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India and Bangladesh agree joint initiative for Sundarbans

India and Bangladesh agree to set up a joint initiative to save the world’s largest mangrove forest from being rapidly destroyed by environmental change

MPs in Bangladesh and India have agreed for the first time to set up a joint platform to preserve the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest that straddles the two South Asian nations.

The parliamentary standing committee of the Ministry of Forest and Environment of Bangladesh recommended the government move forward with the proposed joint platform to protect the ecology of the Sundarbans located in the country’s south-western region.

The Sundarbans is home to Bengal tigers, river dolphins and other endangered species. Its tangled forests also protect the densely populated Bay of Bengal from cyclones and the worst extremes of nature. Yet, it is now threatened by land reclamation, logging and shrimp farming, rising sea levels and dwindling fresh water from the Ganga River.

Hasan Mahmud, chairman of the standing committee and Bangladesh’s former environment minister said an India-Bangladesh joint initiative was a must to save the Sundarbans.

The speaker of India’s West Bengal state legislative assembly, Biman Banerjee, the state minister of disaster management, Javed Khan, and other senior MPs met the Bangladesh parliamentary delegation in Kolkata from March 19-21.

“All the members of the standing committee members were unanimous that we have to form the joint platform to save the Sundarbans from destruction. This (the Sundarbans) is our common pride,” said Yahya Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi committee member.

The Bangladesh environment minister assured MPs that the body would be formed through diplomatic channels. “The body would be similar to that of the Joint Rivers Commission between Bangladesh and India. They would discuss the issues affecting the Sundarbans and recommend the respective governments to execute the decision,” said Chowdhury.

In 1972 Bangladesh and India set up the Joint Rivers Commission to manage the 54 common rivers that flow from India to Bangladesh before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

Md. Yunus Ali, chief conservator of forest, argued the move was essential since ecosystems have no boundaries. “If we cause pollution in Bangladesh, the Indian side will also be affected,” he said.

Separate management of the Sundarbans has led to some practical problems, the chief conservator said; for example, making it difficult to stop wildlife poaching.

Around 10 years ago, he said, Indian Navy personnel mistakenly killed a boatman guarding the Bangladesh portion of the Sundarbans in Satkhira’s Mandarbari area. “Joint management would stop such misunderstandings in future,” he said.

The political authorities of the two countries will now discuss the modus operandi of executing the joint platform.

Dr. Dilip Kumar Datta, a professor of environmental science at Khulna University, believes the platform will also provide an opportunity for India to learn from Bangladesh.

“In terms of all environmental parametres, the condition of the Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans is better than that of the West Bengal portion. The human activities and exploitation of resources from the Indian portion of the Sundarbans is higher than in our portion,” said Datta, who completed his Ph.D. from India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

For instance, Bangladesh can share its experience restricting economic activities—such as logging, fishing, extracting honey and other natural resources— and reducing pollution in the mangrove forest, which provides a natural buffer against extreme weather events.

Reviving Ganga flow essential  

Dr Datta said reduction of water flow from the Ganga River was one of the reasons for the deteriorating ecosystem of the Sunderbans.

The Sundarbans covers over 10,000 square kilometres in the mouth of the Bay of Bengal, where fresh water from the Ganga mixes with the saline water of the bay. The construction of India’s Farraka barrage on the Ganga has reduced the flow of water downstream in Bangladesh over the past four decades, resulting in rising salinity levels in the Sundarbans and damage the flora and fauna of the mangrove forest, 60% of which lies in Bangladesh.

In 1997 India and Bangladesh signed an agreement to share the waters of the Ganga. But the volume of water available is not enough to sustain the ecology of the Sundarbans, which supports the livelihoods of millions of poor people on both sides of the border.

“Creation of the proposed joint platform will strengthen our demand for more water release from upstream. If it works in a cordial manner, India is likely to do whatever possible to increase the flow of sweet water from the Ganga to save our common resources,” said professor Datta.

Former ambassador Humayaun Kabir was also optimistic about the proposal: “There are ways of implementing the recommendations. For instance, there could a joint working group that would develop policies, monitor and give necessary guidelines in the preservation of the Sundarbans,” Kabir told thethirdpole.net.

“If we preserve the Sundarbans with concerted efforts, the Sundarbans would attract thousands of tourists. Through responsible tourism, we can ensure livelihood of the common men living in the Sundarbans areas.”

The joint body, however, will only be effective if there is political will. The Joint River Commission is legally bound to hold at least one meeting every six months, but often the commission has not met for years because of the reluctance of the two governments.