A joint stakeholder initiative is required to raise climate-linked loss and damage in the Sundarbans at global platforms, officials and experts from Bangladesh and India agreed in Kolkata on September 23, 2023. The global platforms would include the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to be held from November 30-December 12 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The officials and experts from either side of the Radcliffe Line in the Bengal region met in Kolkata at an event organised by the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission, along with city-based nonprofit Environment Governed Integrated Organisation (EnGIO). Climate change triggered problems in the Sundarbans, the largest delta in the world, should be seen as a “global commons”, the attendees felt. This is because the region gets significantly affected despite contributing minimally to carbon emissions.

Climate impacts in the Sundarbans — a UNESCO World Heritage Site split between West Bengal in India (40 per cent) and Bangladesh (60 per cent) — impact eight million people. A sizeable population has already been affected multiple times, apart from on its unique ecosystem including iconic Bengal tigers. “The Sundarbans’ climate change impacts should be seen as a global commons … A narrative should be created to focus on possible loss and damage in the transboundary Sundarbans,” said Saber Hossain Chowdhury, special envoy to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed on climate change. He spoke online from New York, where he was taking part in a ministerial meeting on loss and damage.

Chowdhury added that the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between both countries can be utilised to develop the joint climate narrative and global awareness on the issue.  Harjeet Singh, a member of the UN Transitional Committee on Loss and Damage, accepted that climate change in the Sundarbans was still not that visible at the international level despite its high vulnerability. “The Sundarbans are definitely entitled to get loss and damage support,” he said.

“The Sundarbans are a common heritage for all of us. Previously, loss and damage was not generally included in climate change discourse. But after COP27, the situation has changed,” said Andalib Elias, deputy high commissioner for Bangladesh, Kolkata. “We will soon come up with the meeting outcome report; and based on that, expect to build up a joint stakeholder narrative,” said a representative from EnGIO that has been working on climate change in the Sundarbans since 2010.

“We expect the Sundarbans to feature in Dubai; and the joint narrative will be a useful tool in that context. We also plan to organise a specific side event to discuss the way forward on the Sundarbans in Dubai,” said Sanjay Vashist of Climate Action Network South Asia; who stressed that both economic and non-economic loss and damage should be considered.

Joint response needed

An assessment based on several recent UN reports was shared in the meeting. It noted that the transboundary Sundarbans are one of the global hotspots of climate change with increasing high intensity cyclones, sea level rise more than double the global average, and a high degree of erosion leading to large- scale forced migration of people.

The report also highlighted that these factors often work in tandem for the Sundarbans, multiplying the risk. According to West Bengal government data,  just three cyclones — Bulbul, Amphan and Yaas — caused losses of about Rs 1.5 lakh crore.

The document also predicted that climate risk in the Indian and Bangladeshi Sundarbans would rapidly increase further with sharp temperature rise, projected increase of cyclones and flooding of low-lying regions in both countries by 2050. Incidentally, the Indian Sundarbans lost 210 square kilometres of land due to sea level rise in the last six decades.

The discussion further highlighted that at least one-fourth of the eight million people living in and around the Sundarbans — about 0.1 per cent of humanity and collectively bigger than several European countries — stand at the doorstep of climate-triggered disasters.  Out of the total population at risk, nearly five million are in India and the rest in Bangladesh.

Prabhat Mishra, West Bengal secretary of irrigation and waterways who leads the Sundarbans Masterplan in the state, supported the need “to develop our collaborative narrative around the Sundarbans”. The state’s disaster management secretary Dusyant Nariala emphasised on permanent solutions for both people and biodiversity of the region.

Professor Ainun Nishat, a climate expert from Bangladesh, emphasised on the need to prioritise adaptation in Sundarbans; and pointed out that till now, no guarantee on loss and damage fund has been provided by developed countries.

“Adaptation is necessary. But in the Sundarbans’ case we seem to have gone beyond it, with issues of sea level rise and salinity becoming really huge,” Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, a professor of Dhaka University and a long-term negotiator, said.

Little progress so far

Singh said the UN Loss and Damage Transitional Committee’s discussions have been progressing very slowly, and a few developed countries are trying to prevent a loss and damage fund structure from taking shape. “We demand that independent money should flow to developing countries for supporting loss and damage,” added Singh.

Aarti Khosla of Climate Trends underlined the importance of finding the correct financing mechanism of supporting loss and damage for the Sundarbans. She stressed on innovative funding, including a push for increasing donor base for the cause. “We should try out some pilots in the Sundarbans,” said Khosla and expressed hope that the framework of loss and damage support would be clearer in Dubai.

Ecological economist and head of think tank Observation Research Foundation’s Kolkata chapter Nilanjan Ghosh agreed that sourcing wider finances for loss and damage beyond the support of developed countries was important.

“We need to identify potential donors, prioritise grants over loans and can think of taxing fossil fuels to generate money,” said Ghosh. He added that it is extremely important to estimate the loss and damage already incurred by the region. Ghosh said the value of variables like property loss, loss of human capital, livelihood loss, and loss of ecosystem services should be considered in the assessment.