Keeping Storms at Bay in the Sundarbans

Keeping Storms at Bay in the Sundarbans

Nov 26, 2023

William Wallock

In 2019, the construction of a concrete embankment separating the villages of Sagarmadhapur and Dakshin Shibpur from the Bay of Bengal was completed. Located in the Patharpratima block of the Indian Sundarbans, the concrete embankment is roughly 30 feet high by 80 feet wide and was financed primarily by India’s central government. The intended effect of the embankment is to prevent saltwater from inundating agricultural lands during cyclones and intense monsoon events. Before 2018, an earthen embankment stood in place of the concrete embankment but was frequently breached during storms. Consequently, homes in the villages of Sagarmadhapur and Dakshin Shibpur were regularly flooded, and people in the villages could lose an entire year’s worth of crops during a severe flooding event. The floods would also contaminate the limited drinking water available, further contributing to forced migration from the region. The new concrete embankment has not yet failed, and farmers in the two villages are beginning to live with less concern of total catastrophe.

Concrete embankment separating Sagarmadhapur and Dakshin Shibpur from the Bay of Bengal.

However, the concrete embankment has only replaced a portion of the old earthen embankment, so there is still frequent saltwater inundation of the two villages. Unfortunately, the State government has exhausted all allocated funds for the project. There are currently no plans to replace the remaining portions of the earthen embankment even though maintenance is considerably more expensive for earthen embankments compared to concrete embankments. 

Earthen embankment separating Sagarmadhapur and Dakshin Shibpur from the Bay of Bengal.

The embankment has also had some negative impacts on the coastal ecology of the region. The mangrove trees that once surrounded the embankment are now quickly disappearing due to soil erosion caused by the concrete. Local community members are trying to protect these mangroves by preventing their livestock from grazing on the mangrove roots, but their efforts have not been entirely effective. The national Indian program to build a robust carbon credit system for tree planting, also known as REDD+ by the UNFCCC, has not taken root in Sagarmadhapur or Dakshin Shibpur.

Soil erosion near the concrete embankment is exponentially quicker than the erosion around the earthen embankment. Both the West Bengal State government and the local people are concerned that rapid soil erosion will threaten the structural integrity of the concrete embankment and lead to its failure. Nonetheless, the people in the villages still prefer the concrete embankment to the earthen embankment because the concrete is a more reliable barrier.

One way to prevent soil erosion near the embankments is through the planting of mangroves. We met with a group of seven women dedicated to the planting of mangroves along the villages’ embankments. In Sagarmadhapur and Dakshin Shibpur, women are responsible for almost the entire process of planting mangroves since most men have migrated to larger cities in search of higher wages. The two villages have four groups of women, each with 10 to 12 members, who are responsible for 4,800 square feet of mangrove forest. The four groups rotate responsibility for mangrove forestry every month with most of the work occurring during low tide. Since 2019, the women have already planted almost 8,000 mangrove saplings with nearly 2,000 of these trees remaining in the mangrove nursery.

Group of women responsible for the planting and upkeep of mangroves.

The planting of mangroves has already had some early success with the earthen embankments being more resilient to storms than previously. The mangroves also serve as a breeding ground for crabs and prawns, which are a source of food for the village and can provide supplementary income.

The women are keen to continue planting mangroves and want to expand their efforts to the village-facing side of the embankment. However, obtaining permission from the State government remains difficult, and there is disagreement regarding the best trees to cultivate. Government officials prefer planting eucalyptus and acacia due to their commercial value whereas local NGOs, including the Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC), opt for indigenous varieties such as the neem and arjun trees, which have stronger root systems and additional social benefits. The West Bengal government remains skeptical. While leaving the village, the women stressed to us the importance of the mangrove trees to their lives and continued survival in the Sundarbans.

A paddy field in Sagarmadhapur that is now protected by the concrete embankment.