THE GANGES-BRAHMAPUTRA-MEGHNA DELTA—covering most of Bangladesh and part of India’s West Bengal—is the world's biggest delta and home to the Sundarbans, the largest contiguous halophytic (salt-tolerant) mangrove forest on earth.
The Sundarbans, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, is now disappearing at a rapid rate.
Thanks to human-induced climate change, three-quarters of this brutal, ever-changing milieu—home to some 130 million people—risks destruction. Global warming is accompanied by other anthropogenic stress factors, including the exploitation of timber resources, agricultural expansion, and coastal development.
Subsidence and increased rates of glacial melt in the Himalayas have led to rising water levels that have all but consumed many Sundarban islands; nearly 4 percent of the forest and several islands have disappeared in the past few years.
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Warmer sea temperatures have also led to devastating cyclones, such as 2007’s Sidr, 2009’s Aila, and 2014’s Hudhud. In addition to destroying property and lives, these storms were accompanied by surges that increased the area’s water-salinity levels, undermining soil and crop quality, threatening the health of the mangroves, and depleting the number of native freshwater fish, which locals rely on for their food and livelihoods.
The impact of the ongoing devastation of the delta will also be felt by those further away; the depletion of mangrove forests—which provide a protective biological shield against cyclones and tsunamis—puts major cities such as Bangladesh’s Dhaka and India’s Kolkata at risk of environmental catastrophes, such as flooding and depleted groundwater supplies. But the most acute effects are still felt by inhabitants of the area’s more rural regions.
As a man from G-Plot Island, India, explained in 2015, "Bereft of our land and livelihood, we are all but shunyo rajas”—kings of a bereft land—“in this former land of plenty.”