Building Resilience in the Sundarbans

Building Resilience in the Sundarbans: Recognition by the World Bank of the importance of mangroves and sustainable shrimp farming

The Sundarbans, a world heritage site of mangrove forests since 1987 and home to the Bengal tigers, is faced with environmental damage worth INR 6.7 billion (~USD $10758750) due to anthropogenic pressures and climate change. The recent release of the report ‘Building Resilience for Sustainable Development of the Sundarbans’ by the World Bank denotes that this loss is equivalent to 4.8% of Sundarbans’ GDP in 2009 and is a combination of six damage categories (not including overfishing):

  1. Cyclones: INR 2.9 billion (2.1% of GDP; USD $4656770), which includes infrastructure damage, human injuries and fatalities.
  2. The cost of shrimp post-larvae by-catch losses: INR 2 billion (1.5% of GDP; USD $ 3211566), which is associated with fry collection and lack of hatcheries.
  3. The cost of carbon sequestration: INR 0.8 billion (~USD $1284626), which is associated with degradation and suboptimal density of mangrove forests.
  4. The cost of soil salinity: INR 0.6 billion (~USD $963470), in terms of yield of paddy rice.
  5. Biodiversity losses: INR 0.2 billion (~USD $321157).
  6. Preventable sea level: INR 0.045 billion (~USD $72260)


Despite the apparent economic consequences of natural hazards mentioned above, over 4.4 million people still consider the Sundarbans in the State of West Bengal as their home. In addition, their living standards are evidently below optimal. Findings from a NLTA (Non-Lending Technical Assistance (NLTA) survey indicate that out of 1000 people, 190 only get one meal a day; 510 (mostly children) suffer from some form of malnutrition; 310 people in a sample of the “richest” group still fall below the poverty line. Despite living in this hostile environment, the reality is: these people stay to pursue “attractive” options (mainly menial jobs) without having any appropriate welfare. Accordingly, this situation needs to be addressed first and foremost.

The World Bank defines four pillars for sustainable development in the Sundarbans: vulnerability reduction, poverty reduction, biodiversity conservation, and institutional change. As a goal to protect human lives, human vulnerability becomes the first pillar of the four-pillar strategy to build the resilience of the socioeconomic and biophysical systems. Some of the suggested interventions are: embankment realignment to 5.25 meters, cyclone shelters, and an early warning system. The second pillar, poverty reduction, is addressed to improve the quality of human life; more importantly this intervention prioritizes financial assistance for health, education, and training.

Sundarbans pillars

Source: Building Resilience for Sustainable Development of the Sundarbans by the World Bank.


The third pillar addresses biodiversity concerns, specifically in mangrove forests. The ecosystem is highly beneficial as local erosion control and sediment deposition. Thus, the intervention focuses on removal of non-climatic pressures, such as over-exploitation and unsustainable forest use. Furthermore, there are opportunities to capture carbon credits and the revenue can be used to fund other programs. However, these initiatives would not be successful without the cooperation of individual or paired agencies. Thus, the fourth pillar suggested institutional changes for the Department of Sundarban Affairs (DSA) to do overall monitoring and evaluation of sectoral agency activities. In addition, it recommended an establishment of a new organization, the Sundarbans Steering Committee, to handle management of natural hazards adaptive investment program.


After reading this exhaustive list of four pillars of intervention for the greater good of the people of Sundarbans, why should we, people living across in different continents, even care?

Shrimp farming is a huge market for West Bengal, providing close to Rs 1,500 crore (~USD $33333333) in foreign exchange in exports alone. Although the economic boom is beneficial for farmers, traders, and governments, they mainly use unsustainable practices by converting mangrove forests into shrimp farms. So what? The mangrove forests act as a buffer to cyclones and sea level rise, the ecosystem is associated with high biodiversity, and is also a habitat for shrimp larvaes! Comparing these mangrove roles with the six damage categories above, there seems to be a lot of overlap if the mangrove ecosystem were damaged. Preventing this damage would save Sundarban 4.8% of its GDP, which is way more than the profit of exports! Thus, as consumers of imported shrimp, we need to take into account where our shrimp comes from. Does it come from unsustainable shrimp cultures? Question your shrimp!

By Malkia Sembel, MAP Volunteer