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The Sacred Island That's Shrinking Away

In this file photo from Jan. 14, 2008, Hindu devotees wade on Sagar Island, site of annual religious festivals that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors. The 20-mile-long island is shrinking at an accelerating pace. (AP)

Varun Pyke has come to the edge of the Indian island where he has spent all 50 years of his life, to recount the story of the riches that he has now lost.

He gloomily jabs a finger out toward the water, pointing well beyond the gray waves lapping on the shores of the long, wide beach on which he is standing.

A mile or two out, there lies what used to be his farm, explains Pyke, a wiry man in a vest and wraparound "lunghi."

He says he had 5 acres, all now part of the seabed.

Rising water levels compelled Pyke to move inland; now he has only 2 acres to farm, barely enough to survive.

Our grandparents and our parents all used to stay here. We had a lot of wealth and a lot of land before this. But now we are left with very little land and very little money to survive on.
Durga Pal, resident of Sagar Island in the Bay of Bengal

Pyke lives on Sagar Island, off the east coast of India. It is part of the Sundarbans, a giant low-lying archipelago that straddles India and Bangladesh, fanning out into the Bay of Bengal.

More than 4 million people live on the Indian side. The delta is wrapped in the world's largest block of mangrove forest and is the habitat of the endangered royal Bengal tiger, which also is threatened by the rising waters.

Standing next to Pyke is a neighbor from his village, a small, brightly clad, middle-aged woman called Durga Pal. She says the water has also swallowed up most of her family's land. Like Pyke, she is struggling to get by on a small patch of land, near the beach.

"Our grandparents and our parents all used to stay here," she said. "We had a lot of wealth and a lot of land before this. But now we are left with very little land and very little money to survive on."

She is surrounded by the rubble of a giant brick wall. Large broken lumps of brickwork are scattered along the beach in a straight line, as far as the eye can see.

This is the remains of a barrier built by the authorities. Villagers say a cyclone ripped down the wall five years ago.

Pal and Pyke believe that if the wall is not replaced, they will both soon lose all of their remaining land. Pyke does not sound optimistic. Saltwater has flooded his home several times recently.

"This year, all my land will be gone because the barrier is gone," Pyke said. He will likely be forced to turn to low-paid laboring.

The perimeter of the giant scattering of islands, mudflats and swampy jungle that make up the Sunderbans have been shifting around for centuries, partly because of silt and subsidence.

But scientists and locals say the rise in water levels began accelerating a few years ago.

"Since 2000, the trend is actually steeper, upwards, steeper," said Pranabes Sanyal of India's Coastal Zone Management Authority. "Day by day, the deterioration is going on. Day by day, more salinization is going on."

Sagar Island is less than 20 miles long. Sanyal estimates that in the past 40 years, its size has shrunk by nearly 10 square miles. Thousands of people have been displaced.

Oceanography professor Sugata Hazra agrees: "For the last 20 to 30 years, we are getting more cyclones and we are losing land to the sea. This is the reality."

Hazra is worried by a recent surge in skepticism about climate change, fueled by widely publicized mistakes made by the U.N.'s climate change panel, including the prediction that the Himalayan glaciers could be gone in 25 years.

Hazra concedes that climate change scientists make mistakes and should correct them.

But he adds: "If they lose the battle to this lobby who are trying to discredit the science of climate change, who are trying to defame the scientists, the world loses the battle."

Hazra says sea levels in the Sundarbans are rising at a rate well above the global average. Several small inhabited islands have been completely submerged in the past few decades.

He stresses that the causes are many and complex. But he has no doubt that human beings are playing a part.

"Look, it is definitely a factor. It is not that it is just a possibility. One of the most important factors is man-made climate change."

The islanders themselves are less specific. Sagar Island is a particularly sacred place for Hindus.

It stands in the giant estuary where the Ganges, Hinduism's holiest river, meets the sea. Once a year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gather there for religious festivals.

Amid the island's banana groves and palms, there are hundreds of temples and thousands of small shrines.

So the world should perhaps not be surprised at the answer given by Pyke and his neighbors on the beach, when asked why they think the sea is swallowing up their land.

They have not heard of man-made global warming.

"God is responsible," they all agreed.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHHEIMER, host:

Today, a remote coastline in India where climate change is a serious issue for people living there, they are directly threatened by the changes in the world around them. Their land is being swallowed up by a rising sea.

NPR's Philip Reeves visits an island on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, and its not just any island.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

PHILIP REEVES: The mid morning ferry from the mainland has just pulled in. Hundreds of passengers jostle with each other as they stream down the jetty. They're arriving from Indias east coast, after a short journey across the soupy flat waters of a giant estuary.

(Soundbite of hand presses)

REEVES: The island's key side store holders are waiting eagerly. They're cranking on hand presses, turning sugarcane into juice. A man sits on a mat surrounded by exotic shells, advertising his wares while blowing on a conch.

(Soundbite of a conch)

REEVES: This is a good place to do business. Thousands come here, to Sagar Island, every day. Sagar is part of the Sundarbans, a low-lying archipelago that straddles India and Bangladesh. It's wrapped in the world's largest block of mangrove forest and fans out into the Bay of Bengal.

Amid this spray of islands, mudflats and swampy jungle, lives the endangered Royal Bengal tiger, an amazing animal that drinks salt water, swims for miles and occasionally kills an inhabitant. The delta is home, too, to man-eating crocodiles.

It's also home to a lot of people, more than 4 million people, just on the Indian side. They include Varun Pyke.

Pyke is a tough, wiry-looking farmer in his 50's. He's spent his life on Sagar Island. Today he's standing on a long wide beach, pointing a finger out to sea.

Mr. VARUN PYKE (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: A mile or two out, beneath the gray waves, lies most of his land, he says. Pyke's surrounded by the rubble of a giant brick wall. Large broken lumps of brickwork are scattered along the beach in straight line, as far as the eye can see. This is the remains of a barrier built by the authorities. A cyclone ripped down the wall a few years back.

Pyke now only has two acres close by the beach. His lands recently have been flooded several times. He thinks it's only a matter of time before it's completely swallowed up.

Mr. PYKE: (Through Translator) This year, all my land will be gone because the barrier is gone.

Durga Pal lives here, too. She's small and middle-aged and weathered by nearly half a century of island life. She says her family's also lost most of its land.

Ms. DURGA PAL: (Through Translator) Our grandparents and our parents, they all used to stay here, and we had a lot of wealth and a lot of land before this. But now we are left with very little land and very little money to survive on.

REEVES: Pal says many people in her village have left.

Ms. PAL: (Through Translator) Half and half. Fifty-fifty.

REEVES: Half the community has left because of the sea coming in.

What will you do if the sea does come on to your last remaining piece of land? What will you do then?

She's not sure. But she and her neighbors are sure about why the waters are devouring their land.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Through Translator) The god is responsible for it.

(Soundbite of temple bells)

REEVES: Gods and gurus play a big part in the life of this island. Sagar Island stands at the point where the Ganges, Hinduism's holiest river, flows into the sea. Once a year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gather here for one of Hinduisms largest religious festivals.

Most of the island's small, thatched mud homes have their on shrine. There are hundreds of temples.

(Soundbite of chanting)

REEVES: At the best known of these temples, a group of women is worshipping. Babar Jatinder Dass(ph) is one of its priests. He says Hindus come here from all over the world.

Mr. BABAR JATINDER DASS (Priest): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Temple is about 300 yards from the beach. Dass says when it was first built it was situated a couple of miles away on land now under water.

Mr. DASS: (Foreign language spoken) Before this, there were three temples which were destroyed by the water. And this is a fourth temple which was built.

REEVES: The islands of the Sunderbans have been shrinking and shifting for centuries, partly because of silt and subsidence. But the rising water levels began to accelerate a few years ago.

Dr. PRANABES SANYAL (Member, National Coastal Zone Management Authority): Since the year 2000, the trend is actually steeper, upwards, steeper.

REEVES: Pranabes Sanyal is a member of India's Coastal Zone Management Authority. Sagar Island is less than 30 kilometers long. Sanyal says, in the last 40 years, it's shrunk by 25 square kilometers. He's been studying the Sunderbans for most of his professional life. So has oceanographer Sugata Hazra.

Professor SUGATA HAZRA (Director, School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University): For the last 20 to 30 years we are getting more cyclones and we are losing land to the sea. This is the reality

REEVES: Hazra is worried about a recent surge in skepticism about climate change, fueled by widely publicized mistakes made by the U.N.'s climate change panel, including the prediction that the Himalayan glaciers could be gone in 25 years.

Hazra concedes climate change scientists do makes mistakes and should correct them. But, he adds...

Professor HAZRA: If they lose the battle to this lobby who are trying to discredit the science of climate change, who are trying to defame the scientists, the world lose the battle.

REEVES: Hazra says sea levels in the Sundarbans are rising at a rate well above the global average. He says thousands of families have already Ben displaced, becoming climate change refugees. Hazra says the causes are many and complex, but he's in no doubt human beings are playing a part.

Professor HAZRA: Look, it is definitely a factor. It is not that it is a possibility. It is one of the most important factors is the man-made climate change.

(Soundbite of conversation)

REEVES: The islanders themselves are not so certain. A group gathers in a farmyard to tell the story of a tiny island nearby. That island completely disappeared beneath the waves 20 years ago.

Rada Ranijana(ph) and her family used to live there and had to move here.

Ms. RADA RANIJANA: (Through Translator) Our house and our farm all got submerged.

REEVES: The families worry that one day the rising sea will compel them to move again. They, too, see this as the work of the gods rather than people.

Has anybody here heard of global warming, manmade global warming? Has anybody in this group heard of that?

No one, none. Nope.

Unidentified Man #2: None.

REEVES: We ask again using different words. Again, there are blank faces.

The islanders of the Sunderbans, the people in the frontline of the rising seas, know much about the dangers of tigers and crocodiles, but little of the damage mankind is doing to their world.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

WERTHHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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