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The Carbon Casbah- Steering Sundarbans towards a healthier eco(nom)y

Project Type: Rural Housing

Location: Sundarbans, India/ Bangladesh

Design Team: Tunisha Mehta, Divya Singh

"A thick fog crawls slowly over the narrow channels of water that crisscross the delta and an egret emerges from a mangrove and gently takes flight as the forest wakes up to another beautiful morning. Natives from the nearby villages take out their boats to venture into the forest in search of fish, crabs, honey and timber, fully aware that tigers lurk in its shadows. This is the Sundarban – vibrant, mysterious, spectacular and, at times, dangerous."

 -  Landscape Narrative of The Sundarban.


Returning to his run-down home with some crabs fished in a treacherous boat ride down the backwaters of Sundarbans, Shonai frowns counting how much money he will make by selling it in the local market. Negligible, even though he risked his life with man-eating tigers. The life of Shonai and 7.5 million other people, dependant on Sundarbans economy, is fraught with extreme poverty. 


Recurring cyclones, floods, droughts and extreme weather events due to climate change further aggravate Sundarbani's destitute. Where sincere efforts to negate carbon from the atmosphere are essential today in the Anthropocene, global economic demands coerce cutting down the mangroves which store eight times more carbon in their waterlogged soil than tropical forests do. Industrialised over-fishing in the zone had led to an acute loss of biodiversity. This, in turn, leads to low fish stocks hitting hard the livelihoods of the local fishermen. But with conservation efforts of Sundarban Reserved Forests and its 10 km skirts of Ecologically Critical Area, biodiversity has started to bounce back. The loss of biodiversity is of as much concern as is climate change. The more biodiversity, the more secure is all life on earth, including ourselves. The brackish waters repel most species for agriculture. Farmers have to depend on harvesting shrimps and crabs, whose over-spill kicks out other species from the region, leaving fewer opportunities for the next time. And hence, short term interests are leveraged at the expense of future catches. 


For generating resilience, ecologies demand alignment with economies. Ecosystem, species and genetic diversity compound biodiversity. And biodiversity should be thought of as the building block of any (r)urban environment. While conservation efforts for mangroves and tigers are much needed, the approach is not wholesome. In addition to biodiversity conservation, efforts should also be channelled towards making the local community and their settlements inclusive, safe, sustainable and resilient. Expounding upon the New Urban Agenda to move towards attaining Sustainable Development Goals 2030, we propose- The Carbon Casbah- housing solutions for the region along with recommendations for ecologically aligned and alternate economies. This approach steers a more holistic development of The Sundarbans.  


The Carbon Casbah is a design exploration into Carbon Sequestration and Negative Emission Schemes as a material allegory to the Sundari Mangroves. It's designed with low-embodied impact materials like bamboo, wood, soil and biochar-concrete that sequester carbon rather than with materials that emit carbon in their lifecycle. These locally sourced affordable materials highly regard the mangroves that are worshipped by the local communities. The sense of belongingness to these incremental and modular Casbah deepens as they're scalable to needs of the populace. These homesteads are designed for execution in phases. The first phase calls for the dykes- that is the first line of protection against floods- and the shelter. The second one goes on to assemble a granary, a well that's connected to the water harvesting system, and a cattle-shed. The passage of time shall also observe some landscape elements looming organically- like pagdandis and farming gardens. And with the onset of the third phase, connection to the hydroelectric grid could be done. A greater control of space arouses a greater sense of place. The structure is intended to be raised from the ground on stilts. A double shift in planes- with two plinths on different levels- not only defines the spaces of the Casbah into private resting and common areas but also generates resilience to floods. With local materials and craft know-how, navigating the ebb and flow of time and space takes an organic form. Scaling The Carbon Casbah into social collectives will help carbon-offsetting. Inspiration can also be drawn from the successful case of Mikoko Pamoja in Kenya as a community thriving on a voluntary carbon credit market where the revenue generated goes back in to sustain health, sanitation, and education services for this African community. A more contextual strategy can be inquired to adopt this pioneering model of Mikoko Pamoja for Sundarbans. Maybe, even introduce corporate governance for its better execution. However, a collaborative action plan from the Indian and Bangladeshi governments becomes essential to galvanise a more wholesome development in this world's largest delta region. 


In the future, perhaps misplaced values can be corrected, and ecologies can align with economies. There can be a rhizomatic approach to an otherwise disciplinary-siloed problem-solving, where human intelligence should be put to better use for harnessing the intelligence of complex ecosystems. 


More so that Shonai and others can return home with more money, made by protecting the mangroves rather than by cutting them down.

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