Blue Justice Alert: The tragedy of the Sundarbans

A 'Blue Justice Alert' story*

Written By Aishwarya Pattanaik

I was roughly four years old when I first experienced a cyclone. I have seen more than 10 cyclones in my lifetime, and I am just 25 years old! I used to ask my grandfather “How can I make this stop?” as the younger me observed how difficult it was to live without electricity, proper food and drinking water supply. But at the very least we had a roof over our heads to protect us from the wrath of cyclones while many poor people living along the coasts did not. My grandfather would tell me all about the disasters and how they are an act of God; inevitable and impossible to stop by humankind alone. But he also told me about a certain plant species called mangroves which had a unique root system that grew along the coasts, and protected the coastal communities from the direct effects of cyclones by acting as a first line of defense. This is what fascinated me the most and drove me to my academic work as a way to help create a domino effect of change that can alleviate the livelihoods of those worst affected by cyclones.

One such story is of Sundarbans which happens to be my research area. Sundarbans is an essential blue carbon ecosystem that is shared between Bangladesh and India (Banerjee 1998; Chacraverti 2014). It provides several ecosystem services like erosion control, coastal protection, biogeochemical cycles regulation, and breeding grounds for fishes, crabs, and shrimps, among others (Abdullah-Al-Mamun et al. 2017; Chowdhury et al. 2017). The mangrove swamps are comparable to Amazon rainforests in terms of carbon sequestration (Ray et al. 2011, 2013). But currently these ecosystems of Sundarbans are on the verge of obliteration, affecting the culture of millions of small-scale fishers who reside here and who still dependent on low technology fishing gear, relatively small amount of capital and energy and labour-intensive traditional fishing methods (Berkes & Nayak 2018; Chacraverti 2014; Islam & Chuenpagdee 2013; Nayak & Berkes 2014). The region shelters 7.5 million people who are involved in fisheries, forestry, and agriculture (Danda et al. 2011). The major threat to the small-scale fisheries and mangroves of Sundarbans is posed by extreme weather events like cyclones and flooding (Dubey et al. 2017; Dutta et al. 2015). These are natural drivers of change that have generated several vulnerabilities, not only among the fishers but also among mangroves and associated flora and fauna (Bhowmik & Cabral 2013; Chacraverti 2014).

Cyclones are one of the worst drivers that have taken a toll on the region (Sen 2020) and Sundarbans happens to be a cyclone magnet as it experiences 3-5 cyclones of different intensities on average per year (Dutta et al. 2015). 26 cyclones have passed through the region in the past two decades, leading to 35% degradation of vegetation cover (Bhowmik & Cabral 2013; Dubey et al. 2017; Sen 2020). Apart from that, they have impacted the small-scale fishers by destroying their boats, fishing gear, and thatched houses, leaving them homeless, without proper hygiene and sanitation, electricity, water supply and telecommunication (Bhowmik & Cabral 2013; Rahman et al. 2017; Sen 2020). Cyclones have also resulted in several casualties involving fishers (Islam & Chuenpagdee 2013). This has created a chain of vulnerabilities in the lives of small-scale fishers that have disrupted not only their stability but also the sustainability of the entire ecosystem.

This crisis has motivated me to paint and deliver a message of pain and agony felt by these fisher communities, all caused by the cyclones. I named the painting “The Calm before the Storm” to portray the state of fear and uncertainty of the small-scale fishers that question the existence of their livelihoods. Their very own lifestyle is in jeopardy if there is hardly any time to rebuild their homes and recover from the trauma of the previous cyclone, This, in turn, affects their material and subjective wellbeing as well as physical, natural, and financial capitals (Chacraverti 2014). Hence, I would like to draw the attention of researchers and academics worldwide to this crisis, especially as we are nearing the World Small-Scale Fisheries Congress (WSFC) and the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA). This would not only help shed the light on the livelihoods of small-scale fishers but would help alleviate their state of vulnerability and turn it into a state of viability.



Aishwarya Pattanaik

is a graduate student pursuing Masters of Environment Studies in Sustainability Management (SUSM) at the University of Waterloo, Canada. She has completed her Bachelor’s in Botany and Master’s in Ecology and Environment Studies from India. She has worked on mangrove ecosystems, sacred groves, and community-integrated biodiversity conservation in several research projects. She is currently working with Professor Prateep Nayak on “Mangrove-Dependent Small-Scale Fisheries (SSF) in the Sundarbans – From Vulnerability to Viability”.

*Contribute your Blue Justice Alert Story!

We are inviting small-scale fishers and the wider small-scale fisheries community to send short stories depicting current challenges affecting small-scale fisheries, with a particular focus on social injustice and inequity issues. These stories will be posted online as part of the TBTI newest project 'Blue Justice Alert: An Interactive Platform for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries’.


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