Improper Embankment Planning and lack of Protection leads to livelihood shock in Sagar Island

Rituporna Nath
May 13, 2016

Sagar Island, situated in the East coast of India, is the biggest among the 54 inhabited deltaic islands of Sundarban. Like other islands of Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, this island is also characterized by mangrove swamps, waterways and small rivers. The major livelihood here is Agriculture and fishing and fishery related enterprises.

Fishermen and prawn seed collector women of Sagar Island

As per census 2011, the population of Sagar Block is 2, 11,993 and about 37,674 families inhabit in 47 mouzas of Sagar spreading over 66,399 acres of area. In the past decade, Sagar has already lost about 30 km2 of land. At the same time, Sagar is also now home to about 20,000 climate refugees from other islands which have disappeared or fast disappearing due to climate change. Among the total population, 58,284 belong to the Scheduled Caste and 834 are Scheduled Tribe. Thus, more than 25% of the population of Sagar belong to marginalised section of population who has to bear the curse of social discrimination.

Due to premature reclamation, ground level in some parts of Sagar Island is approximately 3 meters below the eustatic sea level. These areas are protected by embankments which breach frequently due to increased tidal action and wave energy as a result of climate change. The situation has further deteriorated due to indiscriminate clearing of mangroves on the riverside of the embankments in the past decades. For lack of affordable and available land, about 8000 to 10,000 families live along riverside and are exposed to adverse climatic conditions.

Embankment breaching in Sagar Island

The land based primary livelihood agriculture is highly impacted by the rising sea levels, coastal erosion, loss of mangrove cover and salt water intrusion. The entire area is low-lying and parts of it are regularly submerged by the tidal ebb and any change in sea level is a direct threat to life and property. The increment in salinity badly affects fishermen and farmers alike. More than 40% of the community in Sagar Island is dependent on fishing. So, the changing sea surface temperature and salinity is hugely affecting their fish catch and economy.

Unpredicted rainfall patterns also upset the farmers as most of them are dependent on rain-fed conventional cultivation of crops. Shifting of rainfall to the post-monsoon period has left them confused which crop to grow and when. The community in Sagar mostly practice monocrop and the rain usually arrives when the harvest is ready to be reaped. Thus, a large section of the standing crop get destroyed every year. If that was not enough then salt water intrusion is ready to spoil the cultivation fields due to sea level rise and embankment breaching.  

Flood victims moving towards higher areas in Sagar Island
In Sundarbans, maximum erosion occurs in the South Western part and Sagar is one of them. Every year, either moving embankments towards landward side or river swallows a good share of land in the south east centre Dhablat, the north east Kuchuberia and Beguakhali on the south coast. As per the satellite image and available information, the entire south coast of Sagar island has been eroding at least for the last 50 years. This results not only loss of property and lives but also a huge loss of cultivable land and livelihoods.

The ever increasing tidal waves enter several parts of the island and constantly increasing the salinity of the cultivable lands. This is badly affecting the cultivation of vegetables and major crops like paddy and betel vine. The community here is well aware of the fact that without proper planning and protection of embankment, agriculture will stand still in Sagar Island. They complain about improper use of the government funds for embankment construction by the local middlemen.

Betelvine, the second major crop of Sagar Island, is also under huge threat due to Climate Change. The plant grows best in mild temperature and high humidity. It is a high risk crop that requires frequent watering to keep it alive and healthy. It is very sensitive to saline and alkaline soils. Erratic rainfall pattern and constantly rising temperature is giving tough time to the betelvine cultivators. Most of the farmers cannot afford to bear the cost of irrigation and fail to maintain the vineyard properly. The changing climate also increases a number of fungal and bacterial pathogens and cause different diseases to the plant. The most common diseases are Anthracnose, Angary, marginal blight and leaf spot affecting both leaves and vines. Moreover, the farmers are not aware of various modern agricultural techniques and crop insurance which may help during flood or drought like disastrous situation.

Nitai Barui, a 76 year old resident of Sagar Island says that he had seen intrusion of salt water during monsoon since his childhood days but this process has pre-poned in recent years and salt water intrusion starts even from the month of March and April. His wrinkled face turned pale when he said, “The salt water will again destroy our agricultural lands if any concrete plan is not prepared to protect the embankment.”

Spraying pesticide in the betelvine yard Fishing is the second most practised livelihood in Sagar and most fishermen are complaining of lower volumes of fish catch. The fishermen community blames it partially to the violation of territorial waters by deep sea trawlers and also to the increase in the salinity of the water.

Abdar Ali Shah, Secretary of Sagar Marine Fishermen Association, says that he has been associated with the deep sea fishing for last 25 years. He quipped, “Now-a-days, the catch of fish is quite low compared to 20 years back. The changes in temperature, humidity and erosion have affected the spawning of fishes. In fact, water is much polluted these days because of pesticides and by the trawlers. Many members of our fishing community are running under debt due to decline in fish catch. All efforts to improve the situation have turned futile and fishing craft owners are almost bankrupt and committing suicide.”

Sagar has got grid electricity in 2014 but this has left the existing PV plants unutilized which are public property. Tapas Chakrabarti, Asst. Professor, Electronics & Communication Engineering, Heritage Institute of Technology, Kolkata conducted a case study recently on these unutilized photovoltaic cells in Sagar Island. Sharing his study results, Mr. Chakrabarti said that 9 plants are not working at present except the plant of Koylapara. He added that these plants may be connected to the grid with minimum investment as the infrastructures of the plants are there and the produced solar photovoltaic power may be connected to the grid. The renewable energy produced from these plants can compensate the conventional power and also can minimize the environmental hazards due to the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This can also open up the scope of earning revenue and generate employment for the local youths.

Tapas Chakrabarti, Asst. Professor, Electronics & Communication Engineering,
Heritage Institute of Technology, checking the condition of the PV plants in SagarSEED (Society for Socio Economic and Ecological Development) has been working in Sagar Island since last decade and trying to develop different alternate livelihood opportunities mainly for the Climate Change refugees who migrated from nearby submerged islands like Lohachera, Suparibhanga and Ghoramara. Initially, the organization formed and mobilized different SHGs (Self Help Groups) and provided capacity building trainings in alternate livelihoods like preparation of Handicraft items, value added products (pickles, papad, squash etc.), organic agriculture and aquaculture and integrated pest management.

Capacity builidng training of women in Organic agriculture and Handicraft items by SEED

A non-formal school was also organised for the Climate affected vulnerable community children and health camps are being organized often in addition to disaster preparedness workshops. Different awareness campaigns on Biodiversity Conservation and Climate Change effects on livelihood have been organized in Sagar by SEED. Fish Production Groups (FPGs) were organized and linked to RKVY plan of Govt. of West Bengal to facilitate their entrepreneurship.  

Non- Formal school run by SEED in Sagar IslandHowever, all these activities will turn futile if a proper embankment protection planning does not come up. Considering the pace of rise in sea levels and coastal erosion, proper planning for embankment protection is high priority for more than 2 lakh islanders in Sagar. A joint action plan with involvement of local communities, NGOs, specialized government representative might enhance community resilience and provide a sustainable solution to the vulnerable situation of Sagar Island.


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