Riding the wave: How climate change is impacting the Bay of Bengal region

,

The Hindu, Chidambaram, India

Nidhi Adlakha shares what she learned about the impact climate change is having on coastal communities in southeast India

The Northeast monsoon had just set in, and the timing couldn’t have been better. With the looming monsoon clouds opening up, we snaked through the narrow rivulets of the Pichavaram mangroves in an open boat. As I took a moment to appreciate its splendour, I realised the deeper significance the forest held. Acting as a speed breaker against the mighty waves during the 2004 tsunami, the mangroves saved countless lives. Cut to today and climate change and sea-level rise threaten the region’s very existence.

A fisherman casts his net in the waters around the Pichavaram mangroves near Chidambaram / Credit: Sara Schonhardt

Workshop

Opening our minds to these threats was a media workshop on climate change, climate justice and resilience in the Bay of Bengal (BoB) region. Back from the recently-concluded forum, I can’t help but think what these terminologies actually mean in today’s times. Most people know the problem areas, but do little to pollute less. Conducted in Chidambaram for three days earlier this month, the workshop – hosted by Internews' Earth Journalism Network – made one thing clear: visible or not, our actions are taking a massive toll on the planet. And our villages and coastal hamlets are bearing the biggest brunt.

Coastal Danger

From changes in our coastal systems and the impact they have on marine life -- and how it trickles down to our farming and fishing communities -- to local initiatives and on-the-ground support, the workshop brought a range of issues to the fore. While more than 80 percent of the world’s top cities have developed along coastlines and waterways, over the next few years countries like India and China will be the worst affected by climate change extremities. Switching to hybrid and solar power is the only way forward. And, as a World Bank report suggests, sea-level rise has been occurring more rapidly than projected. A rise of as much as 50 centimeters by the 2050s may be unavoidable due to past emissions, the report predicts.

Internews' Earth Journalism Network led a group of reporters on a field trip to the Pichavaram mangroves (pictured here) to talk to fishing communities and learn about the importance of this ecosystem. / Credit: Nidhi Adlakha

There is no doubt that our coasts are the worst affected, but climate change poses a particular threat to urban residents and is expected to further drive urbanization, ultimately placing more people at risk. The World Bank report highlights how, in coastal cities, large populations and assets are exposed to climate change risks, including increased intensity of tropical storms, long-term sea-level rise and the sudden onset of coastal flooding. What our communities need now is development that is climate-proof: Adaptation measures that are embedded in local cultures and cost-effective solutions rooted in nature.

Fish and reefs

For local communities that have seen the coastline alter drastically in the last 50 years, changing fish migration patterns and dwindling populations of marine life (oil sardines, catfish, dolphins), as well as coral reefs, seaweed, and more are cause for concern.

Projections indicate that all coral reefs in Southeast Asia are very likely to experience severe thermal stress by 2050, as well as chemical stress due to ocean acidification. More than 30 fish species have disappeared from our coastal fishing grounds since 1985. Local fishermen say these could be the result of irreversible climate changes.

Nidhi Adlakha (left) and a few other reporters talk with fisherwomen in a village near the Pichavaram mangroves / Credit: Sara Schonhardt

And rampant construction in coastal towns has also affected climate significantly. As a fisherman pointed out, “It isn’t just the government to blame. We are equally responsible for what we are witnessing today.”

From discussions with the Ramnad Fishworkers’ Trade Union, here are the primary issues the fishing community faces today:

  • Rising water temperatures, which affect quality and quantity of marine life
  • Rich fishermen go far out to sea with trawlers, depleting resources
  • Certain government-sanctioned fishing nets negatively impact fish populations
  • Sand mining is a menace

Nidhi Adlakha produced this story following an EJN-supported media workshop on climate change reporting in the Indian regions of the Bay of Bengal, part of the Bay of Bengal Climate Resiliency Initiative.