The sinking Sundarbans

Alexander Cockburn
Monday 11 January 2010 14:40 GMT

With Copenhagen, Obama’s cap-and-trade bill, and numerous green policy initiatives coming out of Westminster, climate change is finally receiving the attention it deserves in a policy sense. But the plight of people whose lives have already been devastated by climate change has received surprisingly little attention. Fortunately, photojournalist Peter Caton’s new exhibition of photographs from the Sundarbans region in India helps to redress this.

The Sundarbans (meaning ‘beautiful forest’ in Bengali) is a vast area in the Ganges delta comprising a network of 108 swampy, low-lying islands. The area is unique both ecologically, as the home of the man-eating Bengal tiger, and culturally - Hindus and Muslims both worship a deity called Bonobibi. The region’s low elevation above sea-level and proximity to the coast made it particularly vulnerable when Cyclone Aila struck in May 2009, destroying many of the inhabitants’ homes.

Caton and his partner in the field, Cris Aoki Watanabe, have been working in India since 2006. Despite four years of experience witnessing the effects of climate change in the Sundarbans, Caton says that the devastation caused by Aila still took him by surprise. The island’s inaccessibility – it is three to four hours away from Kolkata, the nearest city, and can only be reached by boat – seriously hampered the relief effort and muted the media response.

Click here or on the image to view images from Peter Caton's exhibition

‘On one visit I met a widow who lived alone and had had to flee and set up a new home on three occasions,’ recalled Caton, who says the Aila cyclone is just the latest sign of the impact of climate change on the region.

‘I watched children play in their home neighbourhood knee-deep in water,’ he added.

Rising sea-levels destroy not only homes but livelihoods as well because if salt water contaminates the inhabitants’ rice paddies then they become unusable for three years.

‘I met one family which had not slept for four nights for fear of the sea breaking the embankment protecting their rice field. They were working in shifts to repair the embankment throughout the night,’ he says.

Working in the Sundarbans also presented other technical challenges, and Caton says he ‘was often working in mud not up to my knees, but up to my waist.’ This, and intolerable levels of heat and humidity, make the approach he took to his photographs all the more extraordinary - He used studio lighting in the middle of inaccessible swamps to give his photographs the same kind of glossy sheen that might be found in the pages of Marie Claire.

Although the people of the Sundarbans are isolated and poor, they are well aware of the causes of global warming. They feel angry with the international community for having to suffer the consequences of a man-made catastrophe for which, with one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world, they are blameless. Caton’s new exhibition vividly underscores not only the suffering caused by global warming, but the deep unfairness of it.

The exhibition opens on 13th of January and runs for until the 25th at the Oxo Tower Wharf in London. Opening times are 11am to 6pm and admission is free.

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