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Cultural landscape changing due to anthropogenic influences on surface water and threats to mangrove wetland ecosystems: A case study on the Sundarbans, Bangladesh

Cultural landscape changing due to anthropogenic influences on surface water and threats to mangrove wetland ecosystems: A case study on the Sundarbans, Bangladesh
Mohammad Shafi Noor Islam


Department of Ecosystems and Environmental Informatics, Brandenburg University of Technology, 03046 Cottbus, GERMANY.


Cultural landscapes are areas of exceptional beauty, containing superlative natural phenomena and are of ecological importance. At present cultural landscapes and wetlands are the most spectacular global issues for economic growth and balancing of ecosystems. The Sundarbans has an outstanding universal value where the cultural landscape was shared by the indigenous pastoral society over thousand years ago and it is still visible. The site is representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of mangrove ecosystems and communities of plants and animals. It is situated in the Ganges transboundary catchment which is known as the single largest stretch of productive mangrove ecosystems in the world. It covers 10,000 km2 between Bangladesh and India. The Sundarbans portion of Bangladesh is about 62 % and covers an area of 6017 km2. It was declared as world natural heritage site by the UNESCO in 1997 and as a Ramsar site in 1992 already.

There is an agglomeration of biodiversity with 66 different species of mangroves growing there. For comparison: 70 species of mangroves are found in the world. A large part of mangrove wetlands in Bangladesh, almost 45 %, have disappeared within the last three decades. The Gorai River is the main tributary of the Ganges which supplies downstream freshwater to the Sundarbans and ensures the ecosystems balance in the coastal region. Since the diversion of the Ganges water at Farakka Barrage in India from early 1975, the salinity level has increased drastically in the south western part of the region. Due to the reduction of the Ganges flows the industries are facing serious problems. Inequality control of the products and fragile affects are demonstrating on agriculture, fisheries, navigation, and hydromorphology, quality of drinking water and mangrove wetlands ecosystems. As a result, about 170,000 hectares (20.4%) of new land has been affected by various degrees of salinity during the last three decades. 38 % of the country’s territory and 33 % of its population is already affected by salinity intrusions.

The saline front defined by the 0.5 dS/m isohaline has penetrated in the Nabaganga River as far north as Magura is far from the coast (240 km). Similarly about 6 dS/m has penetrated 173 km from the Sea in the Atharobanka River to the vicinity of the off-take from the Madhumati River. The research findings are showing 10805-21610 dS/m salinity is the best productive range in Sundarbans, where only 20 % of the area is within 32415 dS/m range of salinity and 80 % of the area (4813.60 km²) has a salinity rate over 32414 dS/m. The dominant species Heritiera fomes and Ceriops decendra are affected by top-dying disease which is recognised as key management concern. Procedures of water salinity modelling of 13 rivers in the Sundarbans region lay out increasing salinity trends.

Fourier Polynomial Models have been done on 13 rivers where the time series approach (4 years) has been considered. The results show that only one river has crossed the salinity threshold line of 20 ppt or 43,220 dS/m which was the maximum value in 2000. Whereas 6 rivers have crossed in 2001, 8 rivers have crossed in 2002 and important 11 rivers have crossed the water salinity threshold line in 2003. According to average peak values of river water salinity there are 4 rivers (basin 1, 2, 3 and 4) that are in good condition, two rivers (basin 7 and 9) carry the moderate situation and 7 rivers (basin 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12 and 13) carry the high salinity rate in the dry season, which are major threats for mangrove ecosystems in the Sundarbans. The high salinity zone is located in the south-western corner of the Sundarbans; the previous values were 38,898-54,025 dS/m while the present values are 54,025 – 69,152 dS/m. Furthermore the area has been extended from South to North and East to West direction. The Fourier Polynomial models show the cyclic increasing behaviour of water salinity in the Sundarbans Rivers.

Considering the results of all models and threshold values of water salinity for the Sundarbans case, it is clearly indicated and forecasted the message that upstream fresh water supply is necessary and emergent for the protection of cultural landscapes and mangrove wetlands ecosystems in the Sundarbans region. As priority is given by surface water salinity modelling, statements are formulated to support planning activities and to protect a special natural heritage site. The findings of this study would be a potential contribution to make a comprehensive management plan for the long-term conservation and protection of the cultural landscape and mangrove wetlands ecosystem in the Sundarbans region.