The Sundarbans has withstood all the onslaught from nature, viz. the Gorky cyclone of 1970, subsequent cyclones in the 1990s and those in the recent past such as Sidr, Sila, Bulbul, and others. However, it is hard to predict how it is going to face the challenges of the present time, notably the overuse of fish and invertebrate, its plant resources and the nearby sea.
Added with that are the pressure from the commercialised tourism sector and excessive use of Mongla Port facilities by commercial vessels and pollutants emitted from them entering into the Sundarbans – 365 days a year. We should also be mindful of the accidental oil spill from shipwrecks inside the Sundarbans as it already happened a few times in the last decade.
Officially, withdrawal of the resources from the Sundarbans is banned barring possible extraction of Golpata and honey. However, the reality and situation on the ground is very different. Any visitor boat entering any mini-canal or khal will notice several boats out there on fishing expeditions. I guess their official permit is just for crab fishing, but they do all kinds of fishing inside all the parts of the Sundarbans. Everybody considers this to be very small-scale fishing, but it is detrimental because it hurts the spawning invertebrates and fishes who take refuge in small canals and mangroves than in open water.
One of the larger issues in the Sundarbans is the negative impact of sea-level rise, in case it happens sooner than later. Rise above the range of 10cm would possibly reduce the Sundarbans considerably and none of the mangrove plants can grow without a land or soil base. Of course, with regard to this, our government has very little role to play. But they can ask the international players to help us save the livelihood of the people living in and around this mangrove forest.
The immediate threat to the Sundarbans comes from the uncontrolled flow of tourist boats of many sizes and capacities. All boats are run on diesel. There is no full-proof system that could stop oil leaks from the boats.
The curse of the plastic and polythene use is being aggravated by the introduction of one-time use utensils – mostly thermocol-based plates, cups, mugs and bowls. Unlike plastic and polythene, thermocol floats on water and reaches the remotest part of the Sundarbans that has not been visited even by tourists.
What is the need of the hour?
Bangladesh government has so many of legislations, acts, rules and regulations that they don't need any further of these. But unfortunately, these are not being implemented properly as each of these government departments and autonomous organisations work and behave like an independent body. As a result, rules are broken by all parties even before the right party can detect where the problem lies.
The government should immediately form a board for the management of the Sundarbans, like the Haor Development Board, and hand them over the responsibility to regulate everything regarding the forest – its physical and biological properties.
The government could also try annexing the existing manpower and arms of the Government Forest Department, Environment Department, all parties with uniforms and NGOs working in the area. Government employees and their units in the Sundarbans ahould be put under the management of this board, although nationally they will be under the command of institutions determined by the government.
The board can be constituted with board members appointed by the government from its internal departments, universities, research organisations, national NGOs, media, women representatives from among MPs, local government members, lawyers and also entertainment industry representatives.
The boards functional arms should be constituted of branches like Wildlife and Forest Management Unit, Planning and Programming Unit, Climate Change Mitigation Unit, Marketing and Promotion Unit, Education, Public Awareness and Media Unit, Stakeholder and People's Participation Unit, Admin and Recruitment Unit, Research and Development Unit, Law and Order Unit, etc.
The first task of the board will be to have a new 10-year master plan for the Sundarbans, incorporating elements from the existing ones and adding more pragmatic and up-to-date information and technology elements taking into account global warming, climate change and pollution.
This board should have a two-year-long ad hoc plan that would immediately take into account the livelihood requirements of the people living within one-kilometre perimeter of the Sundarbans, from Koikhali in the west to Sharonkhola in the east. They can provision for providing at least a part of the livelihood of these people from income to be generated from the Sundarbans. Initially, it should be done with government-provided seed money.
The board should find out how many tourists can be allowed into the Sundarbans annually with high and low seasons, determine the season when tourists can visit, fix the number of small, medium and large tourist boats that can be allowed daily during the marked tourist season. They should also keep fixed entry fee for different types of visitors; levy taxes on each boat and tourist, which would provide income to the board and also support the livelihood of the local people.
An annual quota for foreign researchers coming to the Sundarbans along with counterparts from Bangladesh should be set – the fee will be paid by the foreigners. Also, they must pay a tax for entering the Sundarbans for each and all entry points.
Foreign researchers must submit copies of all raw data collected from the Sundarbans to the board, in addition to sharing the same with the Bangladesh nationals joining projects as counterparts.
Set an annual or bi-annual quota for the sustainable extraction of Golpata, Bola, Jhanna/Gorjon, Maliaghash and honey as well as shrimp larvae and some crab fishing. The permits are to be issued based on the requirements of the locals only, and not for commercial purposes.
Ban all plastic, polythene, thermocol or other artificial materials – including wrapping papers for produced goods – in two kilometres along the periphery of the Sundarbans and a total ban on non-biodegradable material inside the forest.
Ban all diesel or gasoline-powered vessels passing through the Sundarbans for touristic purposes and local commerce, and ban the foreign vessels step by step over the next two years. Encourage use of solar-powered and battery-operated vessels.
All tourist, fishing and other boats should be banned from serving food and water in one-time use utensils – plates, cups and glasses, etc.
Any ship using the Sundarbans water should be penalised heavily if they are found polluting it, by leaving behind or throwing trash, oil, etc.
The board should form teams of cleaners who clean all the tourist spots daily, remove solid waste and dump them in a suitable spots selected by the board. Organic debris should be collected for reprocessing and used as fertilisers.
The board may have a small cottage industry that will sustainably use resources from the forest for making mats of Golpata, Hogla, Maliaghash, Hental leaves; sell the plants grown at a nursery; make special papers out of the plants of the forest, to be harvested by managing the optimum vegetation; produce marketable films, videos on the plants, animals and stakeholders of the forest.
Get partnerships and sponsorships for projects in the Sundarbans for research and management. Involve local and international donors and philanthropists. It must also form partnerships with international NGOs, foreign governmental agencies, various media, etc.
For all income-generating activities, only locally trained manpower will be used, and products should be sold through local people's cooperative society.
Research divisions should have popular and scientific publications that are to be sold and distributed through society.
The government must act quickly to save the Sundarbans from further destruction, from pollution, overexploitation and unchecked tourist flow.