Climate change, a global phenomenon, is already affecting lives and livelihoods across the world. The Sundarbans, lining the mighty Bay of Bengal, and its flora and fauna have been taken victims of these changes. Mousuni Island in the Sundarbans is one such vulnerable area.

Human settlement was established in Mousuni between 1949-1951, and it can only be accessed by taking a ferry from the mainland even to this day. The island has four moujas or administrative blocks — Bagdanga, Baliara, Kusumtala and Mousuni, with the current population clocking in 24,000 people.

The economy of Mousuni is largely agrarian, with primary farm produces being paddy, bitter gourd, betel leaves, all of which are mostly sold in Kolkata markets. However, things are changing rapidly. Researchers say that the seawater level in the Bay of Bengal has risen at the rate of 5.6 millimetres per decade, higher than the global average.

The problem started with the island's western side, where large-scale soil erosion occurred. According to a research, the island sunk by 2.28 percent (0.64 square kilometres) between 2001 to 2009. Islanders are facing constant threat of displacement because of recurring cyclones triggered by the warmer sea surface of the Bay of Bengal.

However, things went south rather steadily after Cyclone Yass made landfall near Balasore in Odisha, on 26 May. During high tide that afternoon, a storm surge in the Bay of Bengal triggered high waves in the Muriganga river, which were around one to two metres higher than usual. Water breached the dams and flooded the low-lying island, damaging homes and farms in its wake. At the moment, 80 percent of the farmland in Mousuni is under water. Farmers on the island explained how when saline water once reaches the ground, it can't be used for agriculture for three years or more. This continuous loss of livelihood has fuelled migration in households, where people in search of labour jobs in other states like Kerala and Maharashtra, and even the Gulf nations in some stray instances, have been forced to abandon Mousuni.

I visited the island on 29 May, and then again on 23 June. Despite multiple relief efforts made by the state government and civilians, the island remains in a state of disarray. Numerous affected families live under makeshift tents, flood houses, and a few even on the dams.

There's an acute scarcity of drinking water. Multiple women have complained that they don't have proper access to toilets either. Here is a glimpse of their struggles that points to what the effects of climate change actually look like in the long run.

The actual number of domestic animals that died because of the flood following Cyclone Yaas is still unknown. But according to villagers, they have lost a significant fraction of their cattle because of it. Here a group of villagers is seen moving their herd to a safer place.

There are around 4,000-5,000 houses on the island. The flood completely destroyed 800 houses and 1,400 houses have been partially damaged. The state government has declared compensation for affected families and individuals, but most say that it will take time to rebuild their homes.

Mousuni Island’s major source of livelihood is farming. Before Cyclone Yaas, about 70 percent of the island, with an area of over 6,000 acres was cultivable, but now only 70-80 percent of it is left dry.

At Pailagheri, many of the families are living atop dams. Pailagheri is the worst affected area in the island. Since the area is closer to the dam, high waves struck these households first and the families were unable to save anything.

Numerous families from Bagdanga mouja are camping in flood centres even on the 28th day after the flood. The families said they may have to live here, perhaps till Kali Puja/Diwali because there are more high tide days that are expected, according to forecasts.

Students across the island suffered a lot. Many have lost books, identity cards and other essential documents. Here, a group of children queue up to get their mid-day meal.

Since 30 percent of tube wells in Mousuni now pump out saline water, the shortage of drinking water has become a major crisis. Families often walk 5 kilometres to get drinking water.

Mousuni Island has a lovely beach at its western tip. Over the past few years, eco-friendly tourist camps have been erected on its coasts. The camps boosted the local economy and created job opportunities for locals. Unfortunately, the cyclones and floods have left the camps battered, without much hope for speedy revival.

Fighting against all odds, primary healthcare workers in Mousuni have maintained a steady pace of COVID-19 vaccination. Here, at the primary healthcare unit under Mousuni Panchayat, a nurse is vaccinating a villager who came for his second dose.

A solitary dog waits at a deserted beach at the southern-most tip of Mousuni Island.


— Featured image: On 26 May 2021, Cyclone Yass made landfall near Balasore, Odisha. Though the cyclone missed the Indian Sundarbans, the storm triggered a high coastal wave in rivers which breached the dams and flooded numerous villages in Sundarban, as has been tradition. Mousuni was one such island, which has been ravaged by the turbulent waters it guards.

Also read on Firstpost: How the shrinking island of Mousuni in the Sundarbans underlines the region's growing concerns about rapid land loss