Daily life in the delta revolves around the routine of the tides.

Disappearing Acts in the World’s Largest Delta

Human-induced climate change is causing the disappearance of Bangladesh’s important body of water, and its future remains in doubt

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.

A boat is repaired on a tiny island formed after high tide rolls in, encapsulating the simple yet Sisyphean struggle of staying above rising sea levels.
Out of an original population of 50,000, only 3,000 people remain on Ghoramara Island, India, which is under great risk of being completely submerged in the coming decades.
Arati Sheet stands in front of what was once a pond in her village on Sagar Island, India. The advancing waters have forced her and many others to build temporary shelters, as more and more land gives way to the rapidly encroaching sea.

 

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.

 

Near Kakdwip, India, on the way to disappearing Ghoramara Island.
A couple fishes off the coast of Sagar Island as high tide approaches.
Transporting cows across the river from Sagar Island to the mainland city of Kakdwip. Beef is a major source of meat in West Bengal, which has a significant Muslim population.

 

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.

 

A volunteer from the Hindu organization Bharat Sevashram Sangha patrols the waters during the Gangasagar pilgrimage.
A man holds a clay idol of the god Panchu Thakur on Mousuni Island, India. Allowing the god to touch the ground is strongly discouraged, so the idol rests on the man’s head during his voyage across seas, rivers, and islands.
Pilgrims bathe early in the morning in preparation for the Gangasagar Mela festival, held every year where the Ganges meets the sea. The poles in the background conduct electricity used to light the way for the millions of pilgrims who visit Sagar Island, considered to be one of the most sacred Hindu pilgrimage sites.
Floating Roadways: The Difficulties in Mapping Sea Rise
When seen on Google Maps, coastal roads in the Sundarbans appear to extend into the sea. Clockwise from top left: Char Kalmi, Bangladesh; G-Plot Island, West Bengal, India; Tazumuddin, Bangladesh; near Chanchra Launch Ghat, Bhola Island, Bangladesh; Char Montaz, Bangladesh; and Char Kajal, Bangladesh. Courtesy of Google.

 

The god Panchu Thakur’s chariot and white horse stand partially submerged in a pond on the rapidly disappearing Ghoramara Island, India.
Locals repair the embankments that protect their villages after a particularly strong tidal surge hits Ghoramara Island.

 

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.

 

Frolicking amidst village ruins under a darkening sky on Sagar Island.
A transgender person travels back home by boat after a money-collecting effort in the Sundarbans. The difficulty of finding work faced by transgender individuals in India means that some must resort to asking others for money in exchange for blessings.
Goats reared on the disappearing island are brought en masse to Kakdwip on the mainland to be sold. Many residents have been forced to raise cattle as a direct result of the loss of cultivable land.

 

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.

 

Tidal surges during monsoons effectively cut off certain zones from land.
A woman waits for tourists in Bakkhali, India. In a curious twist of fate, wide expanses of sand lie exposed at low tide, leading to an increased revenue flow for locals from tourism. The waters in this tidal zone are treacherous, with inexperienced tourists often getting stranded (and sometimes drowning) on mudflats in the sea.
Khokon Da with his saw machine in Mousani, India. Local rules dictate that even after a tree has fallen, it remains the property of the owner of the land, whose permission needs to be sought and paid for before the tree can be cut.
Access to many islands is still possible only via water, rendering them quite remote. In certain places—such as Mousuni Island, pictured here—ferries run only once a day.

 

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.”

 

Nitya Gopal lost much of his land and home on Ghoramara Island to rising sea levels. His island is slated to disappear soon.
Sanjay Sheet, Samiran Majhi, and a friend from a village on Sagar Island explore the ruins of their former school building, just moments after it has collapsed amidst the raging waters of the Bay of Bengal.
A clump of dead tree stumps stand in line on Kutubdia Island, Bangladesh, as workers return home. Villagers found a way to work around the destruction of agricultural land inundated by saltwater by turning those fields into productive salt farms.
Children help their father and grandfather lay out huge plastic sheets for salt farming on Kutubdia Island.
A man on Mousuni Island takes a break from transporting his belongings to a relative’s house; this is all that remains after tidal surges destroyed his home by the sea during a monsoon.
Sader Naskar weaves a fishing net by the shore of Mousuni Island. Having lost all his agricultural land, Sader augments his income by selling fishing nets and fishing in his small boat off the coast.
Digging and scavenging for tree trunks to use for firewood on Ghoramara Island. The waters are rapidly eating away at the banks, engulfing farms and homes. Previously well-off families have been left impoverished, bereft of their land and property.

 

Storm clouds gather over Ghoramara Island.

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