Residents of the Sundarbans, on the India-Bangladesh border, are trapped between rising sea levels and an indifferent government.
On May 20, Super Cyclone Amphan was expected to make landfall in the Indian state of West Bengal. That morning, as the wind picked up, Mitali Mondol and her husband, Animesh, fled their house, leaving behind everything they owned.
The Mondols live in Gosaba, an island in the Sundarbans, an archipelago that is home to the world’s largest mangrove forest. They knew of only one flood shelter. It was far away. As they reached higher ground, they ducked into a restaurant. The restaurant quickly filled up—with family and friends, some of whom brought their goats and hens. Standing as close to the windows as they dared, the villagers watched as the waves climbed to 15 feet high. Then the water broke the embankments. Trees fell, power lines collapsed, and roads vanished.
The region has witnessed 15 major cyclones in recent years, of which Amphan was the latest. Cyclone Sidr, which ripped through the islands in 2007, killed at least 3,000 people; only two years later, Cyclone Aila killed nearly 200. Cyclone Fani, in 2019, killed another 81 people, and caused over $8 billion in damage. It was the strongest pre-monsoon storm on record in the region, until it was surpassed by Amphan. According to Climate Nexus, an advocacy group, “Back-to-back years of major cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, that rapidly intensify over unusually warm sea surface temperatures, are consistent with trends showing an increase in cyclone intensity in the region due to human-caused climate change.”