Richard Orange

Story of a sinking land

You couldn’t hope for a more perfect climate change victim than Ajay Patra, the head man of Ghoramara — the island in India’s Sunderban chain that is next in line to be submerged beneath the rising sea.

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You couldn’t hope for a more perfect climate change victim than Ajay Patra, the head man of Ghoramara — the island in India’s Sunderban chain that is next in line to be submerged beneath the rising sea.

You couldn’t hope for a more perfect climate change victim than Ajay Patra, the head man of Ghoramara — the island in India’s Sunderban chain that is next in line to be submerged beneath the rising sea. The hungry tide had already claimed all but seven of the 100 hectares his family had once owned, Ajay told me. Each year, he directs his villagers to pile felled trees onto the mud, in the deluded hope of building the island back up. And each monsoon, the sea ripped the crude barriers down, tearing off another chunk of his birthright. He was like a modern-day Canute.

As we sipped tea outside Ajay’s large mud bungalow, I excitedly scribbled down my notes, imagining how all this would go down in the Ecologist magazine or perhaps the Independent. It had already run an article reporting the disappearance of the next-door island of Lohachara, ‘the first inhabited island to be claimed by climate change’. I felt sure they’d love this too. But when I asked Ajay what he made of the fact that all of his troubles were the direct result of heavy industry thousands of miles away, he looked at me like I was mad.

‘It’s not because of global warming, it’s because of natural erosion,’ he said. ‘People settled this island before they should have, the land mass is unstable.’

I smiled inwardly. It was perhaps too much to expect a simple village leader to have a full grasp of the science of global warming. But later, as I examined the dramatic waterline of Ghoramara, I began to have doubts. There were steep, jagged mud cliffs, two or three metres high, marking where the rough sea had torn off strips of land in the last monsoon. Wouldn’t a submerging island sit a bit lower in the water? The other giveaway was the local names for the rivers. There’s the Matla (the drunken river), and the Ichamati (the free-willed river), both named because of the frequency with which they shift course, destroying land here and throwing up new land elsewhere.

Then there’s New Moore Island, which appeared in the Sunderbans for the first time in 1970 and has been growing apace ever since (causing a dispute between India and Bangladesh as to who should own it). New Moore Island was 2,500 square metres when it emerged. It’s around 10,000 square metres today, and such is the scale of the sedimentary deposits building up around it that it’s expected to hit 25 square kilometres in a couple of decades.

To my shame, I must confess that I still tried to make the story work long after all this was apparent. And I imagine every other journalist who has arrived on these islands with global warming in mind has done exactly the same thing.

 It wasn’t until I met Sugata Hazra, the Director of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University in nearby Kolkata, and the man who claimed to have discovered the disappearance of Lohachara in 2002, that the alarm bells started ringing at full volume. Hazra claimed that ‘relative sea levels’ in the Sunderbans were rising at 3.2mm a year, about twice the global rate. It seemed fishy to me.

Geologically, the Sunderbans may be sinking. The weight of the sediment coming down the Ganges from the Himalayas is gradually tilting the plate on which it sits. But this has nothing to do with global warming or rising sea levels. After all, no one ever links New Moore Island’s rise to ‘relative falling sea levels’.

If about 2.2mm of Hazra’s 3.2mm came from ‘natural subsidence’ and erosion, as Hazra’s own 2002 study admitted, wasn’t it a bit misleading to blame rising sea levels? ‘It’s a complicated process that isn’t fully understood,’ was all Dr Hazra would said when pressed.

On the nearby island of Ganga Sagar, the wild divergence between Dr Hazra’s account and that of the villagers became embarrassingly obvious. Those set to lose their land were certainly suffering. But no one blamed rising sea levels. They blamed the government’s unwillingness to spend money on a proper concrete breakwater, and the shortsightedness of the well-meaning philanthropists who had settled them there over the last 100 years.

This is what Ajay Patra had meant by the land being settled too soon. Up until the late 19th century, very few people lived on the Sunderban islands, partly because of their tendency to vanish every hundred years or so. It was a Scot, Sir Daniel Hamilton, who pioneered the settlement on Sagar, and at around the same time Ghoramara and Lohachara were settled with landless peasants by their owner — a socially minded maharaja from the mainland. Neither gave much thought as to why the land was uninhabited. It’s their lack of foresight that’s to blame for the plight of the Sunderban islanders.

Some time later, when I was back in London for a few weeks, I came across an issue of the Ecologist. On the front cover was a spindly Indian boy of about 11, standing on a small spit of muddy sand, completely surrounded by water — as if the photographer had somehow chanced upon the island at the exact point of its disappearance. It was the island of Ghoramara. ‘His exhausted body a prisoner to the Bay of Bengal’s violent tides, Dependra Das stretches out his bony arms’ ran the introduction. The headline was: ‘The world’s first environmental refugees’.