June 24, 2024, 1:52 pm

Restoring the Sundarbans Preserving Ecosystem, Strengthening Resilience

  • Update Time : Saturday, May 18, 2024
  • 22 Time View
Photo: Collected

-Nayeema Rashid-

The Sundarbans ecosystem plays a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of the region by being highly productive, serving as nurseries for various marine species and providing breeding grounds and shelter. The complex root systems stabilise the soil and prevent coastal erosion, while also acting as carbon sinks, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and mitigating the impacts of climate change. It provides us with a multitude of economic, social and environmental benefits.

Economically, it supports various industries, including fisheries, tourism, and forestry providing timber and non-timber forest products. For the coastal communities, who rely on the forest for food, shelter and traditional livelihood, it holds significant social and cultural value. Moreover, it acts as a natural barrier, against storm surges, floods and erosion. During cyclones, the Sundarbans serves as a first line of defense.

The Sundarbans is recognised globally and therefore was declared as a Ramsar site in 1992. In 1997, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, acknowledging its outstanding universal value and the need for its preservation. The Sundarbans has been under scientific management for around 150 years since it was declared Reserve Forests in 1876.

The Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Act of 1974 forbids hunting, poaching and trafficking of endangered species for protection of the mangrove forest.

The Environment Conservation Act of 1995 mandates that all development projects that have the potential to impact the Sundarbans receive Department of Environment approval and sets guidelines for environmental impact assessments. Moreover, since 1999 under the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995, a 15 to 20 km band to the north and east of the forest has been considered as an Ecologically Critical Area (Sundarbans Impact Zone).

Bangladesh also has various management plans and conservation strategies for the Sundarbans. Funded by the Global Environment Facility, the Sundarbans Biodiversity Conservation Project aims to strengthen biodiversity conservation and sustainable resource management. The Bangladesh Forest Department developed the Sundarbans Management Plan, for the ecosystem protection and mitigation of the impact of anthropogenic activities on the forest.

There are three wildlife sanctuaries facing the Bay of Bengal: the Sundarbans East established in 1960, Sundarbans South and Sundarbans West established in 1977 with a total area of 1397 km2. Bangladesh Forest Department identified 18 small rivers in all four ranges and took measures for selective fishing and protection of brood areas.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change implements environmental policies, including Reduced Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), under the Copenhagen Accord. The principle of REDD+ is to allow plants in the forest to grow, die and decompose naturally, slowing down the release of greenhouse gases. Besides, the “Vision 2050 for the Bangladesh Sundarban Delta” is there to make the Delta rich in biodiversity.

However, despite these efforts, the Sundarbans continues to face numerous threats, including habitat loss, development and human settlement, pollution, decline in freshwater availability, reduction of silt deposition, coastal erosion, climate change, saline intrusion and unsustainable resource extraction.

Due to human settlements, agriculture expansion, industrial pollution, deforestation and habitat fragmentation, the ecosystem is threatened. Climate change is triggering these threats, leading to rising sea levels, increased temperatures and more intensified cyclones.

Its low-lying topography and proximity to the coast make the Sundarbans particularly vulnerable to these impacts. The reduction of sediment-laden freshwater discharge into the Bay of Bengal from the Ganges River through the forest has been causing saltwater intrusion. To reclaim the largest mangrove forest, sediment-laden freshwater flow through its intricate river system has to remain as it was before the operation of the Farakka Barrage in 1975.

Over the last 50 years, globally different mangrove restoration programmes were promulgated such as silviculture and reforestation programmes during 1980. Again in 2001, ecological mangrove restoration (EMR) and community-based restoration approaches were introduced. Lately, ecological engineering and ecosystem design is one of the most popular mangrove restoration approaches. Furthermore, we have to identify appropriate restoration techniques.

With the advancement of science and technologies, worldwide many scholars utilise various Species Distribution Models (SDM) for mapping suitable habitats of mangrove species. Species distribution models supported by geoinformatics and machine learning-based spatial analysis have been widely used for mapping, conserving and management of endangered, threatened and vulnerable species.

We can involve more people in protecting and preserving the Sundarbans which requires concerted efforts at the local, national and international levels. We have to make sure stakeholder commitment, sustainable resource exploration and identify restoration prioritised mangrove areas for sustainable mangrove management. By taking these actions, we can ensure that future generations will continue to benefit from the myriad values and services provided by the Sundarbans ecosystem.

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The writer a Lecturer at Institute of Bay Bengal and Bangladesh Studies (IBBBS), Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Maritime University

 

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