The Sundarban – a unique wetland to preserve

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Sundarban Sunset. Photo: Patrick Alexander Smytzek Sundarban Sunset. Photo: Patrick Alexander Smytzek

Spanning across the border between Bangladesh and India, there exists the Sundarban. With 10,000 square kilometers, it is the largest single track of mangrove forest remaining in the world.   

The unique and rich ecosystem is defined by a complex balance of tidal movements, freshwater inflow, and sedimentation with 60% of the forest falling into Bangladesh and 40% into India’s West Bengal region.  As it forms one functional unit, its continuous existence depends on the cooperation between the two countries.  Typically cloaked in early morning fog and mystical beauty, this wetland provides a surreal look into a biosphere overflowing with rich aquatic life and rare species like the Bengal Tiger and the Masked Finfoot. The region, long appreciated by ornithologists, sunset enthusiasts, and ecotourists, is also a critical source of livelihoods for surrounding communities, and crucial for the climate resilience of the entire region. 

The surrounding communities are extremely dependent on the fragile ecosystem, with its abundance of natural resources in the form of fish, shrimp, crabs and wild honey. Many of these people are among the poorest and most vulnerable. Harsh hydro-climatic conditions and a fragile natural resource base coupled with inadequate infrastructure, poor communication facilities, lack of access to clean drinking water and insufficient health and education services have contributed to a low level of development and high poverty incidence in the communities dependent on the Sundarban.   

Existing in a highly active delta prone to climate hazards like cyclones, these communities are at the frontier of climate change. Preserving and enhancing the natural capital of the Sundarbans is a tremendous nature-based solution for dealing with these hazards and fostering the resilience of the communities.  The mangrove forest provides a 50-60 km buffer, that acts as a barrier against powerful cyclonic winds and storm surges. It protects surrounding infrastructure and communities – this service was estimated to be worth US$1,025 per household during cyclone Sidr. As a result, 8 million people in direct proximity of the Sundarbans (Bangladesh and India) are better protected against hazards. But these benefits also extend to populated areas further inland. Losing any part of this asset may jeopardize these populated areas and require costly technical solutions to compensate and maintain coastal protection. Resources that could be used to enhance development and transformative adaptation strategies. 


Canopy of the Sundarban mangrove forest. Photo: Patrick Alexander Smytzek
Canopy of the Sundarban mangrove forest. Photo: Patrick Alexander Smytzek

The protection of this resource is thus vital to the region but does not come without challenges. Over the last ten years, the World Bank Group (WBG) has produced a wealth of knowledge on the unique characteristics of this ecosystem and its socio-economic implications.  This provides a basis for charting a way forward for the Sundarban which addresses the resilience of the population, the landscape, and the ecosystem in an integrated and sustained manner. 

Such an approach should leverage cooperative efforts between Bangladesh and India stemming from a 2011 high-level agreement to sustainably manage the transboundary ecosystem while reducing the livelihood dependence of local communities on the forest and restoring habitat for biodiversity. The importance of the agreement was reiterated in a joint statement by the Prime Ministers in 2022. 

The 2011 agreement between India and Bangladesh was an important outcome of prior WBG technical assistance. It addresses a broad range of topics including integrated management of forest reserves, improved information exchange, coordination of early warning systems for cyclones, co-management of a marine reserve area, and various joint capacity-building programs. The technical and scientific information brought to the attention of the regions’ decision-makers via the assistance of the World Bank, has provided a sound basis for moving forward on multiple fronts and the WBG has since supported collaboration through regional dialogues, meetings, and additional analytics. 

It is only by embracing cross-border collaboration and recognizing the interrelation between the ecosystem and the population that this region will be able to triumph over their current human and environmental challenges. The preservation of the Sundarbans is one of the most cost-effective strategies for climate resilience in the region.   


Patrick Smytzek

Young Professional / Natural Resources Management Specialist

Bushra Nishat

Environmental Specialist

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