Strengthening the climate resilience of households in the Sundarbans

by Neelambari Phalkey 

Recent decades have witnessed an increase in climate change related losses and damage. The evidence suggests that there has been a fourfold increase in the incidence of disasters. Hydro-meteorological disasters are the most common type of disasters globally. Furthermore, climate researchers have warned further that frequency of extreme events will rise leading to an increase in the number of disasters worldwide. At least 207 natural disasters were recorded globally in the first six months of 2020, well above the 21st century average (2000-2019) of 185 disasters. These disasters cost the world $75 billion, according to the Aon catastrophe report, released in July 2020. At least $71 billion, over 95 per cent of the loss, was due to weather-related disasters. In fact, around 92 per cent of these disasters between January and June were weather-related. There were 14.6 million new internal displacements across 127 countries in the first six months of 2020.

Coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to increasing risks of erosion due to sea level rise. These will be further worsened by the human-induced pressures. By 2080, millions of people in the densely populated mega deltas of Asia will regularly experience floods. Poor households, communities with climate-sensitive livelihoods and those living in coastal and river flood plains will be most vulnerable, and the impacts will shape the well-being of the communities, their education and skills, socio-economic development, infrastructure availability, and health outcomes. Mangrove ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise, amongst other climate related factors. For example, a one metre rise will completely inundate the Sundarban mangrove in the Bay of Bengal resulting in widespread damage to local ecosystems, which currently form a major base for the livelihoods of the communities that reside there.

The impact of climate volatility in low-income countries, where climate events often result in irreversible losses and impede long-term development prospects, is not being met by effective policy responses. Involving communities in development can help poorer regions manage climate change and climate volatility by empowering local people to become active agents in creative resilience. These communities need safety nets that are responsive to climatic risks and natural disasters, programmes to develop their livelihoods, and access to finance and insurance. The new wave of financing for climate change adaptation represents a unique opportunity for deploying these community-based interventions.

My work in the Sundarban suggests that policies should be reorganised and designed to be flexible with the changing climate/weather events that negatively impact the households in this fragile area, their livelihoods and communities. In times of crisis, families often have few coping options apart from drawing down on their assets. Liquidating assets in this way may help families cope in the short-term, but it comes at the expense of long-term security and adaptation. This is especially important to consider as the impacts of climate change accumulate over time, and marginalised poor households will need support in adaptation and strengthening resilience.

Business as usual is no longer working for the Sundarban community. Strengthening resilience does not stop at identifying the factors, but moving towards actions. Firstly, we need a better understanding of resilience – going beyond merely providing relief and short-term support to affected communities. Investing in long-term resilience is key. Household-level resilience can be improved with support to allow people to build up savings and acquire assets. The Indian government already has an array of safety nets that has capacity to buffer and help build resilience of the households, such as  rural employment generation schemes, and midday meals for school children. However, from the study it is evident that they do not reach those who need them the most. These policies need to be part of the larger development and poverty reduction schemes that provide increased opportunities for education, and the vocational training which is crucial for the Sundarban households.

Social protection enables rural transformation. Social welfare can promote inclusive transformation in many ways, though the evidence remains scarce at the macro level. Transformation is dependent on the capacities of the households to invest in different forms of capital. This opportunity is determined by policies and institutions combined with social safety nets through various programs to bring about an inclusive rural transformation.

Improvements in employment benefit the community in multiple indirect ways. It is well documented that empowering women economically has positive impacts on health, education, and other dimensions of human capital.  Multiple benefits come with the government investing in policies that create employment opportunities for rural households. Its advantage is that there is more income available for other household needs than food. Safety nets and conditions that favour this will enable rural transformation.

FAO, 2016 suggested possible strategic adaptation interventions across sectors to build resilience of communities. These stress interventions for the water sector, in preservation of forests, in securing livelihoods and food, livestock, energy and in land use and river management.

2015 to 2016 were years of considerable importance as the majority of the governments across the globe agreed to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (Sendai Framework), the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the World Humanitarian Summit Framework (WHS). These agreements and frameworks set out targets for the nations for achieving better preparedness for disasters, sustainable development and to tackle larger problems of the human world. 

It is interesting to note that the concept of resilience is central in all these agreements and frameworks, along all sectors and scales. These levels and areas are critical as resilience is complex and it is important to combine efforts in directions for disaster risk reduction, sustainable development and climate change. This effort would require strong financial mechanisms, policies and programmes that can deliver on one or more targets at the same time. However, it is still at an early stage. It will take time until these global agreements are fully standardised and implemented. It would therefore still be wise to plan for the micro level, making households more resilient.

Sustainable Development Goals

Seventeen universal Sustainable Development Goals were set along with targets and various indicators for the national governmental interventions. in 2016, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), published the report called Policy Innovations for Informative Change that provides a pathway for countries to imbibe the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development Goals. This draws attention to the need to address the root cause of the problems and urges to rebalance social, economic, environmental sectors and processes for sustainable development. However, transformation is not possible by just making new policies or investments, the necessary condition is that it needs participation from civil society and communities which will ensure inclusive processes to make this into a reality.


Nation-led efforts that have address the needs of the inhabitants through the numerous central and state government schemes in the Sundarban region. There are several projects both central and state that are similar to the universal goals and targets that are aimed for sustainable development. The best example of eco-social policy called Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, 2005 is now recognised and cited around the world. The policy integrates the social and environmental goals that ensures 100 days of employment per year to every rural household. The policy is devoted to environmental conservation, natural resources management that includes creating sustainable assets, water management and soil conservation. One of the pre-requisites to enforce the ‘rights and entitlements’ envisaged and make it community-oriented and demand-driven scheme. The success of the programme is entirely dependent on the participation of the community in general and women in particular since the share of latter in employment is almost 50%. The policy has benefited 20-55 million rural households and helped them come out of poverty. However, it comes with its own set of problems such as monitoring, access to resources and program and lower skills of the households.

With this background the study recommends that the village administration can play a crucial role in facilitating, monitoring and accessing schemes that will only push the communities and thereby the households to build resilience to natural hazards events and other weather-related shocks. Several Indian government -led schemes overlap with the goals. Out of seventeen goals, ten goals correspond with the Indian government schemes, and it is possible to incorporate the remaining seven goals in the programmes. My work identifies these links and recommends strengthening the role of village administration.

Goals 1 to 3: The village administration can play a fundamental role in the identification of the vulnerable sections of the community and their needs. These exercises would ensure that families are covered and included in the Public Distribution System. It would give women, children and older adults access to food at all times. It would also promote climate-resilient agricultural practices would aid in ending hunger and achieving food security and improved nutrition for the families. Furthermore, they can ensure healthy lives and encourage well-being of the community members by regularly assessing and maintaining the quality of the health care offered, and promote awareness with the help of the health department. Currently, mental health care support is particularly lacking in the Sundarbans.

Goal 4 and 5: Sundarban families have significant education expenses. The village administration can plan for more residential schools for children, both boys and girls. It can also ease access to scholarships, textbooks, uniforms, and meals. The village council can also facilitate vocational evening courses for both school children and school dropouts. Currently, the school infrastructure is poor with substandard toilet and drinking water facilities. Girls are particularly affected by this. Village administration can promote, monitor and strengthen the quality of educational services. To achieve gender equality and empowerment to all women and girls, the village administration can promote equality through the Beti Bachao and Beti Padhao programme to save girls from discrimination and ensure their education. Providing incentives to the households to help them retain the girls in school could strengthen these. Vocational and small and medium business skills should be encouraged and imparted to girls who are not in school. In turn, this will ensure that there are skilled women that can contribute productively to the village economy. Gender equality cannot be achieved unless women are part of the planning and implementation of the current government programs in the village administration. Women are found to be better change agents of socio-economic transformation, efforts are needed to strengthen their participation for household livelihood security as well as better asset management.

Goal 6 and 7: These goals concern the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, and are thus directly linked with the health of the population. The administration can ensure that households with and without sanitation facilities should be identified and awareness created for proper use and maintenance of these facilities. Local communities should be encouraged to participate in the development and plans for implementation. Awareness and education about hand and personal hygiene should be imparted to the community alongside to prevent the spread of diseases.  Water resources should be monitored for both household and agricultural use. Recharge of lakes and wells should be ensured for the provision of sweet water during difficult summer months.  It is important to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

The village administration should ensure that energy provision to the households is made through a network of government-led efforts along with Non-Governmental Organisations through its programs. Sundarbans is remote, and grid transmission is challenging mainly due to its geography. Solar energy could be a more pragmatic way of supplying energy to the households. Households need smokeless cooking stoves that are both energy efficient and reduce cooking time. Women should be included on village planning committees to ensure its deliverance.

Goal 8: This goal also ties well with the development goal that lays importance in promoting sustained, inclusive economic growth, including employment of all people. Youth, both male and female, could give sufficient assistance in acquiring finance and credit from the village administration, be trained in relevant skills to start small and medium businesses. These efforts could also particularly include women and people with disabilities. Awareness is thus needed of labour laws labour rights, which could be imparted by the village administration. The corresponding current Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is contributed to this goal.

Goal 13 and 15: There is no clear plan that village administrations are responsible for combating climate change and impacts. These are national and state-level responsibilities. However, there are programs in which the village administration can play a crucial role. Most importantly, the village administration can facilitate awareness about climate change and climate variability on the lives and livelihoods of people in the community. Micro level vulnerability assessments should be conducted by the village administration along with the community to understand the impacts and needs of their community. The results from these evaluations could feed into village, state and national policy making for better mitigation strategies for livelihoods and building resilience of the communities for future events. Village administrations in the Sundarbans should promote and restore sustainable ecosystems and forests. Currently, it has been initiating mangrove afforestation drives and ensure their maintenance. Community-based management of forest areas through the Joint Forest management scheme is operational in the region. These should be further linked with Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme where local species of mangroves and other tree and plant species should be promoted. Further awareness on conservation of forests should be developed, especially given the uncertainties of weather and extreme weather events.

Policy recommendations for the management of the internally displaced climate migrants

My work is mainly carried out in the transition zone (which includes the tidal zone) and the households in this area could become migrants or displaced people in the future. Sundarbans is a World Heritage Site which everyone should care for mainly because the households are bearing the consequences of unplanned development elsewhere. It is therefore pragmatic to invest  in a policy that caters to their needs.


Conflicts, political instability and extreme weather events are among the primary reasons for migration today. In 1990, the First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that the greatest single impact of climate change might be on human migration and displacement. Despite the warnings and statistics that followed, little has been done in national or global arenas to deal with climate-related migration or to bolster international capacity to handle any large-scale movements. Policy responses have primarily focused on three areas: the definition of refugees, adaptation, and resettlement.

Major climate change leads to human migration and reports say that around 24 million people across the world have become climate change refugees. These refugees are often neglected. Around 63 million people in India live in the 50 km range of coasts. Various areas are categorized as 'low elevated coastal zone' which are under threat of getting submerged because of the rapid increase in sea level. The people living in these regions face the imminent threat of displacement. The number of refugees can go up to 12 million by 2100. As per International Organization for Migration, a United Nations body, the Bangladesh coast will be impacted more than India. But this will put India in a disadvantageous position as it will face large number of migrants coming from Bangladesh.

The Disaster Management Act of 2005, makes it mandatory for every Ministry or Department of the Government of India, in centre or State, to prepare a Disaster Management Plan and accords them the responsibility of aiding in case of relief operations, rehabilitation and reconstruction after disasters. The Act ensures that the government and related authorities, both at the state and local level take "necessary measures for preparedness to respond to any threatening disaster situation or disaster". The assistance for emergency responses, relief and rehabilitation, is to be met by the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) and the mitigation of disasters is to be borne by the National Mitigation Fund, along with the State and District delineations of each of the funds above. However, the Act does not have a definite plan for resettlement or rehabilitation of such displaced population by disasters. The West Bengal Disaster Management Policy (2010) states that ‘relocation’ must be a result of ‘need-based considerations’. It does not consider factors such as the nature of the calamity, the extent of damage, consent of the affected population, land acquisition, urban/rural land use planning, relocation packages, legal authorization for relocation and rehabilitation and livelihood rehabilitation activities. The rehabilitation activities in the policy focus on the reconstruction of infrastructure, economy, agriculture, health and education.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Director General Jose Graziano da Silva has stressed the need for investing in rural development and making livelihoods climate proof. He further points out that these should be an integral part of any solution to curb migration. Migration should be a choice and not a desperate act! This all holds true if the people are not located in places like the Sundarbans which have higher degree of physical risk such as flooding, sinking of the islands, salinity and sea level rise. Physical risk along with related fallouts such as social, cultural and economic make it even more challenging. Since 2016, we have seen a rise in violence in the 24 South Parganas. Many cite the influx of Bangladeshi migrants, and some cite an increase in communal tensions. We sensed this underlying tension in the villages during fieldwork. Several households are not prepared for anticipating and to cope from climate/ weather events. This will only push them into migration. In the Sundarbans region there is increased pressure on both people and the place.  There is migration from Bangladesh to India in search of a better life - coming from a risk environment to another risk environment and of Indian inhabitants already in poor state looking for relief and possible migration to main land India. Therefore, there is an urgent need for a clear definition on who is an environmental refugee and internally displaced people and who will bear the costs of their rehabilitation and resettlement. The Indian Government should prepare itself with local-regional and bilateral frameworks to prepare itself for this burden in the region and within the country.

India has a long history of rehabilitation and resettlement of people and have supported political asylums and refugees from neighbouring countries and have resettled some people within the country. An example of this is the resettlement and rehabilitation of inhabitants from the Lohachara island in the Sundarban. The total number of resettled people varies between 4000 to 7000.  However, it lacks a framework or policy for internally displaced people, or any bilateral agreement with its neighbours for environmental/climate refugees.

Weather events and climate change are a global phenomenon and laying the burden of costs for management and rehabilitation on climate refugees should be borne by the United Nations under the Adaptation fund through Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Further, there a need to accelerate technical assistance, knowledge and expertise through the Santiago Network. However to support the sustainable development agenda's there is an urgent need to recognise the costs of climate induced  loss and damage and devising a global costing and funding mechanism to pay for the losses borne by the most vulnerable communities the global south.  

It would be helpful to explore seasonal migration routes and livelihoods Skill based rehabilitation. A land tenure system should be set by India, local inventory of inhabitants  - land loss by erosion should be covered by  insurance under the Adaptation fund. Government insurance scheme for climate events such as cyclones should be considered. Regional bodies should be urged to adopt declarations and conventions on  internally displaced person (IDP) citing the African union convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons In Africa also known as the Kampala Convention as a model and promote implementation of these instruments. The Declaration should also urge governments to adopt national laws and frameworks based on the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and develop country strategies -- together with donor governments, international humanitarian and development organizations, civil society and internally displaced person (IDP)'s themselves -- to implement the agreed goals and work toward resolving displacement situations. In view of the imminent risk of accelerated weather/climate change induced mass migration/internal displacement, there is a need for immediate formulation of relevant comprehensive policies. Dedicated resources should be mobilised for the preparation and implementation of phased relocation plans for the vulnerable, while lead-time is still available. Furthermore, the study call for a global consensus on definitions and a decision framework for ensuring the responsibility for, and the rights of, environmentally displaced people in the future.