Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lohachara Lost And Found

[For the first-timers: As the name suggests, this blog is about islands of the world heritage site of the Sunderbans -- a vast archipelago in the eastern India -- which are gradually getting wiped out because of certain geomorphological reasons. A section of media, however, has been highlighting the issue as a fallout of global warming and sea level rise. But there hasn't been any significant study to prove that. If we want to save the islands, we have to try and find out the real reasons behind the disappearance of these islands. In our first post, we had written about some experts' views on the issue. In the present post, we will visit an emerging island in the Hooghly estuary which, according to the media, had been permanently inundated by the rising sea waters.]

In the early 1970's, there was an island in the western Sunderbans (India) called Kakdwip Char. It was on the river called Muriganga, between Kakdwip and Sagar island. The small island was an uninhabited one, covered with thick mangroves and the woodcutters from Kakdwip used to visit the place quite often to fell trees illegally and sell the wood in the mainland.
Today, the Kakdwip Char does not exist. Only a handful of old-timers in Kakdwip know about it. The island just eroded away in course of time. It was just around two to three kilometres from Lohachara, "the world's first inhabited island that was permanently inundated by the rising sea waters" (or so it was claimed by some people).

Nobody ever claimed that Kakdwip Char had fallen prey to global warming. In fact, the warming enthusiasts across the world havn't even heard its name. They have however heard about Lohachara, which was "submerged by the rising sea" (despite the fact that the island is a good 35 kilometres away from the Bay of Bengal), leaving thousands of people homeless.
There is actually no doubt about the fact that the island of Lohachara vanished from the map like the Kakdwip Char in the late 1990's. But the reason was NOT global warming. It's just some geomorphological changes in the Hooghly estuary and some amount of human intervention that had caused the erosion of the island. We will discuss in detail about the changes in some later post. But for now, I can give some good news to those interested about the fate of Lohachara. And the news is that the LOHACHARA ISLAND IS EMERGING AGAIN. So, does it mean that the sea level is falling down? Not really. It's the very complicated and interesting geomorphology of the Hooghly estuary that is behind the re-emergence of the island. Anybody can go to Google Map or Wikimapia and can find out that emerging island in the south-west of Ghoramara (another endangered island). This blogger had physically gone to the place and walked upon the nascent island. And here is a news report that was published in the Kolkata edition of The Times of India (April 3, 2009) on that trip:

"2007. Kodak Theatre, Hollywood. The list of Oscar presenters includes Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Leonardo Di-Caprio, Jennifer Lopez. Instead of the usual million-dollar goodies, each of them receives a small glass model called the Lohachara sculpture after an island which “in December, 2006, became the first inhabited island to be lost to rising sea levels caused by global warming”.

A little more than two years later, Lohachara island is emerging again. This was first noticed by Jadavpur University scientists in satellite images. This island in the western part of the Sunderbans — it was claimed — was the first inhabited one in the world to be inundated because of global warming. Along with this to go under water was the nearby island of Suparibhanga or Bedford, a land mass which was uninhabited, officially.

According to Tuhin Ghosh, senior lecturer, School of Oceanographic studies, JU, “Lo hachara and Bedford were there in 1975 satellite data. In 1990 pictures, a small portion of Lo hachara is visible. There’s no sign of Bedford. In a 1995 satellite picture, Lohachara had vanished. But in satellite pictures of 2007, you can see Lohachara coming back... It’s a revelation.”

An on-the-spot survey showed that the vanished islands are indeed emerging. One can walk around on it during low tide and just before high tide, the land mass rises around three feet above the water.

The emergence of this island is such a new phenomenon that even many residents of Ghoramara don’t know about its existence. “You will find nothing. Lohachara is not there. It has been eaten up by the river,” says Arun Pramanik.

But hiring a trawler to around one kilometre south-west of Ghoramara gives a different picture. The island is there in front of one’s eyes. Says boatman Mukunda Mondal (41), “Yes, the island is emerging. I have noticed it for the past one year. It’s clearly visible in winter.”

Judhisthir Bhuian, now a resident of Jibantala colony on the Sagar island, had his home on the Lohachara . He still goes back to the place where their house once stood. “A huge landmass is coming up, covering Lo hachara and Bedford,” he says.

According to Tuhin Ghosh, it is not unlikely. “The island can reappear because of different geomorphic reasons,” says Ghosh, who has worked in the area for around nine years and done his PhD on the Ghoramara island, around a kilometre north of Lohachara."

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Global Warming Hoax

Let us save the islands of the world heritage zone of the Sunderbans. Let us try to find out the real reasons why some of the islands of this archipelago are eroding away. According to official records, there are 102 islands in the Indian Sunderbans. But of them, at least two have already disappeared (one is rising from the waters again, though) and a dozen-odd are likely to vanish in the next two to three decades if no action is taken immediately. The Sunderbans houses the world's largest mangrove forests which are a natural habitat of Bengal tiger and many other wildlife unique to this area. This region may fall prey to the climate change, but the islands which have vanished are not really global warming victims, say scientists and engineers WHO HAVE WORKED IN THE REGION for years. There has been very little study on the effect of global warming on the Sunderbans. But...

Global Warming Sells
That is why Lohachara, a small island in the western Sunderbans in India, becomes the first inhabited island of the world to go under the rising sea water.
Global warming sells.
That is why journalists across the world forget the basic rules of reporting and use quotes from a single source (without cross-checking with other experts in the field) to support the 'peg' of their story.
In 2006, it was reported by some major newspapers of the world that the rising sea water has claimed two islands of the Sunderbans (Bedford or Supuribhanga and Lohachara), of which one (Lohachara) was inhabited. In the process, at least 10,000 people have become homeless. Several other inhabited (and unhabited) islands of the archipelago are in the process of getting 'permanently inundated', it was claimed.
But is that really true? If it is, then how come the island of Lohachara is rising from the waters again? Yes, it's true. A huge landmass is emerging where the Lohachara and a part of the Bedford had once existed. So, does it mean that the sea level is going down? Not actually. So, let us try to find out the real culprit who has rendered the residents of Lohachara homeless.
In his bid to find out the truth, this blogger talked to several hydraulic engineers, oceanologists and scientists of the Geological Survey of India, who have worked in the worst-affected western Sunderbans area for years. And here is what they said: (The following portion of the post was published in The Times of India on April 3, 2009)

The lack of proper dredging — and not global warming — is behind the obliteration of two islands in the Sunderbans, if experts are to be believed. Around 10,000 people were rendered homeless when the Lohachara island vanished from the map in the late 1990s. There is, however, some good news: this island —the first inhabited one in the world to get obliterated — is emerging again. But a wide spectrum of experts — including former hydraulic engineers with the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT) — refute the global warming theory and say that the lackadaisical attitude of port authorities and lack of proper dredging are to be blamed for the vanishing of Lohachara and Bedford (Suparibhanga) islands. Apart from these two, Ghoramara, a third island in the north of Sagar and only around 120 km from Kolkata, is being eroded with every passing day.
“One shouldn’t blame global warming for the islands vanishing. Several geomorphological changes and other problems were behind the fragile islands eroding. While I was in KoPT, we had submitted a Rs 360-crore plan to solve the navigability problems and improve the draught in the estuary. It was a sevenpoint project, which included building a number of underwater guide walls. But only one of the walls could be built before the scheme got shelved for want of funds,” says Tapobrata Sanyal, former chief hydraulic engineer of Kolkata Port Trust. As the project got shelved, dredging of the estuary was neglected.
There are a number of shallow patches or ‘bars’ in the shipping channel to the Kolkata and Haldia docks. Of these, the Balari bar on the north-west of Nayachar substantially influences the river dynamics of the region. Nayachar island, situated almost in the middle of the Hooghly, virtually divides the river into two channels.
Till the early Eighties, the channel between Nayachar and Haldia (Jellingham-Haldia-Jiggerkhali-Balari channel) was navigable up to Kolkata port. But because of reduced flow (thanks to Farakka barrage and irrigation canals upstream), sediments started getting deposited further up stream (including at Balari instead of compensating erosion in the sea-facing islands.
As the riverbed at Balari became more and more shallow, the main downward flow of the river took the Rangafalla channel on the east ern side of Nayachar, there by eroding the islands of Lohachara, Bedford and Ghoramara. According to Sanyal, this could have been avoided had his plan been implemented. Two underwater guide walls (in the north and south of Nayachar), three bank protection walls and a wall to protect Lohachara, Bedford and Ghoramara were supposed to be constructed. But only the northern guide wall could be built before the scheme was grounded. And had the protection wall been built along the western side of the three vulnerable is lands according to the plan Lohachara and Bedford may still have been there.
R K Burman, secretary Haldia Dock Officer’s Forum too, blames the unfinished project for the islands van ishing. “They neither did capital dredging at Balari, nor built the spurs. They only built the northern guide wall. That’s the reason behind the stronger ebb-time flow through the Rangafalla channel, which eroded the islands. This happened due to a lack of will on the part of KoPT and its chairman. Recently, KoPT has taken up a Rs 40-crore scheme to save Ghoramara, but it’s too late.”
When asked about the vanishing islands, KoPT chairman A K Chanda said, “I don’t have the expertise to comment on the subject. I have to talk to our hydraulic engineers.”
Whatever be the views of global warming theorists and the port authorities, the residents of Ghoramara, which is the most threatened island at the moment, squarely blame KoPT for the crisis. Sheikh Ziad Ali (64), former pradhan of Ghoramara, said, “The erosion here started in the early Eighties, when the port trust started building an underwater bundh and diverted the Kolkata-bound shipping route through Rangafalla. The waves created by the ships started eroding the islands.”
Cognizant techie Subrata Jana, who hails from Ghoramara, too, feels that it is because of the unfinished KoPT project that his island is being eroded. “Had it been because of global warming then the whole island would have been submerged,” he says.
Asked about the “inundation” of the islands, local MLA Milan Porua said, “It’s not right to say that the islands are getting inundated because of sea level rise. The reason is natural river dynamics.”
Tuhin Ghosh of Jadavpur University’s department of oceanography said, “It is because of the eastward tilt of the tectonic plate and changes in river dynamics that the islands are washed away. And there has not been any major study to prove that river dynamics did not play a major role behind the vanishing of Lohachara and Bedford.”
R K Pachauri, chairman of the Nobel-winning IPCC, said, “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on Lohachara without being fully apprised of the precise factual circumstances surrounding its disappearance.”