Bangladesh's indebtedness to the Sunderbans, the world's largest mangrove, cannot be measured in terms of commercial values -which are quite huge -alone. That it stands guard against ferocious natural calamities like cyclonic storms, tidal bores, some of which could be of cataclysmic proportion, has been recognised time and again.
A protective angel, the Sunderbans has once again provided the country with the required buffer against the cyclone Bulbul. Crossing the shorelines of the Bay of Bengal at West Bengal of India, it unleashed its fury on the Nature's UNESCO-declared world heritage site. The forest defended Bangladesh staunchly offering its open chest to the fury. As a result it sustained injury but helped weaken the wind speed to a large extent. By the time it entered Khulna, the storm reduced, to borrow a meteorological term, into a 'severe' from a 'very severe' one. How grievous the forest's injury is, however, yet to be known because the forest department will make it public after an assessment. The latest is that UNESCO team is coming within two months to make a comprehensive analysis of its sustainability against all odds including threats posed by industrial plants.
The Sunderbans did what it could do. Still eight people were killed when trees and houses fell on them. But had it not been for the defensive role of the forest, there would have been hundreds -if not thousands-of casualties. In 2007 and 2009, hundreds of people died when the Sidr and Aila lashed the coastal districts. But it is believed, the Sunderbans had taken the battering first to save hundreds of thousands of lives in the area where it left a trail of devastation.
Even the Sunderbans suffered widespread physical damage. Experts feared the forest would take years to recuperate its losses. But belying their foreboding, the forest recovered fast. However, the experts' caution was apparently well heeded to: leave the forest alone and there should be a minimum human interference with the forest's way.
Unfortunately, this principle of co-habitation with Nature is hardly respected by man. The forest is a treasure trove of resources with immense commercial value. Man has been exploiting the forest resources since time immemorial. But what the tribal forest people or the 'uncivilised' communities knew about peaceful living with forest, today's generations have unlearned or deliberately disrespected. It is all because of avarice that drives people out of their senses. In their rush to maximise their acquisition of wealth, they kill the proverbial duck that lays the golden eggs.
The Sunderbans has been no exception to this outrageous rule. However, a new threat comes from industrial plants, the number of which has been increasing, in the ecologically critical area around the forest. Then comes the 1,320 megawatt Rampal thermal power plant in Bagerhat only at a distance of 14 kilometre from the Sunderbans. A coal-fired power plant of this size, experts and environmental activists have warned time and again, will pose a big threat to the environment of the world heritage site.
The government has refuted such claims. But on what basis has not been made public. Sure enough, the country needs electricity for its progress but it cannot be at the cost of a Nature's gift of the Sunderbans' order this nation is fortunate to have. In the face of climate change, the Sunderbans' irreplaceable role will prove increasingly crucial. Cyclones -one after another - have shown how integrally it is linked to the existence of a large swathe of Bangladesh in the south if not the entire country.
It is against such a backdrop, let the forest's sustainability be reviewed on the basis of scientific studies. The environmental and ecological issues have to be given the utmost importance in order to determine the forest's proper sustenance and growth. Under no circumstances should those be compromised to leave the forest at the mercy of natural forces like cyclonic storms. If this is done, the country in its turn will discover itself at the mercy of natural forces' furies. A country under threat of losing parts of its land mass in the coastal areas can ill afford any loss of the Sunderbans, its proven sentinel.