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Sunderbans is now drowning in plastic

Context:

Cyclone-ravaged Sunderbans is now drowning in plastic as plastic accumulating in the isolated islands of the fragile ecosystem are cause for great concern.

Relevance:

GS-III: Environment and Ecology (Environmental Pollution and Degradation, Conservation of the Environment and Ecology), GS-I: Geography (Physical Geography, Indian Geography)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Sunderbans
  2. Flora and Fauna of the Sunderbans
  3. Risks faced by the Sunderbans
  4. About the recent study on Plastic in Sunderbans

Sunderbans

  • Sunderbans, formerly Sunderbunds, is a vast tract of forest and saltwater swamp forming the lower part of the Ganga (Padma)-Brahmaputra River delta in southeastern West Bengal state, northeastern India, and southern Bangladesh.
  • The tract extends approximately more than 250 kms west-east along the Bay of Bengal from the Hugli River estuary in India to the western segment of the Meghna River estuary in Bangladesh.
  • A network of estuaries, tidal rivers, and creeks intersected by numerous channels, it encloses flat, densely forested, marshy islands.
  • Three-fifths of the Sunderbans area is in Bangladesh, out of the approximate 10 thousand square kilometers of area it covers.
  • Much of the area has long had the status of a forest reserve, but conservation efforts in India were stepped up with the creation of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve in 1973.
  • Sunderbans National Park, established in 1984, constitutes a core region within the tiger reserve; it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

Flora and Fauna of the Sunderbans

  • The forestland transitions into a low-lying mangrove swamp approaching the coast, which itself consists of sand dunes and mud flats.
  • Mangrove forests constitute about two-fifths of the Sunderbans region’s overall surface area, with water covering roughly half of that area.
  • Mangrove forests perform multiple ecological functions such as production of woody trees, provision of habitat, food and spawning grounds for fin-fish and shellfish, provision of habitat for birds and other valuable fauna; protection of coastlines and accretion of sediment to form new land.
  • Notably, it is one of the last preserves of Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris), which are found in relative abundance there. The Sunderbans Delta is the only mangrove forest in the world inhabited by tigers. s
  • Other mammals include spotted deer, wild boars, otters, wildcats, and Ganges river dolphins (Platanista gangetica), but several species that once inhabited the region—including Javan rhinoceroses, guar, water buffalo, and spotted deer—are now believed to be extinct there.
  • Several dozen reptile and amphibian species are found in the Sunderbans, notably crocodiles, Indian pythons, cobras, and marine turtles.
  • The region is home to more than 250 bird species—both seasonal migrants and permanent residents—including hornbills, storks and other waders, kingfishers, white ibis, and raptors such as sea eagles.

Risks faced by the Sunderbans

  • The landscape is constantly being transformed by the erosional forces of the sea and wind along the coast and by the enormous loads of silt and other sediments that are deposited along the myriad estuaries.
  • Human activity has also altered the landscape, notably through forest removal, which accelerates erosion.
  • In addition, because considerable amounts of river water have been diverted upstream for irrigation and other uses, salinity in the mangrove swamps has moved farther inland, especially in the Indian sector of the territory.
  • During each monsoon season almost all the Bengal Delta is submerged, much of it for half a year. The shore currents vary greatly along with the monsoon and they are also affected by cyclonic action. Erosion and accretion through these forces maintains varying levels of physiographic change.
  • In a study conducted in 2012, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) found out that the Sunderban coast was retreating up to 200 metres (660 ft) in a year.
  • Agricultural activities had destroyed more than 40 thousand acres of mangroves from 1975 to 2010. Shrimp cultivation had destroyed more than 18 thousand acres during that time.
  • The mangrove vegetation itself provides a remarkable stability to the entire system, and loss of the mangrove forest will result in the loss of the protective biological shield against cyclones and tsunamis.

About the recent study on Plastic in Sunderbans

  • While it is difficult to estimate the total amount of plastic waste that’s arriving in about 50 inhabited islands of the Sunderbans spread across thousands of square kilometres, tonnes of plastic is seen in the remote areas of the Sunderbans causing concerns to be raised over the huge dumping of plastic waste.
  • The presence of plastic in saline water will increase the toxicity of water gradually and also there will be eutrophication of water.
  • Because of the presence of plastics in the water, there will be an increase in microplastics, which will slowly enter the food system.
  • Sunderbans are connected to the sea and the increase of plastic in the region could lead to plastic in the water entering the ocean.
  • Sunderbans is home to a population of 5 million, is largely dependent on fisheries and aquaculture, and any change in the delicate ecosystem can spell doom not only for the ecology but also to livelihoods.
  • The threat posed by plastic is so great for the Sundarbans because the region is witnessing frequent tropical storms, which lead to devastation, followed by the necessity for relief and rehabilitation of inhabitants.
  • There is an urgent need to stop the influx of plastic in the region by maintaining a tight vigil on the entrances to the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve and the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. NGOs and locals should be encouraged to collect plastic waste, which should be recycled.

-Source: The Hindu

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October 2022
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