Facing Disastrous Floods, They Turned to Mangrove Trees for Protection

LAKSHMIPUR, India — The women strapped binoculars around their necks, fastened bright green saris and climbed into a speedboat to begin their weekly patrol in the Sundarbans, one of the world’s largest deltas and a study of urgent case on the effects of climate. change.

As sea levels rise, eroding embankments and pushing water closer to their doorsteps, residents of hundreds of villages in the Sundarbans, an immense network of rivers, tidal flats, small islands and vast mangrove forests that spread out on both sides of India and Bangladesh, have found their lives. and livelihoods in jeopardy.

In the absence of much government support, women like Aparna Dhara, with the help of a nonprofit environmental conservation organization, have devised their own solution: plant hundreds of thousands of additional mangroves to reinforce their role as protective barriers.

“Our land and our livelihoods have been hit many times by raging cyclones and unpredictable heavy rains,” said Ms. Dhara, 30, as she and the other women on the boat discussed where they needed to plant more trees. “The rhythm of our lives depends on the ebb and flow of the water around us, which makes the mangroves our lifelines.”

His mission has a devastating backstory.

After Cyclone Aila hit the region in 2009, causing floods and landslides, almost 200 people lost their lives. The storm exposed the growing dangers posed by climate change to the millions of people who live in the lower Sundarbans, thousands of square miles of wetland jutting out into the Bay of Bengal.

Amid rising waters, crocodiles have begun to enter the villages. Erratic monsoon seasons have replaced more predictable ones. And the increased salinity in the water has killed fish “as if the whole area had been crushed under the thumb,” said Ajanta Dey, a Kolkata conservationist.

The damage has been felt disproportionately by the most marginalized of the Sundarbans, whose population on the Indian side of the border is some 4.5 million. Many live in areas reached after one-day boat trips.

A few years ago, as Ms. Dey was documenting the remnants of the cyclone, women like Dhara approached her and pointed out areas where their homes once stood. Ms. Dey suggested planting more mangroves between existing embankments and open water. By 2015, more than 15,000 women had signed up for the mission, according to Ms. Dey, director of programs for the Nature Environment and Wildlife Society.

While everyone is welcome to participate, many men in the Sundarbans migrate to the cities for work, meaning that it is the women of the villages who are often leading the fight against climate change.

The women, based on their in-depth knowledge of the Sundarbans, make hand maps of areas where mangroves can be planted. They grow the seeds in saplings and then, in baskets or boats, they carry the saplings and dig up the mudflats to plant them. Later, they track their growth on a mobile app.

In Ms. Dhara’s village, Lakshmipur, the number of acres covered by mangroves increased from 343 to 2,224 in the last decade. In areas that had been barren-looking mudflats just a few years ago, cranes, gulls, and herons abound on the flat, rounded leaves of mangrove trees.

Found only in tropical and subtropical climates, mangroves are distinguished by their ability to survive in brackish water. Research has shown that mangrove forests are an excellent way to mitigate the effects of climate change, especially the storm surges that accompany cyclones, by reducing the height and speed of waves. Mangroves also help reduce greenhouse gases as they have high rates of carbon sequestration.

As well as reducing the effects of flooding with their dense tangle of roots, they also help increase fisheries by providing a natural habitat for crabs and other crustaceans.

Facing the picturesque Muri Ganga River, Lakshmipur lies in the southwestern part of the Sundarbans, the vast expanse of which is home to tigers, lush mangroves and rare snakes.

In the village, each house has its own pond, where people bathe, wash clothes and draw water to irrigate their gardens.

On a recent afternoon, women were weaving fishing nets in the alleys. The chicks ran through small farms full of cauliflowers and tomatoes. A brick and cement embankment surrounded one side of the town, which is home to more than 2,500 people.

“Thousands of acres of village land have been lost to the river in the last 50 years,” said Bhaskar Mistry, 60, a member of the village council, who was born in Lakshmipur and has witnessed hundreds of storms there. .

As the surrounding brackish water continues to invade the village land, the people have stopped growing rice, their staple crop, because the soil is too salty.

Ms. Dhara’s in-laws lost two of their homes, a large farm and their freshwater pond due to rising waters.

Years of living with the consequences of climate change have left Ms. Dhara gripped by anxiety, she said, unable to sleep soundly when it rains, afraid of what might happen next.

While many in the village share her sense of living on the brink of a climate disaster, Ms. Dhara said it nonetheless seemed impossible at first to persuade her family to let her join the women’s group planting mangroves in 2013. .

“Who will cook, wash and clean the house if you work? You are the daughter-in-law of the house and you must work inside like we did,” Ms. Dhara recalled her mother-in-law yelling at her. For many other women in the Sundarbans, the story is similar.

“These women are not only at supreme risk, but often they can’t even make their voice heard on how to avoid that risk or how to avoid it,” said John Knox, former UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment.

But Ms. Dhara persisted and was able to convince her family that the trees would not only help keep the village safe from flooding, but would also be an opportunity for additional income. Ms. Dey’s organization pays the women to cultivate and plant mangroves, and also helps them sell fish, vegetables, honey, eggs and other local products.

Women participating in the program earn, on average, around $430 a year, a significant boost for a family in India, where the per capita income is around $1,900.

This kind of financial incentive in environmental restoration efforts is essential for local communities to participate, Dey said, especially women, whose families would not allow them to participate otherwise.

The women, realizing that their compatriots were not taking their work seriously when they wore their everyday saris, also asked for uniforms to be provided. The official-looking greens they now wear symbolize the nature of their efforts and lend weight and credibility to their mission, the women said.

In the village of Gobardhanpur, near the border with Bangladesh, a group of women between the ages of 25 and 60 gathered at a mangrove nursery. Every monsoon, the women plant new seeds, braving snakes, thorny bushes and biting snails that hide deep in the mud.

But, they say, the benefits of all the hard work are clear.

As the cyclones intensified in recent years, everyone in the village noticed that the embankment next to the new mangrove did not give way. The wall of trees slowed the incoming water, lessening its impact as it reached the embankment.

Last fall, a group of men began infiltrating the mangrove forest to collect a type of snail buried among the mangrove roots. Trees were being uprooted, and to Madhumita Bagh, who helps oversee the village’s mangrove efforts, it was as if someone had beaten her child. She complained to the police and the men stopped coming.

“We are not going to give up,” said Ms. Bagh, who teaches women from neighboring villages about the mangrove program.

Ms Dhara said she has also developed a family affection for trees.

“The mangroves are like our children,” he said. “If we don’t take care of them, they will die.”

Over the past two years, the local government has begun giving participants public land to use as mangrove nurseries and has been buying some of the women’s saplings. They, too, have been impressed by your efforts.

“Women are like silent climate warriors,” said Shantanu Singha Thakur, a district government official.

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