Sundarbans Focus Area Strategy: 2013-2017

The Sundarbans landscape (or Sundarbans, or Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta) is the world’s largest delta (~105,000 km2) and home to 123 million people. The delta lies in India (19%) and Bangladesh (81%) with rivers draining Bhutan, China, India and Nepal. The delta is a labyrinth of rivers, channels, swamps, lakes, and floodplain sediments (called ‘char’s). Where the delta meets the Bay of Bengal, lies the world’s largest mangrove eco-region (~20,400 km2) in a chain of more than 100 islands, of which about 10,000 km2 is mangrove forests (60% in Bangladesh, 40% in India). This is one of the world’s most bio-diverse ecosystems, is home to numerous threatened species (e.g., the Bengal tiger and several species of river dolphin) and contains several UNESCO World Heritage sites and other protected areas.

The Sundarbans are characterized by extreme poverty, which both contributes to and arises from the vulnerability of the population to natural hazards. Over the past century, sea level rise, salinization of soil and water, and cyclonic storms and flooding have jointly rendered the area to be one of the world’s most hazardous areas. Natural stresses are compounded by human-induced stresses, including reductions in fresh-water flows to the delta and an expansion in tidal aquaculture.

Many factors affect development outcomes, ecosystem services and livelihoods in the Sundarbans, but these are poorly understood. The eastward migration of the Ganges River over the last 200 years has affected rivers in southwestern Bangladesh and parts the West Bengal Sundarbans. Many small distributaries of the Ganga/Padma have broken away from the main channel, leading to little or no freshwater flow in the lower part of the delta (West Bengal and western Bangladesh) leaving estuaries dominated by tidal flow. In the eastern area of the Bangladesh Sundarbans distributaries such as the Gorai and the Arial Khan bring some freshwater to the mangrove forests. Interventions in the northern delta (e.g., Farakka Barrage) have reduced freshwater flow affecting salinity and lands forms.

In the western Sundarbans (India) mangroves and intertidal areas were converted into low elevation agricultural farms during 1850–1930s. In the eastern Sundarbans (Bangladesh) similar changes have happened more recently. These changes were not well planned, designed, constructed or maintained, leading to water logging, increased salinity and exacerbated flooding. Industrial and domestic waste (including from Kolkata) have polluted the Sundarbans, and burnt oil from boats and oil tanker wash has polluted the coastal areas.

The Sundarbans are a traditional fishing region. With the expansion of commercial fisheries, traditional practices have reduced causing greater environmental impacts. The by-catch associated with offshore set bag nets is enormous. About 90% of netted turtles die. Some fish species (e.g., Hilsa) are now overexploited and shrimp exports have been greatly reduced affecting livelihoods for many poor families. Large areas of mangrove have been converted for aquaculture that pollute, introduce invasive species, damage ecosystems and cause erosion around estuaries.



The RSI, a joint initiative of the United States Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), was aimed at promoting environmental compliance in the textile industry to reduce industrial water pollution in the Dhaka watershed. It led to the development of a two-tiered multi-stakeholder platform: a forum for regional dialog and deliberation, informed by national level incubator activities. While national-level incubator activities have so far focused on Bangladesh (SAWI financed), India and China (not SAWI financed), the platform can now also be used to consider a broader range of water-related issues faced by the global apparel supply chain. The RSI generated new knowledge and used the multistakeholder platform to disseminate this knowledge and encourage participating brands to review their supply chain guidelines. In the process, a new best-practice model was developed for engaging nontraditional partners to address water footprints in complex global supply chains in the region and beyond. Based on this experience, IFC launched its Water Partnership for Cleaner Textiles (Water PaCT), a US$11 million initiative.


Despite serious challenges like extreme poverty, frequent natural disasters (exacerbated by global climate change) and gradual reduction of ecosystem services, governance mechanisms in both Bangladesh and India to Sunderbans landscape continues to be sector driven and constrained in terms of having an integrated decision-making framework.

However, Bangladesh and India have developed non-binding bilateral agreements that were signed in late 2011. These sit under an umbrella agreement that includes a framework for collaboration in international waters, information-sharing, disaster management and addressing climate change induced issues. Memoranda of understanding have been signed on specific issues: (i) management of the Sundarbans, (ii) management of tigers, (iii) fisheries and (iv) exchange and sharing between national televisions. These agreements are yet to be operationalized. There is now a need and opportunity to support operationalization of these agreements by funding activities that directly facilitate operationalization of the agreements or that coordinate country-level actions supported by both countries based on an integrated basin perspective.

A strong analytical basis is needed to support the transition of the two governments towards integrated planning and management. Bilateral research and information exchange help provide this analytical basis and help build technical capacity and thus support enhanced cooperation as a basis for joint action. In additional to bilateral research, development of a landscape-level planning and management framework is required together with the institutional arrangements to support collaborative management. A key ultimate outcome is shared or a coordinated approach to water resources management to underpin and sustainable development across the entire Sundarbans.

SAWI support will be crucial to: (i) initiate advocacy work to generate wider public support, (ii) initiate joint research and dissemination to build capacity and build confidence for early joint actions and (iii) establish a framework and governance arrangement to steer joint planning and (iv) catalyze substantive joint actions such as the development of shared plans and policies for conservation and sustainable development of the Sundarbans. Without SAWI support it is highly unlikely that the recent agreements Bangladesh-India agreements will become operational in a timely manner.

The overall objective of the Sundarbans Focus Area strategy is to operationalize joint management of the Sundarbans for sustainable development and to deliver mutual benefits for the two countries. The two specific goals in support of this objective are to:

  1. Enhance bilateral cooperation to support operationalization of the Sundarbans agreements between Bangladesh and India
  2. Enhance technical cooperation between Bangladesh and India to support joint water resources management in the Sundarbans

The program is structured into two components aligned with each of these specific goals.

Component 1: Enhancing Bilateral Cooperation

Increased bilateral cooperation is both a pre-requisite and an expected result from operationalization of the agreements recently signed by Bangladesh and India. As well as providing a framework and cooperative structure to operationalize the agreements (a joint platform), this component will support (i) reciprocal visits and exposure to the best international cases of joint actions and/or joint management to enhance the understanding of the mutual benefits of cooperation, (ii) initial confidence building activities as precursors to formal joint actions, (iii) establishment of joint water resources management objectives, plans and institutions, and formation and operation a joint media platform for focused outreach.

Activities will bring together relevant institutions in the two countries and explore linkages between these institutions for joint action. This will be achieved through establishment and cooperative functioning of a set of institutions nominated by the governments to work with the joint platform (which, in turn will coordinate implementation of activities). It will be based on expert, sector institutions and agencies nominated by the two governments; facilitation of data sharing and joint analyses; and acceptance of plans agreed between the nominated agencies and through stakeholder deliberations.

Component 2: Technical Cooperation To Support Joint Management

This component will support technical activities undertaken in a cooperative manner. Existing literature describes either the Indian or the Bangladesh component of the Sundarbans, each with their own biases and differences on geographical extent, political-administrative set-up and popular myths. To better understand the common challenges and opportunities, a single landscape-scale narrative is required that does not focus on the differences of political-administrative organization. SAWI will support joint development of this narrative. This component will also review current water resources management infrastructure and provides a plan for water asset management systems including climate adaptation options. Other activities may include ecological studies (including of climate change impacts) such as habitat mapping for riverine species and/or estuarine process studies, design of an investment aimed to enhance resilience of the communities in the Sundarbans to climate change impacts, and design of an integrated hydromet system for flood, erosion and water quality management.