Sundarbans Focus Area Strategy: 2013-2017

CONTEXT

The Sundarbans landscape (or Sundarbans, or Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta) is the world’s largest delta (~105,000 km2) and home to 123 million people. The delta lies in India (19%) and Bangladesh (81%) with rivers draining Bhutan, China, India and Nepal. The delta is a labyrinth of rivers, channels, swamps, lakes, and floodplain sediments (called ‘char’s). Where the delta meets the Bay of Bengal, lies the world’s largest mangrove eco-region (~20,400 km2) in a chain of more than 100 islands, of which about 10,000 km2 is mangrove forests (60% in Bangladesh, 40% in India). This is one of the world’s most bio-diverse ecosystems, is home to numerous threatened species (e.g., the Bengal tiger and several species of river dolphin) and contains several UNESCO World Heritage sites and other protected areas.

The Sundarbans are characterized by extreme poverty, which both contributes to and arises from the vulnerability of the population to natural hazards. Over the past century, sea level rise, salinization of soil and water, and cyclonic storms and flooding have jointly rendered the area to be one of the world’s most hazardous areas. Natural stresses are compounded by human-induced stresses, including reductions in fresh-water flows to the delta and an expansion in tidal aquaculture.

Many factors affect development outcomes, ecosystem services and livelihoods in the Sundarbans, but these are poorly understood. The eastward migration of the Ganges River over the last 200 years has affected rivers in southwestern Bangladesh and parts the West Bengal Sundarbans. Many small distributaries of the Ganga/Padma have broken away from the main channel, leading to little or no freshwater flow in the lower part of the delta (West Bengal and western Bangladesh) leaving estuaries dominated by tidal flow. In the eastern area of the Bangladesh Sundarbans distributaries such as the Gorai and the Arial Khan bring some freshwater to the mangrove forests. Interventions in the northern delta (e.g., Farakka Barrage) have reduced freshwater flow affecting salinity and lands forms.

In the western Sundarbans (India) mangroves and intertidal areas were converted into low elevation agricultural farms during 1850–1930s. In the eastern Sundarbans (Bangladesh) similar changes have happened more recently. These changes were not well planned, designed, constructed or maintained, leading to water logging, increased salinity and exacerbated flooding. Industrial and domestic waste (including from Kolkata) have polluted the Sundarbans, and burnt oil from boats and oil tanker wash has polluted the coastal areas.

The Sundarbans are a traditional fishing region. With the expansion of commercial fisheries, traditional practices have reduced causing greater environmental impacts. The by-catch associated with offshore set bag nets is enormous. About 90% of netted turtles die. Some fish species (e.g., Hilsa) are now overexploited and shrimp exports have been greatly reduced affecting livelihoods for many poor families. Large areas of mangrove have been converted for aquaculture that pollute, introduce invasive species, damage ecosystems and cause erosion around estuaries.

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THE BANGLADESH RESPONSIBLE SOURCING INITIATIVE

The RSI, a joint initiative of the United States Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), was aimed at promoting environmental compliance in the textile industry to reduce industrial water pollution in the Dhaka watershed. It led to the development of a two-tiered multi-stakeholder platform: a forum for regional dialog and deliberation, informed by national level incubator activities. While national-level incubator activities have so far focused on Bangladesh (SAWI financed), India and China (not SAWI financed), the platform can now also be used to consider a broader range of water-related issues faced by the global apparel supply chain. The RSI generated new knowledge and used the multistakeholder platform to disseminate this knowledge and encourage participating brands to review their supply chain guidelines. In the process, a new best-practice model was developed for engaging nontraditional partners to address water footprints in complex global supply chains in the region and beyond. Based on this experience, IFC launched its Water Partnership for Cleaner Textiles (Water PaCT), a US$11 million initiative.