One Ecosystem, Two Countries: Allocating Freshwater Flow for the Sundarbans

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By Kendra Patterson – The Sundarbans, a 10,000 square kilometer mangrove forest shared between Bangladesh and India (60/40), is a land in flux.  Watered by the twice-daily salty tides of the Bay of Bengal and seasonal freshwater flows from the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system, its biodiversity and health depend on a variable balance of salinity levels in its network of deltic waterways.  These waterways and the tree and shrub-covered mudflats they intersperse form a mangrove habitat that functions as a nursery for fish and crustaceans, protects inland areas from storm surges, and provides livelihoods to millions.  It is an ecosystem that by its very nature is adaptable to change: constant erosion and accretion cause islands to spring up or disappear within decades.  However, the natural environment of the Sundarbans has recently been changing too quickly for the forest to adjust.           

In the last 50 years, dry season freshwater flows into the Sundarbans on both sides of the Bangladesh-India border have decreased because of upstream diversions.  The Farakka Barrage, an Indian dam built on the Ganges 10 kilometers upriver of Bangladesh, is a main contributor to this decline.  The Sundarbans is being slowly choked of its freshwater supply.  Salinity measurements at the Bangladeshi city of Khulna, just north of the forest, showed a seven-fold increase after the commissioning of Farakka in 1975, making the water too salty for human consumption and irrigation.  The Gorai river, a distributary of the Ganges and a major supplier of freshwater to the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, has completely dried up every year from January to May since 1988.  The impacts on the livelihoods of the millions of people in both countries who depend on the forest include decreasing fish catches, a conversion of farmland to often exploitative commercial prawn farms, and shrinking fuelwood supplies.  The impact on the forest itself has been felt in a general declining biodiversity, a dying-off of less salt-tolerant mangroves, and an existential threat to species such as the Bengal tiger and the Ganges River dolphin.   

While the forest is largely a protected reserve in both countries, and India and Bangladesh have separately been fairly successful in managing their parts sustainably, the threats the Sundarbans faces now require cooperative management.  Thus far, little has been done in the official or practical spheres to recognize it as one ecosystem.  One project, “Conservation of Biodiversity in Sundarban through a Two-Country Approach,” which proposed a joint tiger census, coordination of biodiversity research, and cooperation in preventing cross-border poaching, was canceled when the project’s foreign funder failed to come through with the USD 3 million it had pledged to support the project after the preparatory phase.  Indeed, the international community has been less than supportive of the one-ecosystem perspective: only the Bangladeshi part of the forest is designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, and UNESCO inscripted the Bangladeshi and Indian parts as separate World Heritage sites.     

International support is essential if this mangrove forest is to be preserved for both its rich biodiversity and the livelihoods of its inhabitants.  However, the real challenge is creating the political will and institutional capacity in Bangladesh and India to jointly manage this ecosystem.  As the attempt at a “Two-Country Approach” shows, the picture is not entirely grim.  Interest and concern exist, and India has a history of entering into strong (if not necessarily uncontested) bilateral treaties for shared resource management.  One place to start would be to revisit the treaty governing the allocation of the Ganges River between India and Bangladesh.  Put into force in 1996 and good until 2026, it contains no provision for environmental flow to protect the river and related ecosystems.  The national water policies of both countries include environmental considerations.  When the Ganges Water-Sharing Treaty comes up for renewal – and preferably prior to this – some of these should be incorporated.  Equally necessary is a treaty for joint management of the Sundarbans itself, one that would ideally be associated with the Ganges Water-Sharing Treaty through institutional collaboration.  One way to encourage both countries to begin to see the Sundarbans as a shared resource is for the international community to officially recognize it as such.  As the world’s largest mangrove forest, it plays a triple role: that of supplier of livelihoods at local levels, a rich source of biodiversity at the binational level, and at the global level, a valuable remnant of our planet’s natural heritage. 

Kendra Patterson is a Research Associate with the Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project.

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