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7 October 2010, Gateway House

Environmental diplomacy

The Sundarbans, one of world’s most endangered eco-systems, sits on the sensitive border between India and Bangladesh, and the issues that surround it have the potential to either advance or regress the relationship between the two neighbours

Former Senior Researcher, Gateway House

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In January this year, Jairam Ramesh, India’s energetic Environment Minister, went to Kolkata on an official visit. The 56 year old politician is known to engage in dialogue with stakeholders, preferring to build institutions with a scientific bent- from the ground up- and is steadily repositioning the ministry away from its inherited somnolence.  In Kolkata Ramesh displayed once again his penchant for the big idea.  Together with his counterpart from Bangladesh, the minister announced both countries were joining hands to protect the Sundarbans from environmental degradation. The proposed Indo-Bangladesh Sundarbans Eco-System Forum will be made functional by the second half of 2010. Last month, a draft protocol to be signed by both nations was approved by the Bangladesh cabinet at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. It is an innovative idea and the first of its kind in using bilateral environmental cooperation to foster broader regional cooperation between India and Bangladesh.

“Environmental diplomacy and environmental cooperation can often be triggers for enhancing broader regional cooperation,” says Jairam Ramesh, in an exclusive interview to Gateway House. “It helps to build trust, gets your people working with each other, learning from each other, and breaking down barriers. I hope to see more of this going forward.”

The timing couldn’t be better.  The Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove forest and spans a vast territory of over 10,000 sq kms, approximately 60 percent of which lies in Bangladesh and 40 per cent in India. It is also one of the most endangered eco-systems in the world, sits on the sensitive border between India and Bangladesh, and the issues that surround it have the potential to either advance or regress the relationship between these two important South Asian neighbours. The region has long been a diplomatic challenge for both nations. Take for instance, a 30-year battle for control over New Moore Island and sporadic disputes over freshwater diversions such as the Farakka Barrage that many say have cut off water supply to Bangladesh and degraded the Sundarbans. There is widespread criticism against India for a massive construction project to fence itself off from its much poorer neighbor. Already 1,550 miles of fencing has been built since 2004, large portions which traverse the fringes of the Sundarbans.

But none of these will eventually matter if the rising water levels in the region engulf the delta, resulting in submergence of villages, “climate change refugees”, and the loss of a unique eco-system and natural resources vital to two hungry emerging markets. Experts at the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University after a decade long study in and around the Bay of Bengal have surmised that the sea is rising at 3.14 mm a year in the Sundarbans against a global average of 2 mm, which could result in 70,000 climate refugees in the next 30 years. A new UNESCO report released this year states a sea level rise of 45 cm will lead to the destruction of 75% of the Sundarbans mangroves.

Lohachara Island, once visible from Ghoramara, a mile to the east, succumbed to the ocean two years ago, leaving more than 7,000 people homeless, many living in the slums of Dhaka. Ghoramara itself has lost a third of its land mass in the past five years. Further north, Sagar Island already houses 20,000 refugees from the tides

Political History

For India and Bangladesh, this is a foreign policy opportunity. The two nations have not had the best of relations in the last three decades. Differences over control of islands in the delta, the maritime boundary, and brewing water wars have dominated bilateral ties. Bangladesh has refused to sell India some of its abundant gas reserves, an India-Myanmar pipeline through Bangladesh has not materialized and it takes more than a week for a truck-load of goods to cross the border either way. India had proposed a free trade agreement to help soften the trade imbalance, which Bangladesh rejected. Since the mid 1980s Bangladeshi presidents, upon election, have made Beijing their first port of call. That’s strengthened the Sino-Bangla relationship to a level where trade between the two has gone from $715 million in 2000 to $5 billion in 2010, and in 2009 China replaced India as Bangladesh’s largest trading partner.

Sheikh Hasina, who was elected as Prime Minister in 2008 however, has made a notable effort to improve India-Bangladesh relations, from the bitter animosity during Begum Khaleda Zia’s second innings as Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006, and then the cold correctness of the Caretaker Government’s regime. The agreements signed during Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to India covered a wide range from cooperation in combating terrorism, removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, settlement of disputes regarding land borders, fair demarcation of maritime boundaries between the two countries to more humane and sensitive border management. New Delhi responded warmly, with a decision to sell 250 MW of power to Bangladesh and extend a line of credit of $ 1 billion.

But the backlog of relationship-rebuilding has pushed areas like the Sundarbans into the rear. Ramesh’s robust, lateral environmental diplomacy, therefore, is welcome.

Climate Refugees

The immediate issue is that of “climate refugees.” There is as yet no agreement on the status of the 7,000 people displaced by the rising waters, the result of climate change. The term “climate refugees” has, as yet, no place in international law. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, does not recognise climate or environment refugees, as they are not listed under the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Now some experts suggest the Convention should be amended to allow for environmental displacement. “There is not one international law that gives asylum to people forced to leave due to climatic change,” says Michael Nash, director of “Climate Refugees,” a new documentary investigating mass migration due to a changing climate. Already, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there are around 25 million climate refugees, while there could be as many as 150 million by 2050. The International Organization for Migration has said, these individuals are ‘…almost invisible in the international system… unable to prove political persecution in their country of origin they fall through the cracks of asylum law’. A major concern for India and Bangladesh is in determining responsibility for the protection and rehabilitation of these refugees, most of which currently reside in slums in Dhaka or Kolkata.

A resolution will begin if India and Bangladesh rally the international community to acknowledge their status under law, thereby guaranteeing individuals displaced by climate change natural rights under an international treaty. Already Bangladesh has taken several steps forward, clamouring for the international community to pay attention. In December 2008 member states of the UN Climate Change Convention held their 14th summit in the Polish city of Poznan. Bangladesh insisted that the opportunity of international migration for climate change victims should be included in the new global climate deal under discussion. Also necessary is a joint relocation and emergency evacuation programme in the case of climate disasters such as cyclones or flooding – both of which are becoming annual events.

Environmental Impact

There is also the issue of the eco system. The Sundarbans is the most biologically productive of all natural eco systems, and is home to a stunning variety of fauna, many threatened reptiles and an estimated 600 royal Bengal tigers, the last remaining in the world. Both India and Bangladesh are separately addressing the latter issue to some extent. India’s environment ministry is undertaking a fresh survey of tigers in the area. There is a plan to set up a state-level Steering Committee under the chairmanship of the Wes
t Bengal Chief Minister and a Reserve-specific Tiger Conservation Foundation with immediate effect. In 2009, the Bangladesh government announced its first ever national plan to save the tiger. The Tiger Action Plan aims to save an estimated 300-500 tigers in the Sundarbans.

There is however, a lot of scope for India and Bangladesh to work on a joint census of tigers. The animals often move back and forth between the borders an accurate estimation of the population is not possible unless there is joint coordination.

“A framework agreement is necessary between the governments of Bangladesh and India to establish institutional linkages to facilitate sharing of knowledge, information and capacity building programmes in preserving the flora and fauna in the Sunderbans including its wetlands, mangroves and biosphere protection and management,” says former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Harun Rashid. In his view, a joint committee of climate and biodiversity experts from Bangladesh and India should harness the knowledge of local communities at the grass root level on how they deal with the ongoing changes in climate and grow crops. “In some coastal areas of Bangladesh local farmers have adopted innovative methods to grow fruits and vegetables in inter-tidal areas and such knowledge may help in saving the Sunderbans,” says Rashid.

The Sundarbans are a major source of timber and natural resources which protect the land from frequent storms and the most important source of the fish and shrimps on India’s eastern coast. But pollution from industry, oil spills and a potential dispute over exploitation of timber resources and agricultural encroachment on the eastern and western boundaries of the Sundarbans are a huge threat to the fragile ecosystem. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 18,200 hectares of the Chokoria Sundarbans was completely destroyed in recent years by over-intensive shrimp farming, as it has grown to become Bangladesh’s second largest export. Smuggling between India and Bangladesh, moving through the porous Sunderbans borders, is a common phenomenon. The estimated value of total smuggled imports from India into Bangladesh as of 2008 was between 1 to 2 billion USD. Unfortunately, state-led initiatives to combat these problems have not always been successful.


Unemployment is another issue in the Sunderbans. As per the 2001 census, the total population of the region was about 37.56 lakh, a majority of which still remain unemployed and severely impoverished. Most are heavily dependent on the forest, eking out a living by selling materials extracted from the forest. “The pressure on the resource utilization can be eased to the extent that alternative livelihoods are available. This is a challenge for both government bodies and NGOs providing education, microcredit and access to market,” says Md. Tamimul Alam Chowdhury, at the Center for River Basin Organizations and Management, Indonesia.

A robust programme in this effort has been undertaken by Bangladesh, and can be replicated by India. Bangladesh’s Nishorgo program of the forest department (FD) was created in 2004, with support from USAID and the International Resource Group (IRG), an advisory body to public and private institutions, helping manage their environment and natural resources. Nishorgo’s goal is to have the forest department co-manage the administration of the resources of the Sunderbans with key local, regional and national stakeholders from the Wildlife Advisory Board, to other ministry officials, NGOs, journalists, even teachers, without detriment to the forest. But Nishorgo has had deficiencies. While co-management between different stakeholders is a good concept, it has to be done at the grassroots level rather than by a top-down approach. Eventually, coordination with similar efforts from India will produce the best results.

Fortunately, there are numerous international examples of trans-border environmental agreements that will serve as good models for India and Bangladesh. Finland and Russia have been at the forefront of environmental cooperation for many years. With concerns over oil spills, maritime transport and biodiversity degradation, both countries regularly exchange information and technology and conduct expert seminars on implementation of the Kyoto protocol.

Less than two hundred years ago, the Sundarbans extended all the way from the Kolkata Bay to the east and from Burma to the west, almost till Dhaka in the north. Today the dense forests no longer dominate the delta; there are empty spots where trees once stood. With immediate collaboration and strict implementation of recommendations between India and Bangladesh, the further retreat of the Sundarbans can be halted. Instead of being on the diplomatic backburner, this could be the spur for a greater warming between the two countries, if there is sufficient political will.

Shloka Nath is a Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. This article is a précis of her larger paper, ‘Environmental diplomacy: Saving the Sunderbans and restoring Indo-Bangladesh friendship.’

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