of Washington DC.
Over the past five decades, at least four islands – Lohacara, Bedford, Kabasgadi and Suparibhanga – have been overtaken by rising sea levels. According to a 2010 study published by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an estimated 6,000 families have been displaced because of the disappearance of these islands.
Erosion in the Sundarbans increased following cyclone Aila in 2009. The embankments broken by heavy winds from that storm remain broken today, subjecting coastal areas to a barrage of ferocious tides.
In places with thick mangrove cover, however, the destruction was much less severe, said Ajanta Dey, Joint Secretary and Project Director at NEWS.
NEWS started the mangrove plantation drive help recover from the destruction wrought by Aila and prevent a repeat in the future.
“Aila showed how climatic vulnerability can cause widespread devastation, and community resilience by way [of] mangrove plantation is the only way to withstand it,” Dey explained.
Her views are supported by a study by professor Mitra, who observed after Aila that land loss in parts of the Sundarbans with thick mangrove cover was 35 percent less than that in areas without mangroves.
The plantation project at Lakshmipur mudflat is part of a bigger community-led mangrove plantation initiative NEWS runs in conjunction with livelihood generation efforts across the Sundarbans started in 2010. Close to 300 women form the core group of this group, setting an example for communities across the region, said Dey.
Women with Prabir Mondal, local coordinator for NEWS / Credit: Namrata Acharya
“We realized community ownership has to be the key for success for this project,” she explained.
Hence, not only planting mangroves but also finding incentives for locals to participate in the project were deemed important. Those incentives include eco-friendly livelihood projects, such as organic agriculture, rain-water harvesting, culture fishing and artificial honey cultivation, among other income-generating activities.
Initial financial support for the project came from the Paris-based Danone Fund for Nature, a partnership between food and beverage multinational Danone, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Ramsar Convention on the Wetlands. With close to Rs10 crore (about US$1.5 million) of funding over roughly10 years, the mangrove plantation across the Sundarbans has grown to cover more than 5,000 hectares. The project was later taken over by Livelihoods Funds, an offshoot of the Danone Fund for Nature.
Dey acknowledges that the project hasn’t come without challenges, the biggest of which has been to keep the communities committed. Close to 2,000 hectares of mangroves plantation could not be sustained, as the communities opted out in the monitoring phase.
Securing initial funding was also a challenge because typically funding agencies seek tangible results in two to three years’ time, whereas the impact of the plantation project is measured over a longer term, Dey explained.
It’s the unique ability of mangroves to “stitch the soil,” or hold it together, that Professor Mitra believes make it the only long-term solution for combatting erosion
“In close to 10 years, the impact of the plantation is perceptible,” says Dey. “For example, we see [in] places where embankments have been protected with mangroves, the impact of floods is much less. We see islands like Lakshmipur growing.”
And that growth is providing some relief to communities that have long lived in constant fear of displacement.
“Now, we live a life free of fear,” said Sil.
This story was supported by a grant from EJN's Bay of Bengal Climate Resiliency Initiative. It was originally published in the Business Standard on 15 June 2019.
Banner image: Women measure plots for plantation at Lakshmipur / Credit: Namrata Acharya