Riding the wave: how climate change is impacting the Bay of Bengal region

November 16, 2018
Nidhi Adlakha on how climate change is impacting our coastal communities

By Nidhi Adlakha

he Northeast monsoon had just set in, and the timing couldn’t have been better. With the looming monsoon clouds opening up, we snaked through the narrow rivulets of the Pichavaram mangroves in an open boat. As I took a moment to appreciate its splendour, I realised the deeper significance the forest held. Acting as a speed breaker against the mighty waves during the 2004 tsunami, the mangroves saved countless lives. Cut to today, and climate change and the sea level rise threatens the region’s very existence.

Workshop

Opening our minds to these threats was a media workshop on climate change, climate justice and resilience in the Bay of Bengal (BoB) region. Back from the recently-concluded forum, I can’t help but think what these terminologies actually mean in today’s times. Most people know the problem areas, but do little to pollute less. Conducted in Chidambaram for three days earlier this month, the workshop – hosted by the Internews Earth Journalism Network – made one thing clear: visible or not, our actions are taking a massive toll on the planet. And our villages and coastal hamlets are facing the biggest brunt.

Coastal danger

From changes in our coastal systems, impact on marine life and how it trickles down to our farming and fishing communities, to local initiatives and on-ground support, a range of issues were brought to the fore. While over 80% of the world’s top cities developed along coastlines and waterways, over the next few years, countries like India and China will be the worst affected by climate change extremities. Switching to hybrid and solar power is the only way forward. And as a World Bank report suggests (Turn Down the Heat, 2013), sea-level rise has been occurring more rapidly than projected and a rise of as much as 50 cm by the 2050s may be unavoidable due to past emissions.

It’s no doubt that our coasts are the worst affected, but climate change poses a particular threat to urban residents and is expected to further drive urbanisation, ultimately placing more people at risk. The report highlights how, in coastal cities, large populations and assets are exposed to climate change risks including increased tropical storm intensity, long-term sea-level rise, and sudden onset of coastal flooding. What our communities need now is development that is climate-proof: adaptation measures that are embedded in local cultures and cost-effective solutions rooted in nature.

Fish and reefs

For local communities who have seen the coastline alter drastically in the last 50 years, changing fish migration patterns and dwindling populations of marine life (oil sardines, catfish, dolphins), coral reefs, sea weed, etc., are cause for concern.

Projections indicate that all coral reefs in Southeast Asia are very likely to experience severe thermal stress by 2050, as well as chemical stress due to ocean acidification. With over 30 fish species having disappeared from our coastal fishing grounds (since 1985), local fishermen say these could be the result of irreversible climate changes.

And rampant construction in coastal towns has also affected climate significantly. As a fisherman rightly pointed out, “It isn’t just the government to blame. We are equally responsible for what we are witnessing today.”

From discussions with the Ramnad Fishworkers’ Trade Union, here are the primary issues the fishing community faces today:

- Rising water temperatures, which affect quality and quantity of marine life

- Rich fishermen go far out to sea with trawlers, depleting resources

- Certain government-sanctioned fishing nets negatively impact fish populations

- Sand mining is a menace